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Sydney & Louisburg Railway Reporting mark: S&L

The Sydney & Louisburg Railway (S&L) began with the formation of the Dominion Coal Company (DOMCO) in 1895. DOMCO was the creation of H.M. Whitney, an American industrialist, who purchased and then merged eight of the Cape Breton Island's major coal mining companies under one umbrella.

Mining companies on Cape Breton were building railways as early as the mid 1850s. These were nothing more than small short lines built for the singular purpose of hauling coal to the nearest harbour. There was no standardization between the companies, and the quality of construction ranged from cheap to downright shoddy.

Picture of DOSCO engine

The S&L at the Acadia Coal Co. mine at Stellarton in 1962
Photo: Robert J. Sandusky
Publisher: JBC Visuals

When DOMCO took over in 1893, it ended up with eight shipping facilities, two parallel tracks to Sydney and 67 miles (107.8 km) of railway with very few interconnections between them. The lines were a patchwork of standard and narrow gauge. DOMCO desperately needed a railway network to both move its coal efficiently and connect all its mining operations to the harbour facilities in Louisbourg.

DOMCO moved quickly. In 1894 the company signed a contract with the government to subsidize the costs of building a railway from Sydney to Louisbourg. Subsidies amounted to $3,200 per mile plus land. As part of the plan, DOMCO settled on a standard gauge line built by one of its acquisitions, the International Coal and Railway Company. In 1894 the line was extended to Glace Bay and Caledonia. With the extension to Louisbourg in 1895, the railway officially became known as the Sydney and Louisburg Railway (S&L).

In 1899, DOMCO extended its reach into steel with the formation of the Dominion Iron and Steel Company (DISCO). This company opened a new steel mill in Sydney in 1901, providing S&L with a ready-made major customer. In 1910 both companies merged and became known as the Dominion Steel Corporation (DOMCO/DISCO).

Under its provincial charter, DOMCO was required to create a separate division for its railway operations. As a result, rail operations under both companies were merged in 1910 under a wholly-owned subsidiary known as the Sydney & Louisburg Railway Company. At the same time, the corporation picked up a second mining railway on the mainland, the federally chartered Cumberland Railway and Coal Company (CD&C) which serviced the DOMCO/DISCO mines in the Springhill area. The CD&C was operated as a separate subsidiary.

During the early part of the 20th century, the S&L continued to expand with the addition of new spurs to New Waterford, Port Morien, Birch Grove, Donkin and Broughton. Upon completion, the S&L's total trackage covered 116 miles (187 km) which included the 39-mile (63 km) main line. It was considered one of the most modern and busiest railways in Canada and was a virtual workhorse. Just prior to World War I, it was hauling in excess of 4 million tons of freight, more per mile than any other railway in the country.

Although built primarily for industrial usage, the S&L also catered heavily to the passenger trade. Traffic peaked in 1913 at 176,000. In addition to hauling passengers to and from work, the railway ran picnic excursions and other specials for the general public. During both World Wars it served as a vital link in the supply chain transporting fuel and steel to the ports of Sydney and Louisbourg.

In 1920 DOMCO/DISCO joined with arch rival, the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company (SCOTIA) to form the British Steel Corporation (BESCO). Further reorganization in 1930 led to the creation of the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation (DOSCO). The two original companies continued to operate as separate subsidiaries.

Although coal production dropped during the depression, it rose dramatically during World War II. However the war years proved to be the last hurrah for Cape Breton's coal industry. The post-war years brought a swift end to the good times as the world moved rapidly to adopt other forms of energy, mainly oil, natural gas and nuclear power. From then on the coal industry fell into a deep slump from which it would never recover.

In 1957 DOSCO was acquired by AVRO Canada which was owned by Hawker Siddley, an aircraft manufacturer that was branching into locomotives. Regular passenger service on the S&L was discontinued, however mixed trains continued to run during the weekdays until 1963.

Due to the large availability of coal, the S&L did not begin converting to diesel until 1960. In 1961 railway operations were turned over to another subsidiary, the Cumberland Railway, which had been acquired by DOMCO back in 1910. The reason was purely financial. Under its federal charter, the Cumberland Railway qualified for federal subsidies unlike the S&L which was provincially chartered.

By the early 1960s, DOSCO was bleeding red ink and under great pressure from Hawker Siddley to return to profitability or shut down. Mining operations struggled on until 1965 when the company suddenly announced it would be exiting from the coal mining business in three months. DOSCO reasoned the mines had less than 20 years of production left and it was not cost effective to open new ones. With Cape Breton's coal mining industry in a complete tailspin, the federal government stepped in with a phase-out and exit plan.

In 1967 the government created the Cape Breton Development Corporation (DEVCO), a federal crown corporation to take control of DOSCO's steel and mining assets. The plan was to take over the industries and gradually wind them down, while at the same time develop new economic opportunities. Following expropriation of the mines in 1968, the S&L was renamed the DEVCO Railway. It continued using the name S&L for a number of years afterward. Although the old S&L was finally shut down in 1972, DEVCO revised its plans to try and exploit the remaining deposits to the best of its ability. Thus DEVCO continued to operate modest rail services and add new spurs and other facilities where needed.

DEVCO remained in operation until 2001, when the last of its mines were closed. Its assets, which included railway track, railway rights-of-way, locomotives and rolling stock, and a coal storage facility and locomotive shops at Victoria Junction were sold to 510845 New Brunswick Incorporated, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Emera Corporation, which provides power to the province of Nova Scotia.

In 2003, the railway became known as the Sydney Coal Railway (SCR). Railway operations were subsequently contracted out to the Logistic Corporation, which specializes in marine services and cargo handling. Logistic ended up purchasing the SCR in 2008.

Today the SCR continues to operate a 14-mile (22.5 km) short line transporting coal from Sydney to the coal-fired Lingan Generating Station, owned by Emera. According to the latest reports the Lingan Generating Station's days are numbered as Emera gradually moves towards shutting down all its coal-fired operations.