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Dominion Atlantic Railway Reporting mark: DA

The Dominion Atlantic Railway (DAR) began in 1894 with the merger of the British-owned Windsor and Annapolis Railway (W&R) and Western Counties Railway. The "merger" as it was called was actually a buyout by the W&R, the larger of the two railways. Headquartered in London, the railway was operated out of Kentville, Nova Scotia and served the western part of the province for just short of 100 years.

For a small regional railway, the DAR was unusually feisty and diversified. Unlike the British-owned GTR, the DAR's London-based Board of Directors recognized that company policy could best be managed and directed locally by someone with an understanding of regional needs. In 1900, they appointed Percy Gifkins, a long-time employee, to the position of general manager.

Picture of travel brochure

DAR travel brochure, 1897
Source: www.archive.org

Originally from England, Gifkins had been stationed in Halifax for many years. He began as a clerk and worked his way up through the ranks to superintendent. Since the DAR also owned a fleet of nine steamships, Gifkins' previous background as a seaman proved to be a distinct advantage.

During its early years, the DAR was continually growing. Expansions included the purchase of the Corwallis Valley Railway (CVR) in 1892, the short-lived Midland Railway in 1905 and an extension of the CVR to Weston (also known as the North Mountain or Weston Branch), completed in 1914. The DAR had connections with both the Intercolonial Railway (IRC) and the Halifax and Southwestern Railway (HSW). Freight traffic originated from 16 industries, four brickyards, four stone quarries, four gypsum quarries and an iron ore mine.

Passenger service was an equally important component for the DAR. Rail service augmented by steamship connections to New Brunswick, Boston and New York enabled the railway to transport passengers directly to Yarmouth or Digby where they could find rail-side transfers directly to the ship. It was the birth of a new tourism industry for the province of Nova Scotia.

In March 1911 major changes took place with the announcement that the DAR had been leased by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Skeptics feared the worst - that the DAR would lose its identity and become just another branch of the CPR. Others embraced the change as an opportunity for growth and much-needed investment. The latter group proved to be correct.

For the CPR, the move made a lot of sense. The railway now had greater access to the port of Halifax where it could take advantage of ocean-bound shipping. Recognizing that the DAR enjoyed a unique position in the affairs of Nova Scotia, the parent company allowed it to retain a separate corporate identity and a large degree of autonomy in managing its operations, as long as they measured up to the CPR's standards.

The first plan of action was to make technical improvements. These included the adoption of new "Standard Train and Interlocking Rules" and a switch from telegraph to telephone dispatching. This was followed by a change in the Board of Directors and a change in the head office, from London to Montreal. The CPR, also a major steamboat line owner, consolidated the DAR's steamships under a separate company.

Further improvements included new bridges and completion of the branch line to Weston in 1914. The final change was a new general manager, following the retirement of Gifkins in 1915. He was replaced by Ontario-born George Graham, a long time CPR employee. Graham, like Gifkins, had worked his way up through the ranks beginning as an 18-year old station operator in a small Ontario village. He was to remain general manager for the next 25 years.

Graham continued with the ongoing modernization of the DAR. A new roundhouse and shop facilities were constructed in Kentville along with an upgrade to all the equipment. Building on Gifkins' legacy, he continued to expand the tourist trade with the construction of four medium sized hotels. The first was the Digby Pines which opened in 1917. It was followed by the Lakeside Inn, the Cornwallis Inn and the Lord Nelson Hotel. Car ferries were added to the steamship service during the 1920s. Passenger service in Halifax was shifted to a new Union Terminal, built in 1928. Graham's most lasting contribution was the purchase of the Grand Pre Historic Park, now a National Historic Site.

Another area that Graham continued to expand was the apple industry. The DAR had been involved in the apple harvest from the earliest days. By 1903, the railway had already established large warehouses where the apples could be stored until they could be shipped overseas. In 1909 the industry hit its first banner year with one million barrels. By the 1930s, the DAR boasted 150 apple warehouses along its mainline and branches. In part due to the efforts of the DAR, Nova Scotia held a dominant position in the apple industry until the beginning of World War II when shipments to Europe were sharply curtailed.

Strategically, the DAR served Canada well during both world wars. The railway was used to transport troops from the military base at Camp Aldershot on the DAR-owned CVR line. During the Halifax explosion in 1917, a DAR train raced to the scene following the destruction of the IRC Railway yards and terminals.

During World War II the DAR provided service to both the navy and air force including HMCS Cornwallis, RCAF Station Greenwood, RCAF Station Stanley and Camp Aldershot.

Following the end of the Second World War the DAR, like most other railways, was hit hard by changing times. Improved roads and the growth of the automobile led to a severe decline in passenger traffic. In 1957 the DAR sold its hotel chain and the Grand-Pre Park. Steamship services also took a big cut. Freight dropped dramatically, following a postwar collapse of the apple market. The CVR branch lines, primarily used for the apple harvest, were finally abandoned in 1961 with the exception of a three-mile spur to Steam Mill Village.

Apart from a few bright spots such as the gypsum market, the pattern of decline continued throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. Passenger traffic picked up following the creation of VIA Rail in 1978 but fell again in 1990 when VIA's branch line service, which included connections to the DAR, underwent massive cuts by the federal government.

By the 1980s, all rail traffic in Atlantic Canada was in a tailspin. In 1988, the CPR consolidated its properties east of Montreal under the "Canadian Atlantic Railway." In 1990, the CPR abandoned the western portion of the DAR from Kentville to Yarmouth. The CPR continued to operate small portions of the DAR until 1993 when the railway pulled out of Atlantic Canada completely. The entire Canadian Atlantic Railway was sold to Iron Road Railways Incorporated (IRR), a US-owned short line operator, which fell to bankruptcy in 2002.

A small portion of the former DAR remained in operation from 2002-08. The Windsor and Hantsport Railway (WHRC), a small short line and former subsidiary of the IRR, continued to operate a 56-mile (90.1 km) stretch between Windsor and New Minas, where it serviced a few gypsum quarries and several other industries. Those industries are now closed and the trains have been dormant since 2009. The WHRC recently filed notice of discontinuance of service.

The DAR operated just 36 days short of 100 years. During that time it contributed enormously to the growth of tourism and industry. Although the trains are now silent, the DAR has earned a well-deserved place in the history and growth of the province of Nova Scotia.