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July 10th marks NL Museum Day


PORT AUX BASQUES — In 2019, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Museum Association of Newfoundland came together to proclaim a provincial Museum Day. The day is designed to encourage the public to visit local heritage sites. In Port aux Basques, there is nowhere better to do that than the Railway Heritage Museum.

The museum offers many exhibits that highlight the history of our local transportation and fishery industries, as well as other aspects of our unique region.

Tour guides T.J. Kearley and Travis Mauger offered up a recent private tour that began in front of a painting of the Transfer Shed. In 1949 Newfoundland was still a part of Great Britain, so the island followed the British system of railway tracks which are narrower than the ones found elsewhere, such as the ones used in the continental United States.

“Trains would come over and they would have to go into the transfer shed and be picked up, and put on the carriage that supported our rails,” explained Kearley.

Next up were the two Mushrow Astrolabes. Found off the coast of Isle aux Morts by Wayne Mushrow, the navigational artifacts are considered quite rare and date back to 1617 and 1628, respectively.

Also on display was a set of diving equipment used in the late 1800s. People touring the museum are invited to lift the lead boots that would help divers sink to the sea floor.

Next to this display was a teletypewriter, once used by the railway to communicate with other stops. Alongside this was an old telephone switchboard from the Grand Bay Motel.

“For a long time in communities like Rose Blanche, the whole community was run off of these,” said Kearley. “You’d hear stories about people listening in on calls, because it was all one line.”

There was also a section dedicated to Lauchie McDougall, with a mural of his home. McDougall lived at the Wreckhouse where wind would often lift rail cars off the tracks. He had extraordinary skills in determining wind velocities. Called the ‘Human Wind Gauge,’ he was employed by the railway to advise if it was safe for the trains to pass through.

Next was Kearley’s favourite section of the tour, a display for a local band that formed in 1959 – The Ducats. On display are their tartan suits, guitars, records, and other memorabilia.

“They could have been the Port aux Basques version of the Beatles,” said Kearley.

Display cases presented a variety of objects from the CN Railway, including a conductor’s hat, ticket punchers, dishware, and railway timetables. In front of the display is a sign that was once posted by the Transfer Shed, warning those leaving Newfoundland to have their documents in order prior to entering into Canada.

A tour of the Railway Museum would not be complete without a tour of the train, working from the front of the train towards the back.

The conductors would sit in the front section, with a stove that the conductors would stock with coal to keep warm, an emergency brake that would be turned by hand, along with the controls, and a spectacular view from the front windows. The cramped quarters for the conductors were surprising.

“You wouldn’t want to be a very big man driving this,” offered Mauger.

“Of course, the favourite part of the tour for kids is when they get up and sit in the chairs,” said Kearley.

Just behind this front section were the oil tankers.

“We’ve heard stories from people, whose uncle worked on the railroad or something like that, and every now and then they’d steal a little oil from it,” said Kearley.

The passenger cars were furnished with comfortable seats, and the bathroom included a vented smoking section. Further on were the beds, where travellers could get some much-needed shut eye during the long journey across the province to St. John’s. Towards the back was the VIP section, with a private bathroom, roomier seating, and a fold down bed.

Next came the baggage car, which was empty at the time of this tour. Items are available for viewing here during tourist season. Other areas of the train also had not finished staging for the summer season, but there was time to explore the mail car.

This is where the heaters would radiate throughout the train thanks to the coal boiler in the back. On display was a fuse box that was used to blast for new tracks. There was also an old mail bag next to a sorting station.

“They had a stick, and if they were driving by a station and didn’t have to make a stop, the mailman would put it out the door and hook the bag on. If it fell, luckily it was so slow they could probably run and catch up to it,” said Kearley.

This year, NL Museum Day is on July 10.

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