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THE DAY THE LITTLE TOWN STOOD STILL

Many years have passed since a train derailment occurred on the Bonavista Branch Line of the Newfoundland Railway. I stared at the small yellowed photograph that had fallen from an old family album and could not imagine what the photograph portrayed at first. Then I was reminded of that derailment, an event that deeply affected two Shoal Harbour, Newfoundland and Labrador, families, and in fact all of the tiny community. It was a story I had heard many times and this was a photograph of the overturned train. The accident occurred August 12, 1944, in Southern Bay, on the Bonavista Branch Line of the railway. It was a splendid Newfoundland day, with the sky a brilliant blue, dotted with cotton candy clouds, and all seemed right with the world.

The Railway served Newfoundland from 1898-1988, traveling so slowly on it’s narrow gauge track it became dubbed the ‘Newfie Bullet’, in a casual conversation, and the name stuck. Even now the train is referred to affectionately as ‘The Newfie Bullet’ when railway stories are told. The railway track ran past my husband’s family home in Shoal Harbour, and the children would run down the path and wait for the train as it headed down the ‘Bonavista Branch Line’. On the day of this event the train was a working train, carrying no passengers, as it wound its way toward Southern Bay. It passed the Lupins, swaying in the summer breeze, the wild flowers, juniper trees, and expanses of bog and barrens where berries grew by the thousands. It was a glorious summer day with no reason for the Engineer, Roland Lowe, and the Fireman Jim Hunt, to think it would be anything but routine.

When the train reached Southern Bay it started working, moving boxcars around on the tracks, to pushing them back and forth, and nothing was unusual as the men joked with each other and used their strength, and their knowledge, of the massive steel engines to do their work.

Then in the blink of an eye, everything changed. As the work train was backing up it hit a hole or fault in the track causing it to jump the track and topple over an embankment. Engineer Roland Lowe, an uncle to my husband, and Jim Hunt, Roland's Fireman and good friend, were in the cab in the tangled heap of steel. A small fire started and ignited some dry grass, but was quickly put out, averting a potential wildfire.

The two men on Engine Number 195 were badly injured. A frantic rescue effort was successful, and they were disengaged from the engine, but they did not look as if they would live to tell the story of their accident. Both had multiple and massive injuries, and required medical attention quickly. In order to get that medical help, another train was sent to the site, the two men who were traumatized were taken as quickly as was possible to the Merchant Navy Hospital in St. John’s, NL, where they remained for some time and received the treatment that helped them survive.

Both Roland Lowe and Jim Hunt were strong and able-bodied men. In spite of their strengths it took time to recover. Roland Lowe left the hospital first but his friend Jim Hunt, had a much longer hospital stay and recuperation. Both men had injuries that were life-threatening, and were fortunate to have survived the accident. In due time they both were back to work with the railway, where they carried on their work, right to their retirements.

Their story is told, they are both remembered, and the older people in our little community of Shoal Harbour will tell you that the whole area ‘held its breath that day’, and for days after. They were extremely grateful that they had not lost either man, men that were dedicated to their jobs, loved the trains, and loved life.

The tiny photo tells a big story. It is the story I remember being told by Roland Lowe’s brother, my father-in-law, Abe Lowe. I never ever realized that I would see a photo of the wreck when my husband talked about his ‘Uncle Roland’, and I still recall the train passing by the family home when I first visited Shoal Harbour in the late 1960s.

So two families, surrounded by a loving community extended family, came through a difficult time, and a situation that could have been very tragic. Two very loved fathers came home, and they came home to the open arms of their family and their whole community. The instinctive kindness of the Newfoundlander was as strong as always, and in time so were the injured men. The Engine was salvaged, was back into service when repaired, and now is on display in Corner Brook, NL, as part of the Railway Museum.

May our train, throughout our lives, never jump the track. However, if it does, we will endure with the support of our community, the same as it was for Roland Lowe and Jim Hunt. The spirit and kindness of our Newfoundland people is as perennial as the grass, and will always be so.


Bonnie Jarvis-Lowe

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