Railway Coastal Museum Closing?!

Via Twitter, I heard that the Railway Coastal Museum in downtown St. John’s, Newfoundland was closing. Apparently the city of St. John’s is in a cash crunch, and to save money they’ve decided the museum has to go.

I visited this beautiful building and toured the museum in 2016. It’s a great museum.

Why Close It?

St. John’s mayor Danny Breen was quoted as saying, “We’ve been looking at the Railway Coastal Museum for the past number of years. Efforts have been made to increase the number of visitors there. They’ve been unsuccessful.” Apparently the museum had approximately 8,600 visitors in 2019.

The mayor said it is costing the city $200,000/year and they need to find savings in their budget.

One of many informational displays in the museum
One of many informational displays in the museum

The Museum

From what I can gather, the station/museum is owned by a charitable foundation, the Newfoundland Railway – Coastal Museum Foundation Inc. (#895769719 RR 0001) that is “dedicated to interpreting the history of the Newfoundland railway system from its inception… as well as the history of the provincial Coastal Boat Service.”

Looking at the charity finances (publicly available as all charities are in Canada), in 2018 they received $356,091 from various sources. About $200,000 of that came from rental income.

The foundation lists real estate assets of close to $1.5 million, which must be the station building and perhaps the grounds as well.

Past tenants of the building included the CN Pensioners, the city Archive (which moved from the building in 2017), and Key Assets (a social services company, who were in the building in 2019).

Their expenses seem reasonable to me. They spent just over half their 2018 income on salaries for five full-time and three part-time employees, only one of which made over $40,000 for the year.

Ownership

This page from the city mentions the museum and says “the operation of the museum is subsidized by the City of St. John’s.”

Despite the Foundation filings above, I’m not entirely clear who owns the museum, meaning the building and/or its contents. The museum was founded in 2003 by the Johnson Family Foundation, which was founded by Paul Johnson. At some point the museum appears to have been turned over to the city – maybe in 2018 – with a new board of directors. News reports say this board hasn’t met in two years.

Rail car display in the museum
Rail car display in the museum

A Ray of Hope?

In the December 14 regular council meeting, the Mayor addressed the issue of the station at the end of the session. He indicated that Ron Penney, a former director of the museum and an experienced politician from Newfoundland, approached the council to propose the formation of a community board to take over the museum.

The mayor did indicate that repurposing of the building would go forward, but also indicated that there would be a display of some sort. I am hoping that this means the top floors could be rented out as before, with a dedicated museum space remaining. Time will tell.

What Can You Do?

There’s an online petition to save the museum with over 7,000 signatures.

If you live in St. John’s, talk to your councilor.

News Article Links

8 thoughts on “Railway Coastal Museum Closing?!”

  1. This is sadly likely to become common in the next 12 months as cities and local municipalities deal with the budget fallout from Covid and the lack of financial support from higher levels of government.

    Thus anything that can be chopped will be in an attempt to control budgets.

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  2. I liked reading the ways you’ve started digging into this to discover its financials or explore the question of ownership. That kind of objectivity is so powerful to form a plan for a project like this – saving the museum and the station and too often the discussion is just a petty “us versus them” political argument. Data is everything. That operating supplement doesn’t seem insurmountable and I wonder if there’s detail on what programs are available (municipal, provincial, federal) that are currently being leveraged or could be employed to help fun this if funding alone is the reason the museum should close.

    In Prince Edward Island there is an open data portal for Provincial data. In it was operating budgets, visitor levels, and like elements for the museums in the province. I wonder if Newfoundland has something similar?

    Maybe it’s a question of expanding the space to invite in other things? If we think of the railway as a universal medium connecting the lives of every kind of Canadian then perhaps the existing railway-centric museum could invite in a museum that expands into the rest of St.John’s history?

    I see only potential here.

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    • I tend to be pretty hard-headed about these kinds of things, Chris. You really have to be. It’s easy to sit in your armchair and wish that “someone” would “save” your favourite locomotive or rail car or train station, but the cold, hard reality is that it takes time and money, and often it’s a zero-sum game where the money you want for preservation has to be taken from something else.

      It may be that in order to keep operating the museum in St. John’s, they have to rely on all volunteer labour plus some summer students funded by government grants. That would make up most of their shortfall, and then they will have to be creative to get more people in the door and to find other ways to generate income. I believe it can be done but it will take a lot of elbow grease.

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  3. Hi Steve,
    I already included my name in the online petition. My wife and I toured the museum in 2019 on a month long tour of Newfoundland. I also visited Newfoundland in 1980 and again in 1982 to see and ride the narrow gauge. All I can say is of all the railroads I’ve visited and photographed, the Newfoundland Railway was and is far and away my favourite. Some of the railway displays around the island are very good. But some are in deplorable condition. With Covid forcing communities to examine every dollar it doesn’t look good for any museum.

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    • Hi Ian, I’ve visited most of the displays in Newfoundland in my two trips there a few years ago. There’s a couple on the west coast I haven’t seen yet. I agree that most are in good condition but one in particular was in pretty poor shape, and of course the Trinity Loop is… poor.

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  4. Steve,
    Well-written piece on this beautiful building. I’m originally from St. John’s (okay, technically Logy Bay), and know this museum well. Beautiful building, great displays, and historic location to be sure. The cash crunch in St. John’s, and all of NL over the last few years has been pretty dramatic, with the economy of the province being so tightly tied to oil and gas, whether offshore or through rotational workers heading to Alberta or further afield. Throw in the often murky nature of municipal oversight of an organization such as this, and the story gets very complex quickly. Thank you for shining a bit of light on this. I know I’ve been reading up on this quite a bit.
    As you said, the state of some of NL’s railway heritage sites is quite poor. Hopefully a way can be found to help them survive. As always, it comes down to money as well as community involvement by passionate volunteers. If those volunteers also have deep pockets, or at least disposable income, skills and time, things go well. The Avondale Museum is great example of this – a few key donors, and some dedicated fundraisers make for a solid little museum.
    Anyway, I’m rambling on. Thanks for flagging this. Doesn’t matter where we live in Canada, it’s nice to see we all appreciate these heritage sites.
    Cheers!

    Reply
    • Hi Brian, thanks for your comment. Times are hard, and certainly the economy of NL is tied closely to the energy industry. I hope they can find a way to stay afloat and to keep the money trickling to the heritage sites. I know they don’t have a high priority when people are out of work or struggling, and I totally get that. The volunteer and community support is what really keeps the heritage sites maintained and thriving.

      Reply

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