Building the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

the stream in the sky

Building the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct 1880

WE ARE all familiar with the famous aqueduct at Pontcysyllte but what would we make of it if, instead of canal barges sailing serenely along “the stream in the sky” we saw the engine and trucks of a narrow-gauge railway? This is not as farfetched as it may seem. It very nearly happened.

In the Leader (23rd July 1999) it referred to a canal map drawn by the then engineer of the Shropshire Union Canal and railway Company, G. R. Jebb. This was the man who first put the Welsh lines of the SUCC into jeopardy, pressing for the closure of the Western Lullingfields branch in 1875 and again in 1885.

The Montgomeryshire survived closure moves by the skin of its teeth because it was still making a profit – just – (£432 in 1887). But in 1873 Jebb proposed to the directors that the Ellesmere canal from Llangollen should be converted into a railway and extended to Wem!

Building the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct being draing in 1930


As it turned out, all were kept open because of legal problems in closing canals by a railway company, but this wouldn’t stop the wholesale abandonment of former SUC&R water lines by the LMSR in 1944.

The Shropshire Union obviously saw railways as spearheading the technological revolution of the future and were themselves running at least two railways, the Wellington-Stafford line via Donnington Wood, Newport and Gnosall, and the Pontcysyllte – Afon Eitha line.

Between 1871 – 1881 the Company also secured a controlling interest in and actually operated, the horse-drawn Glyn Valley Tramway, which brought slate, granite, etc, to the canal wharf at Gledrid and the GWR exchange sidings at Preesgwyn station. So proposals to convert the line of the Llangollen Canal into a railway were an extension of this thought process, although they could never see the logic in pushing on to Wem of all places! But this was not a new idea.

In fact some seventy years earlier William Jessop, the then canal engineer, proposed the same thing. Railways or tramways as they were then known were a lot cheaper to build than canals. There were no locks for one thing.

In 1800 the abandonment of the Ellesmere Canal main line from Trevor via Wrexham to Chester was already being mooted, mainly because Flintshire and Deeside collieries had already reached tidal water via short tramways or railroads, thus pre-empting markets at Chester and in the Wirral. If the company persisted with the main line they would still have to build tramways to link individual pits with the canal.

Building the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Postcard of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

High ground

Getting the canal down from high ground around Esless to the bed of the Alyn river north of Wrexham would need many locks (a total of 25 on one canal map). Converting Pontcysyllte aqueduct into a railway viaduct would save the company £8,400 notwithstanding the cost (£500) of carrying water across in elm pipes. A railway viaduct would take 12 months less to build, implying an increase in revenue. Fortunately perhaps, Jessop approved Telford’s ideas for an iron trough construction and on November 21, 1805 the ceremonial opening of the aqueduct duly took place, but it was already almost redundant.

Twenty years later the Stockton & Darlington Railway was opened and canals as a means of communication were faced with extinction, although thankfully for today’s tourist industry, it would be a slow and lingering death. The value of railways was tacitly recognised when the company doubled its tramway from Pontcysyllte through Acrefair, Plas Madoc and Plas Bennion to Afon Eitha. Not all the main line was consigned to the dustbin. A three-mile stretch from Gwersyllt to the Ffrwd was actually built, filled with water and was used. Much of this still survives if you care to look for it!

Building the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in 1950

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct 84ft high in 1797. But even before it was open there were plans afoot to convert it into a railway viaduct.

Building the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Winter at Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Source: The Leader 6th August 1999. Sept 2014

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