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Railway Cut Development


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Trail Interpretation

Development of the Halifax Railway Cut (1912-18)


Hopes for an enlarged ocean railway terminal had been simmering in the Halifax business community since before the turn of the century. These were encouraged by politicians from time to time. Robert Borden's statement that "the terminals at Halifax should be improved" in his August 18, 1903 speech on government railway policy was taken as a promise, and became a key plank in his election campaign of 1912. Well be fore the actual plan for a railway and shipping terminal at Greenbank near Point PleasantPark was announced with great fan-fare at a Board of Trade luncheon on October 30, 1912, there was a good deal of speculative real estate activity in areas expected to be subject to expropriation.

Reactions to the announcement by the Hon. Frank Cochrane, Minister of Railways and Canals, were positively ecstatic in Conservative circ1es whose newspaper, the Halifax Herald, sang lyrically of "a new Halifax". The opposition quickly dubbed the Prime Minister's plan "Borden's Folly", and its papers, the Morning Chronicle and the DailyEcho, thundered against the plan's less desirable features and predicted it would force up the tax rate as well as dislocate the whole life of the city.

Critcism centred on the railway approach to the new terminal. The route chosen by F. W. Cowie, the federal government engineer,called for a double track line branching off the Intercolonial Railway (I C R) at Three Mile House, Fairview, on Bedford Basin,curving southwest, around the city and running through the most attractive residential district bordering on the Northwest Arm.Here were "country estates" of the city's wealthy and influential citizens whose spacious lawns and tree-lined carriageways, even one or two of their residences, would be demolished by the steam-shovels carving out the roadbed for the railway tracks.

The idea of running a branch line this way from the ICR was not new. As early as 1896 it was proposed to have electrical trains on such a route, down to the People's Heat and Light Company's Works on the Northwest Arm.

The most vigorous opposition did not come from the very large landowners, some of whom had been interested in the project, and whose pain at the loss of flowerbeds and exotic imported trees was much assuaged by the prospect of a very good price for land they could easily spare. Real opposition came from small propertyowners who feared that level crossings, smoke and noise would reduce their neighbourhood from "a good residential, aristocratic district to a mechanic's district".

Liberal supporters, led by the Morning Chronicle, thundered furiously at "scandals" and at all the drawbacks, mustering experts to prove the navigational hazards of an ocean terminal so near the mouth of the harbour, requiring a breakwater.

The naval and military establishment complained that the plan contravened legislation safeguarding its rights, and would interfere with communication between the Citadel and the Harbour defences, thus obstructing defence in the event of attack fromthe sea.

The Federal Government's engineers had prepared four proposals for combining an ocean and a rail terminal, even one located in Dartmouth, but they were well prepared to forestall objections to their preferred plan entailing the line through Halifax's South End residential district. They promised a line going below ground level at just above Quinpool Road, and hidden in a cutting at depths varying from 35-60 feet to eliminate nuisance from smoke and noise. And they promised "artistic" bridges on all intersecting streets to obviate level crossings. Opposition was to a certain extent disarmed, and also so tardy that when a public protest meeting was finally called about six months later,the attendance was not impressive.


The contractors employed to Put the line through and erect the bridges were Cook Construction Co. Ltd., Sudbury, Ont., and Wheaton Bros., Railroad Contractors, Amherst, with principals Andrew and William Wheaton. The Nova Scotia Directories of the time do not list such a company in Amherst, but an Andrew Wheaton and a William D. Wheaton were listed in the Cumberland Co.section of McAlpine's Nova Scotia Directory for 1914, living at Nappan and Woods Mountain respectively.

The official start-up date was to be July 31,1913. There seems to be some confusion as to whether or not there was a formal sod-turning ceremony, but the General Manager of Government Railways was in Halifax on July 30th to officially inaugurate the project.The Herald headline on July 31st proclaimed "Work begins at Fairview on Halifax Terminals Railway", while the Morning Chronicle lamented "The Vandalism Begins". However, it may have been a token beginning because little equipment was on hand till nearly a month later. On August 21,1913, the Herald reported "thirty-eight dumping cars, two locomotives and two steam shovels' were on their way to the city.

Steam shovel used in construction (P.A.N.S.)

Work began first at the Fairview end of the line on Bedford Basin, and a few weeks later at the Harbour end, at Greenbank near Point Pleasant Park. For four years two crews of labourers of various origins dug and blasted towards each other, and many people remember the fascination with which, as children, they watched the very small locomotives and string of about thirty tiny cars travelling back and forth with their small but heavy loads of rock. The work trains from the Fairview end discharged their cargo into Bedford Basin to build the freight-marshalling yards. Those from the Greenbank end dumped the rock into the Harbour where some of it was used to build the breakwater.

Area residents suffered not only from the noise and dirtinseparable from such operations and an invasion of "navvies",but also from more serious troubles. The blasting cut off their water supply and it took some time to persuade the city that it should lay special piping to restore it. Trestle bridges put upat street crossings until completion of permanent bridges were undoubtedly viewed with some trepidat ion by what were then called"autoists" and also by passengers on the street railway along Quinpool Road. Women who were students at the Halifax Ladies College at the time recall the shivery qualms with which the'crocodile' crossed the suspension footbridge on Tower Road.Girls who suffered from fear of heights got to be very ingenious thinking up ways to be excused from the daily walk.

Temporary bridge over cut (P.A.N.S.)

By the time the work was completed there were sixteen handsome concrete bridges. The contractors proudly advertised that the longest single span was 144 feet, and the longest bridge, at Young Avenue, was over 210 feet. Other, less obvious structures,had to be built along the way of course, and some of these can still be seen by the alert observer. One of the more noticeable is a not-yet-buried culvert bearing the date 1914, near where Churchill and Roosevelt Drives join.

The two work crews finally met sometime in the fall of 1917, but by then the First World War was filling the papers and monopolising everyone's attention and scant notice was taken ofprogress on the railway line.

That the work had gone doggedly the war years was to prove providential after the Halifax Explosion on December 6, 1917,destroying the North Street Rai1way Station and the lines leading to it. Construction crews worked furiously around the clock to put up temporary train sheds at the proposed site of the new South End Terminals and to ready the 1ines so that relief trains carrying medical personnel and supplies could be routed around the devastated area and brought within reach of the city centre. But for that line, relief workers, medical supplies, food, and the hundreds of other necessities would have been much slower reaching the wounded and homeless.

The first official passenger train, the Maritime Express, steamed out of the still incomplete new station on December 22, 1918,carrying a distinguished group of governmental and business dignitaries bound for Fairview, thu s ceremonially inaugurating the new service. Excited, cheering crowds gathered on thebridges, especially at Young Avenue and Tower Road, to watch the historic train go through. Perhaps the train was led by one of the red "ten wheeler" engines designed by Timothy Blood ofthe Manchester Locomotive Works, bought by the ICR in 1901 and used 'till about 1927. Passengers undoubtedly looked up with awe at the rock walls towering above them.

Residents of homes near the cutting heard the wail of the whistle, the roar of the thundering wheels, and smelled the smoke of the coal-fired steam engines, while housewives ruefully surveyed soot-speckled laundry. For, monumental as had been the labour of blasting out millions of tons of bedrock, to a depth of 65 feet in some places, the line was not as inconspicuous and quiet as promised until the advent of the Diesel engines many years later.

Effect upon Urban Landscape

Historically we know that at the time the railway was put through,1912-18, Halifax City was principally composed of wooden buildings on the slopes facing the harbour.

From this nuclear city a series of roads ran across the peninsula giving access to the farms , cottages and shorelines towards and on the Northwest Arm. These roads were Chebucto, Quinpool, Jubilee, Coburg,South and Inglis, which later stopped at about where Bellevue now is.

Where St. Mary's University now stands was Gorsebrook Golf Course,behind that was Marlborough Woods. The Studley Campus of Dalhousie University was Studley. Farm and along the Northwest Arm were various estates, some quite large, and a string of summer cottages. The railway cut through this mixture of field, gardens and woodland but at the time buildings were so sparse that no houses (or maybe one or two) had to be demolished for the right of way.

Number 764 Tower Road, at one time a farmhouse, was moved the relatively short distance from its original site in the direct path ofthe cutting, to where it now stands.

Extracted from "South End Railway Cutting: Report No. 2 of the Area Studies Groups", Pierre Taschereau, Halifax Field Naturalists News, No. 27, Spring 1982.