Island's 'rapid transit' system went from a troubled start to an early demise

By Simon Horn

History | May 3, 2021

Reading time: 9 minutes

*From the archives. This article first appeared in MARITimes Vol. 25.

When the First World War ended in 1918, Bermuda had to rebuild the tourist trade on which the Island’s economy increasingly depended. The war had crippled the trade, which fell from a pre-war peak of 27,045 visitors in 1911 to only 1,345 in 1918, and something had to be done quickly. The first challenge was transportation.

As an island 700 miles out in the Atlantic, Bermuda was dependent on a regular steamer service from New York. The war had disrupted shipping everywhere, and in 1919 the colony had to negotiate a new steamship contract to guarantee the ships required to transport Bermuda’s vital imports and meagre exports, as well as the wealthy American tourists who had become so important to the Island’s economy.

Old “Rattle and Shake”makes a stop at White Hill

The Quebec Steamship Company had operated the New York steamer run since 1874 in return for an annual subsidy from the Bermuda government. The company’s new owner, Canada Steamship Lines, wanted both an increased annual subsidy and a £60,000 land grant. Bermuda’s negotiators thought this was excessive, and looked for alternatives. In 1919 the new contract went to Britain’s Furness Withy, thus beginning a relationship that would come to define Bermuda tourism for many years to come.

The steamship link was not the only transportation problem, however. Once visitors were in Bermuda, internal transportation posed a problem of its own. Traditionally Bermudians had travelled around their small domain by boat, horse and carriage, and on foot.

In Bermuda, “modern transportation” meant the bicycle, which had become popular around the turn of the century. Bermuda’s traditional transportation was part of its appeal to visitors and travelling around the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage was a tourist staple. In the first decade of the 20th century, however, automobiles had begun to appear on Bermuda’s coral roads.

Old vs new: Bermuda Railway and a traditional horse and buggy

Visitors face the choice of carriage or railway on Front Street

A motorised omnibus, the “Scarlet Runner,” was operating on the colony’s roads by 1908. The livery stable owners didn’t like it, and neither did the tourists. A petition against motor vehicles from prominent visitors, including Mark Twain and Woodrow Wilson, was a major factor leading the Bermuda government to ban the automobile altogether in 1908. But although cars were outlawed, the problem of transportation remained.

Tourists might have the time to meander through the countryside at horse-drawn speed, but residents of St. George’s or Somerset who worked in Hamilton found the long horse-drawn or cycle commute a real problem. Economic activity and population were increasingly centralised in the capital, Hamilton, to the detriment of the countryside.

‘A railway…would provide the rapid transit Bermudians required without alienating tourists who came to the Isles of Rest to escape hustle and bustle’

Even tourists could find the lack of transport limiting: if your ship was docked in St. George’s, you were at least a two-hour carriage ride from Hamilton. If you were staying at Hamilton’s Princess Hotel, a trip to visit the renowned Crystal Caves would take you most of the day. Almost as soon as the 1908 Motor Car Act banned the automobile, some Bermudians were trying to repeal it, especially residents of St. George’s and Somerset. Others remained convinced that the automobile was unacceptable because of its potential negative effects on the tourist trade.

The attitude of Bermuda’s elite— colloquially known as the Forty Thieves —was ambiguous. Almost all agreed that some form of modern transportation was necessary, but they divided into intractable pro- and anti-motor factions that for years debated the question annually in the House of Assembly without reaching a conclusion.

The anti-motor forces began to think that a railway was a likely alternative. It would provide the “rapid transit”that Bermudians required without alienating tourists who came to the “Isles of Rest” to escape the hustle and bustle of modern East Coast America. At the same time, a railway would enable tourists to visit the Island’s various attractions easily, and at a lower cost than the increasingly expensive horse and carriage.

While Bermuda’s politicians argued over cars and railways, Furness Withy took its new role seriously, creating its Furness Bermuda Line subsidiary to run the Bermuda trade and putting three refitted ships on the route: Fort Hamilton, Fort Victoria, and Fort St. George.

The focus was on the luxury trade, with more than 85 percent of each ship’s accommodation made up of first-class cabins. In 1926, Furness would build an even larger and more luxurious ship, the Bermuda, especially for the New York-Bermuda run. Furness was determined that, if it was going to run luxury ships to Bermuda, it was going to fill them with passengers.

Bermuda Railway staff, from left: Mr. Francis, Wentworth Richardson, Harold Kitchen, Maury Maybury, Jimmy Whayman, ‘Milky’ Rogers, Mansfield Virgil, Humphrey Daniels

The company soon began to take an active role in the general development of Bermuda tourism, with the aim of creating the hotels and attractions that would encourage well-to-do Americans to fill its ships. Furness’s instrument was the Bermuda Development Company, established in 1920 as a joint project with important members of Bermuda’s elite. Half the eight directors of the new company came from Furness, but half were Bermudians, including three members of the Bermuda House of Assembly: Harry Watlington, Stanley Spurling, and F. G. Gosling.

The chairman of the board was J. P. Hand, a Bermudian of American origin who would go on to join the colony’s Executive Council and later be elected to the House. The importance of Furness for the general wellbeing of the colony was such that its interests often took precedence over local differences of opinion. It was no accident that the board of the Bermuda Development Company included the most fervent pro-railway and anti-railway individuals in the colony, Watlington and Gosling on one side and Spurling on the other, with J. P. Hand in the middle.

As a joint venture between Furness Withy and Bermuda’s Forty Thieves, the development company marked a key change in the attitude of the Bermuda elite to modernisation.

‘For many Bermudians, the idea of some foreign-owned railway company controlling Bermuda’s transportation as well was not universally welcomed’

Bermuda might be the “Isles of Rest,” but modern tourists wanted more, and increasingly that “more”included golf. The development company began by acquiring the St. George Hotel, in the colony’s old capital. It also began to purchase a large quantity of land at Tucker’s Town with the intention of building an elite golf course and club, the Mid Ocean.

The Tucker’s Town project turned out to be controversial, and remains so even today. The purpose was to provide facilities that the growing tourist trade required, but it required expropriating the land of the black farmers and fishermen who actually lived there. By 1931, Furness would own the St. George Hotel, the Mid Ocean Club, the Bermudiana Hotel and the Castle Harbour Hotel, and its ships would bring in the vast majority of Bermuda tourists.

In 1922 the Bermuda Government hired British engineer James Foxlee to determine if a railway would be an economically feasible solution to the colony’s transportation problem. Foxlee’s report said yes, but he remarked that the success of a railway was entirely dependent on the development of the tourist trade.

Foxlee was particularly impressed with the new developments at Tucker’s Town, where he discussed transportation with representatives of the Bermuda Development Company. “They were very emphatic,” he said, “that the success of their endeavours largely depends upon the provision of adequate transport facilities.”

The Development Company was convinced that the combination of increased steamer traffic, the Tucker’s Town developments, and a railway would boost tourist figures to 50,000 per year within five years. While this figure was over-optimistic, Foxlee’s proposed railway included a direct link between Hamilton and Tucker’s Town.

Furness Withy’s apparent enthusiasm for the proposed railway was not welcomed by everyone. For many Bermudians, the Tucker’s Town project had already raised the spectre of foreign capitalists gaining unhealthy control over Bermuda’s economy.

The idea of some foreign-owned railway company controlling Bermuda’s transportation as well was not universally welcomed, especially among those who favoured letting in motor vehicles instead. The railway project finally came before the House of Assembly in 1924.

During the debate, long-time pro-motor supporter (and railway opponent) Hastings Outerbridge raised the issue of foreign capital. He questioned the role of Furness Withy, saying that he had heard in New York that Furness, who was “rich enough to buy the Island,” was involved in the railway scheme. The 1924 Bermuda Railway Act authorised a railway, but it would take seven years before Bermuda Railway Company trains were running.

For four years almost no progress was made as the railway’s backers tried to raise funds needed for construction. Time and again the company returned to the House of Assembly to request extensions and concessions, and every time the anti-railway forces tried to block the railway and introduce motor buses instead.

Throughout this period, Furness was developing its tourist facilities and, like Bermudians in general, was frustrated by the lack of a solution to the transportation problem. At the end of 1925 the pro-motor forces again tried to cripple the railway project, and some people thought Furness was behind the attempt.

Governor Asser reported to the Colonial Office in London that: “During the past three months a strong effort, evidently engineered from outside, has been made to drop the railway and to secure a motor bus service in order to facilitate transport between the Hotel and the golf links owned by Messrs. Furness, Withy, and Company. The leading newspaper has gone back on its former position and some members of the House have veered round in their views in an astonishing manner.”

The same assertion came back in 1926 in a dissenting article in The Royal Gazette: “It is by this time clearly evident that Furness, Withy and other hotel, steamship, and tourist interests have ideas of their own, and resent the extension of the Motor Car [Act] for another 25 years.” The editor of the Gazette, then firmly anti-railway, pooh-poohed the idea of outside influence.

A carriage traverses one of the many Bermuda Railway trestle bridges.

So did Furness interfere in the railway decision? And if so, in which direction? The company always claimed to be neutral, and J. P. Hand for one believed it. Speaking at a dinner for Furness Withy head Sir Frederick Lewis in March 1928, Hand commented on Furness’s role in the colony and its place, or lack of it, in the railway debate: “…speaking of politics, that reminds me that you have truly kept your word that you would never interfere in the political life of the Colony. Once indeed it was intimated in the Assembly that you were behind Mr. Watlington’s advocacy of a railway, which must have amused you in the light of your well-known preference for a motorbus system.”

Yet Bermudians were always suspicious, always ready to see the hand of foreign interests at work behind the scenes. When, in 1929, the Bermuda Railway Company decided to alter the route of its still incomplete mainline from Hamilton to St. George’s, some people again saw Furness interests at work.

A Gazette writer commented that the new route was “an undoubtedly more profitable one which will not only directly link up the Furness Withy Bermudiana Hotel at Hamilton with the Furness Withy Hotel St. George and St. George’s, but will also serve Government House and the surrounding district of North Village.” The Bermuda Railway finally opened in 1931, though the link to Tucker’s Town was never built.

Guests at Furness properties along the line took the train like everyone else or, if they were staying at the Harbour Castle Hotel or golfing at the Mid Ocean Club, were transported by traditional horse and carriage from the closest Bermuda Railway station. The end of the Second World War brought the automobile back to Bermuda and by 1948 the railway would be closed.

Furness Withy outlived the railway, and by the end of the 1940s the company had its bus service, if that was what it had wanted. Furness ships had been the mainstay of Bermuda tourism since 1919 but now, gradually, they too would be supplanted by a new form of modern transportation, the aeroplane. The last Furness passenger ship run to Bermuda was in 1966.

Simon Horn is the author of The Bermuda Railway Pages and NMB’s newest publication The Bermuda Railway available May 6th, 2021. Register for our virtual launch of The Bermuda Railway where author Simon Horn will present his research and hold a question-and-answer session.

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