The Harbour Grace Railway

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Apr 18, 2018 10:34 AM
Harbour Grace Railway Station and Freight House, c. 1980 (Joe McMillan photo)

Patrick Collins is a man of many trades: a past station operator with the Newfoundland Railway, a retired educator and current author. He was born and raised in Riverhead, Conception Bay North, NL. Although he cherishes his career as a teacher, he maintains that some of his fondest memories are of working for the railway. He recalls being hired to work at the Harbour Grace Station as a student in 1973.

“I applied with Canadian National to become a station operator, which we received train orders so, you know, we had one track, a single narrow-gauge track. And when trains are on the same track coming towards each other, they hired people to say what train would go off on what siding…And so I became an operator and it’s much like an air traffic controller except you’re dealing with trains,” Patrick explains. 

“So, I trained in Harbour Grace in the old railway station, and that’s where I got a job with CN. I wrote a test on the old Ambrose Shea that was docking at St. John’s. And J.L. Brazil was the Chief Train Inspector. And there was 50 of us and I was the 10th one to get hired.” 

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Patrick Collins (left) and Dale Jarvis of the Heritage Foundation (Kelly Drover photo)

Working with the railway was a wonderful experience for young people at the time. They learned a variety of skills and were provided with rare opportunities to travel.

“You have quite a job as a young man,” says Patrick, “you’re only 17 or 18. And once you spend six weeks in Harbour Grace learning how to take train orders, how to give them out, and how to handle freight, how to balance the books, then you were sent on the road across Newfoundland to replace people who were either sick or on holidays. So as a student from April until August, you were on the road to places like Corner Book, Whitbourne, Doyles and so on.”

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Harbour Grace Railway Station, c. 2016 (Michael Philpott photo)

This job placed a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of young men. There were many overnight shifts when the workers struggled to stay awake, and then there were freight shipments coming through that were of the utmost importance.

“I remember the train coming down with a load of Mary Brown’s secret recipe. Aboard were boxfuls of secret recipe dough that they use for the deep fried chicken at Mary Brown’s, which is here in Harbour Grace. And I remember that being quite secretive, the owner coming up and saying, ‘Make sure none of those boxes are stolen.’ There was a freight shed that was right next to the station that is gone now, and that was very securely looked after.”

The unique culture and lore that exists among railway workers is something that Patrick has not since been able to reproduce in his other jobs. “Probably, the most important thing which I have discovered is that railway employees have a common identity. They seem able to remember most of the same events, stories and local characters,” he says. “To establish their common identity, is the mixture of pride, humour and seriousness which they have about their work.” By Katherine Harvey 

Click here to listen to the full interview with Patrick Collins.

The Collective Memories Project is an initiative of the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador to record the stories and memories of our province. If you have a memory of old-time Newfoundland and Labrador to share, contact Dale Jarvis at or call 1-888-739-1892 ext 2 or visit