Giant’s Causeway Tramway

Portrush to Giant’s Causeway Hydro-Electric Tramway

This is the story of one of the greatest scientific and engineering enterprises of the Victorian era.

At the end of the 19th century the north coast of County Antrim was a quiet backwater; you might even think it an unexceptional place. However, it was a very exceptional place for two reasons:

Among the original shareholders are two gentlemen of note:

  • The first was that it was the home of a visionary engineer named William Acheson Traill.
  • And the second was that the north coast of County Antrim was at the cutting edge of electrical traction engineering.

Old Bushmills Whiskey Bottle

Some people still remember a unique, old fashioned looking, rickety form of transport that ran from Portrush to the Giant’s Causeway, via Bushmills. Others may have heard or read about this wonderful system that although now defunct has a firm place in the history of North Antrim & especially of Portrush. This is the story of that transport system. That it took place on the quiet and relatively unknown north coast of County Antrim, an area principally known for the holiday resort of Portrush, the wonder that was the Giant’s Causeway and the even greater wonder that was the intoxicating liquid that came from Bushmills, makes our story all the more remarkable.

The Ballymena, Ballymoney, Coleraine and Portrush Junction Railway (later absorbed into the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway) had reached Portrush in 1855. Several proposals for extending the line to the Giant’s Causeway were considered over the next twenty years but on each occasion the idea was abandoned when the expense of constructing a standard gauge railway had been weighed against the possible increase of profit.

In 1866 iron ore mining commenced in North East Antrim and created a minor “iron ore rush”.

In 1878, the Ulster Steam Tramway company had been granted a concession by the Grand Jury of County Antrim (forerunner of the Antrim County Council) to construct a road-side tramway from Portrush to Bushmills. It failed to raise the necessary finance mainly due to some dubious financial provisions on the part of the promoters. In 1879 another professional company promoter, who today we might describe as a “financial cowboy”, alleged that he had purchased the concession from the Ulster Steam Tramway Company and proceeded to solicit financial support for the scheme.

William Acheson Traill
William Acheson Traill

His efforts met with little success and in 1880 the company was declared bankrupt. From the report of the hearing it emerged that the promoter was already an undischarged bankrupt and the Company Secretary, with the not unusual name of Jones, was in fact the promoter’s clerk. Mr Jones it was reported had recently changed his abode omitting, doubtless in a moment of absent-mindness, to leave a forwarding address!

Railway Map of County Antrim
Railway Map of County Antrim

At this point two brothers, members of a well-known local family whose home was Ballylough House, just to the south of Bushmills, decided to take action in the matter. William Acheson Traill was a qualified engineer with a keen interest in geology.  He was well aware of the mineral resources in the North East Antrim Area and was anxious to develop these and to provide the local area with a transport system.

Together with his older brother Dr. Anthony Traill, a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin, he called a public meeting in Bushmills Courthouse on 27th October 1879 to consider the best means by which railway communication for Bushmills could be obtained. William Traill displayed a map showing existing and proposed railway lines in the area and the known mineral deposits together with the routes of lines which he and his brother considered to be the best for serving Bushmills.

As all these existing and proposed lines would be to a three foot gauge through running from the port of Larne to the Causeway would be possible so bringing the Causeway within 48 miles of Larne rather than the then current rail distance of 85 miles. Potential sources of revenue were identified and included iron ore, gravel, sand, basalt, limestone, seaweed for manure, passenger and tourist traffic. The final link in the system was to be a roadside tramway from Portrush railway station to Bushmills connecting with the proposed railway.

This tramway and the railway line from Bushmills to the Causeway would ultimately become the world famous Giant’s Causeway Tramway or to give it its official company name The Giant’s Causeway, Portrush & Bush Valley Railway & Tramway Co. Ltd.

Authorisation to proceed was given by Parliament on 28 August 1880. The only objection was from Sir W T McNaghten who, not unreasonably not only did not wish to have a railway line passing through his demense but also cutting across the main drive to his house, Dundarave! His objection was withdrawn when the route was changed.

Among the original shareholders are two gentlemen of note:

  • Sir William Thompson, later Lord Kelvin, a renowned scientist, was a native of Belfast. He had a particular interest in things electrical and purchased £1000 of shares.
  • Dr Charles William Siemens was a German born engineer and industrialist whose company manufactured telegraphy cables but at this time were moving into electrical lighting and power. He purchased £3000 of shares (an economic value of about £3.5 million today).

Sir William Thompson
Sir William Thompson

Dr Charles William Siemens
Dr Charles William Siemens

Initially electrical power was provided by a siemens dynamo driven by a 25hp engine installed at the depot in Portrush.  This was used for the early electrical experiments and produced 15 kilowatts at 250 volts. Various methods for conducting the electrical power to the engines in the Power Cars were tried. Finally it was decided that a third rail system provided the most satisfactory method with the least voltage drop. Insulating materials were in their infancy and created many problems when power had to be carried any distance outdoors in all weathers.

The electrical current was sent out along a raised third rail located between the track and the adjacent hedge or wall and returned along the metal railway tracks. Electricity thus flowed from the dynamo through the third rail, collector, electric motor, axle & wheels, metal rails & back to the dynamo. In practice the collector was actually fitted above the conductor rail and pressed down on it. This was found to give a more satisfactory electrical connection and was patented by William Traill.

In addition to the electric cars the company also purchased two Wilkinson steam tramway locomotives for use in towns where the third rail was considered to be impractical and probably downright dangerous. Eventually four such locomotives were in use with the last one, Dunluce Castle, being sold in the 1930’s to the company constructing the breakwater moles at the mouth of the River Bann.

Wilkinson Steam Tramway Locomotive Dunluce Castle c1886
Wilkinson Steam Tramway Locomotive Dunluce Castle c1886

In the photograph you can see a steam locomotive passing Dunluce Castle towing a first class closed saloon car, an open toast-rack car and a goods wagon possibly containing passengers luggage. The third rail system can be clearly seen in this photograph.

Wilkinson Steam Tramway Locomotive passing Dunluce Castle
Wilkinson Steam Tramway Locomotive passing Dunluce Castle

The main source of electrical power was the hydro-electric power station at Walkmills near Bushmills. It was initially equipped with two American turbines connected to a siemens dynamo producing around 40 horsepower. The turbines can be seen here at the bottom of the shaft under the power station with the connecting shafts leading up to the turbine through a system of bevel gears at the top. Inside the power station the controls were fairly rudimentary.

The operator at the Walkmills Hydro-Electric Power Station was Bob Maxwell. Bob was the operational and maintenance engineer for 57 years and his full name was William Robert Jubilee Traill Maxwell. On his retirement a plaque was erected in the power station to commemorate his long service.

Water from the river was carried by a head-race into the power station from about 200 yards upstream where a weir built across the river raised the water level by about five feet for almost two miles upstream.  The volume and head of water thus created allowed for about ten hours continuous operation of the turbines. It was to be the source of many arguments between tram company and McNaughten estate when water levels were low and the salmon were running upriver

By January 1883 the track from Portrush Railway Station to the Market Place in Bushmills was complete and ready for operation. A branch line to Portrush harbour was also in place.

On 12 January 1883 the line was inspected by Major General Charles Scrope Hutchinson, Royal Engineers, the Inspector of Railways for the Board of Trade.

The inspection of the tracks, rolling stock and generating plant was carried out using one of the steam locomotives but a short journey was also made on the electric car. Everything was to the approval of the Major-General although considerable comment was made about the amount of sparking at the wheels and rails. The Inspector also expressed concern should a body fall across the tracks and the live rail.  Mr Traill demonstrated the lack of any risk by seating an exposed part of his anatomy on the elevated live rail while placing his feet on the track. When asked many years later by his daughter if it had not hurt he is said to have replied “it hurt like hell but I wasn’t going to let the Inspector know that!”

In due course official approval was received from the Board of Trade and the line opened for public traffic on 29 January 1883. The official opening of the tramway took place on 28 September 1883. Invitations had been sent to every eminent personage in Europe including Queen Victoria and the Emperor of Germany. Her Majesty declined the invitation and the company had to make do with her representative in Ireland, Earl Spencer, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, aka the Red Earl.

The Red Earl stayed overnight with Sir Hervey Bruce at Downhill House before arriving by train in Portrush for the grand occasion. He travelled first by steam hauled tram and then by electric car to Bushmills, being accompanied by a mounted escort of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The electric car used for the opening was driven by William Traill himself but the Lord Lieutenant performed the opening ceremony by operating the handles to start the car on its journey.

Official Opening of the Giant's Causeway Tramway
Official Opening of the Giant’s Causeway Tramway

It is interesting to note that during the official opening tour of the Walkmills Power Station Sir William Thompson entertained those present by shak­ing hands with certain members of the assemblage, at the same time with his free hand holding one of the terminals of the generator. This gave the unsus­pecting victim an electric shock. It was also sup­posed to demonstrate the innocuousness of a shock at the nominal voltage (250 v) of operation of the tramway. No electrical engineer in his right mind would do such a thing today but this clearly demonstrates the state of electrical knowledge in 1883.  It really was very much an experimental science still in its infancy.

Portrush Railway Station and Causeway Tram
Image A: Portrush Railway Station (left) and Causeway Tram (centre)

The tramway started at the railway station in Portrush opposite, what is today, the Eglinton Hotel. The wall behind the tram enclosed the station yard and goods area on what was for many years the Station Square. In image “A” the Town Hall can be clearly seen as can the Presbyterian Church in Main Street. The grand Victorian terrace known as Mount Royal and Cool-Na-Gee house (now Antrim House) were yet to be constructed.

Taken around the same time, image “B” shows one of the steam locomotives coupled to a first class closed saloon car and a closed toast rack car no. 7.  No. 7 was originally an open car but had been winterised by the addition of a roof and side panels – still pretty chilly looking! The railway goods yard is behind the tram.

Wilkinson Steam Locomotive, First Class Saloon Car and Car No. 7
Image B: Wilkinson Steam Locomotive, First Class Saloon Car and Car No. 7

Behind the stone wall in image B, is the branch line running from the railway station down to the harbour to which the tramway company added a third railway line so that they could also use it.

The saloon car between the trucks is electrically powered but as the third rail could not be used in the town we must assume it’s waiting for the arrival of a steam locomotive.

Several tipper wagons are in the background.  This may belong to the tramway which had purchased a number of these to transport the anticipated iron ore and limestone.

The third railway line was added to a siding at the rear of the goods platform so that tramway goods trucks could load or unload at that platform.

The connecting link between the tramway and railway can be seen centrally with the addition of a passing loop which may have been more used as a siding to store wagons.

Still looking at image B, in the middle distance stands the original lifeboat house which until recently served as a shelter and toilets.  This housed the early lifeboats which had to be towed to the shore by horses and then launched into the surf or into the harbour. In the background is the harbour with a sailing ship tied up at the quay for loading and unloading.

Portrush Harbour at that time was well used as it was relatively easy to enter and leave and was well protected from bad weather. Its direct connection with the railways also made it popular.

Steam-hauled tram leaving Portrush Railway Station
Image C: Steam-hauled tram leaving Portrush Railway Station

Image “C” shows a well filled rake of tramcars leaving Portrush Railway Station behind a steam locomotive.  The second car behind the locomotive, the open one, is a first class only car. Even though it was open and unprotected from the elements the seats ran longitudinally and were more comfortable, being provided with cushions. It is worth noting the finery in which the passengers are dressed; especially those in first class and remembering the days of steam locomotives when soot, sparks and the odd hot ember were discharged by the smoke stack asking the question – are these passengers suitably dressed?

In the early 1900’s one passenger, Matthew Jackson lodged a claim for damage to his trousers caused by  a piece of hot coke from the engine burning a hole in them. The company informed him that this was one of the ordinary hazards of travelling and that no claim could be entertained. He eventually received ten shillings (50p) compensation.

Tram travelling along Eglinton Street
Tram travelling along Eglinton Street

Also in 1903 a Mrs Jackson’s best coat was damaged due to part of the paint on one of the cars showing greater affinity for the coat than the car.  When Mr Jackson claimed £3 damages, the board directed that he be informed that the “company could not afford to pay for grand clothes if people chose to tour in them”, together with the advice that benzine was an excellent medium for the removal of paint stains. The claim was eventually settled for £1.

Leaving the Railway Station the tramway would travel down Eglinton Street with the grand houses of Mount Royal to the left and terraces of only slightly less grand houses and shops to the right.

Reaching the Methodist Church the tram turned right into Causeway Street. This bend was of a very tight radius and caused the wheels to squeal loudly. In image “D” you can see the Presbyterian Church whose minister, Rev. Jonathon Simpson, and his congregation were very much opposed to the running of trams on Sundays.

Tram rounding the Methodist corner
Image D: Tram rounding the Methodist corner

It is recorded that on one particular Sunday Rev. Simpson was praying that “this evil desecration of the sabbath would cease”. During the prayer a tram rounded the corner with a noisy squealing of steel wheel against steel rail. The minister is reported to have paused and looked to heaven saying “thou canst hear for thyself, o lord, the knell of their wickedness”.

Travelling on down Causeway Street past the large terraced houses, many of which were boarding houses the tram would pass the town gas works just before arriving at the tramway depot, where, between it and the depot could be seen one of the many large signs erected by Henry Hamilton to advertise the White House department store in Main Street.

Portrush Tramway Depot
Portrush Tramway Depot

The fine buildings of the Tramway Depot were constructed from local black basalt with dressed sandstone surrounds to openings and on the corners. They include engine and car sheds, workshops, stores and offices and remained intact for many decades after the tramway ceased to operate.

Leaving Portrush the tram would climb towards the White Rocks and Long Gilbert Quarry. The view across the links courses of Royal Portrush Golf Club to the hills of Donegal was quite stunning.  Just before the road down to the white rocks there was a passing loop where sometimes the tram might have to wait for the Portrush bound tram to pass.

At the road leading down to the Whiterocks
At the road leading down to the White Rocks

Passing Long Gilbert Quarry and round the Devil’s Punchbowl, the view over the driver’s shoulder gives us some idea of the steep terrain and cliffs which are just on the other side of the wall. A fairly frightening view for those on that side of the tramcars; especially as some of the ordinary toast rack cars did not have doors or fixed panels on either side.

View over tram driver's shoulder
View over tram driver’s shoulder

Breathing a sigh of relief the tram would journey on up one of the steepest sections of the line at 1 in 33, Clooney Hill (now better known for the car park at Magheracross) where fine views of the Skerries were to be had, together with glimpses of the Giant’s Causeway and Dunluce Castle.

A steep descent and long left hand bend would bring into view the ruins of Dunluce Castle where trams were known to slow or occasionally stop to allow visitors a good view. Many photographs of trams at Dunluce Castle were published as postcards.

Rounding the gallery hill and journeying onwards passengers could alight at the Port Hedge, from which a path led down into the village of Portballintrae and where they would again probably have to wait for a Portrush bound tram to pass.

A long gentle descent then followed into Bushmills where, passing the engine sheds the tram crossed the bridge and entered the market yard to end the journey. From here a “long car” or four wheeled jaunting car; would take passengers onwards to the Causeway.

On 1 July 1887 the extension from Bushmills to the Giant’s Causeway was opened and a fine new station and additional engine sheds constructed together with a passing loop and water tank for the steam locomotives. The sheds consisted of two car sheds and a donkey shed. This was not for a donkey engine but rather to house a real live donkey which was used to transport luggage for passengers going on to Portballintrae.

New Station at Bushmills
Image E: New Station at Bushmills

Taken just after the extension opened, image “E” shows the fine station building, now a private house; and clearly shows the third rail system for conducting electricity. The station  was a substantial stone building comprising a two storey dwelling house for the stationmaster, booking office, general waiting room, ladies waiting room, etc., with a glazed canopy along the front of the waiting rooms forming a veranda facing the tracks.

Leaving Bushmills Station the tram crossed the Portballintrae Road and followed a fairly level route for about three quarters of a mile through land adjacent to the River Bush before arriving at the bridge which carried it over the river.

Victoria Jubilee Bridge
Victoria Jubilee Bridge

A fine lattice girder structure, carried on masonary piers, the centre span was 70 feet long and about 25 feet above the river.

The extension opened in 1887 and as this was queen Victoria’s golden jubilee Mr Traill named the bridge “the Victoria Jubilee Bridge”

Constructed by P & W MacLennan at their Clutha Iron Works in Glasgow, the bridge withstood the test of time facing as it did Atlantic storms and sea spray.  It was finally demolished by the army in the 1970’s and replaced by a footbridge – now since itself replaced – by a new railway bridge for the heritage railway.

Passing smartly along, the tram would run behind Black Rock Strand for about half a mile before turning right and climbing towards the Causeway Terminal.

On the left passengers would see Runkerry House, a fine red sandstone house constructed in a striking location. Then part of the McNaughten Estate, occupied by two unmarried McNaughten ladies – later it became a home for the elderly after being passed to the government in lieu of death duties. Later still, it became an outward bound centre and is now divided into apartments.

And so the passengers would arrive at their destination, or at least fairly close to it, as it would still bel another mile to the actual entrance to the Causeway.

Standing like sentinels guarding the causeway are two grand hotels: The Causeway Hotel and Kane’s Royal Hotel, both very popular with tourists. For some time the Causeway Hotel was owned and operated by William Traill who installed electric lighting with power supplied from the tramway.  Apparently it was the first hotel in Ireland to have electric lighting and much was made of this in the hotel advertisements. The tramway company was also able to refuse access to the terminal for porters, etc. from any establishment other than the Causeway Hotel.  Sometime later both hotels were owned by the Kane family. Kane’s Royal Hotel is long since demolished.

Giant's Causeway Terminus Building
Giant’s Causeway Terminus Building

And so the tram would arrive at the unique tramway terminal building. This building constructed of corrugated iron (known locally as “wriggly tin”) and served as both booking office and waiting room. It had a steeply pitched roof curving up to a sharp point when viewed on the gable and had been purchased in and brought from Switzerland at a cost of £400.

Travel to and from the Giant’s Causeway was extremely popular with both tourists and those of a more academic leaning. Trams were regularly filled to capacity and a spare rake of cars was usually parked at the causeway terminal to cope with the volume of passengers coming back to Portrush on the last tram of the day.

On 26 August 1895, Thomas Walne, whilst cycling from Bushmills to Portrush attempted to turn his bicycle on to the tramway. He struck the kerb and was thrown across the track coming to rest with his chest across the live rail.

When rescued shortly thereafter he was still breathing but passed away about half an hour after the accident. The board of trade investigation condemned the third rail system and made some strongly adverse comments about the operation of the system in general. Electrical readings as high as 360 volts were recorded and the company was told that a safer system would have to be introduced.

A system of overhead poles and wires was proposed with a trolley arm from each electric car making contact with the overhead live wire and current being returned via the track as before. This new system would allow operation at up to 550 volts which made the electric cars much more powerful and efficient.

Bushmills Tram Station
Image F: Bushmills Tram Station

The view in image “F”, taken after the overhead electrical system was installed shows the general arrangement of poles and arms at the Bushmills Depot. The entire system was installed by William Trail and a local workforce as tenders received from specialist contractors were considered to be excessive. The new system came into operation on 26 July 1899.

Portrush Urban District Council still opposed electric working in the town even with the overhead system in place. Their lawsuit was finally settled in October 1900 on condition that the pole at the Methodist Church corner be kept lighted from sunset to sunrise on every day of the year. The new light fitting was, no doubt, a cheap way to get some free early street lighting in Portrush.

Here we also see the old and the new with the then ubiquitous horse drawn transport systems being overshadowed and overtaken by the tram – this unique pioneering electrical system of transport.

This was progress! This was the future!

Sadly in due course progress and the future in the shape of the charabanc, omnibus and motor car were to overtake the tramway and lead to its demise.

On 1st November 1889 a small schooner was seen to be in difficulty during a gale. The Portrush lifeboat; Robert and Agnes Blair, was launched from the west strand, beside the harbour, to go to its assistance. The schooner managed to escape from danger, but the lifeboat, unable to return to Portrush due to the north-east gale made for Portballintrae harbour and shelter. Unable to use this harbour because of heavy seas the lifeboatmen made for Blackrock Strand to beach the boat.

Off Blackrock Strand heavy breakers overturned the lifeboat twice and the crew were flung into the maelstrom of white water. Mr. Traill saw the mishap from the Causeway Hotel. He collected some workmen with ropes and other suit­able equipment and hurried to the strand where the lifeboatmen were attempting to beach their boat. With the help of Mr. Traill and his men this was soon accomplished.

The bodies of three members of the lifeboat’s crew who had been lost overboard and drowned were soon washed up on the strand and recovered. A special tram conveyed the bodies to the tram-shed at Bushmills which was used the following day for the inquest into the disaster. Those who died were William McNeill (oarsman), James McAlister (second coxswain) & Galbraith Grills (Chief Officer of the local coastguard).

During the summer of 1895 a party of tourists from Preston, Lancashire, were on a boating trip from Portrush when the boat capsized off the White Rocks. Mr W. A. Traill, who was more than a mile away at the time, hurried to the scene by tram, climbed down the rocky cliffs, and swam out through the breakers. He first reached a young lady, but she refused to be rescued until her mother was saved, so Mr Traill swam on till he came to the husband who was supporting the body of his wife. Mr Traill brought both to land, and then swam out again and brought the daughter ashore, she having remained afloat for over three-quarters of an hour. Only the father and daughter survived.

In acknowledgement of his remarkable feat, quoting, “the people of Preston presented Mr. Traill with a handsome silver bowl, suitably inscribed in commemoration of this extraordinary deed of bravery and endurance.” He acquired also, in due course, a wife, for thirty years afterwards, his second wife having died, the young lady he had saved from drowning in 1895, married him to become the third Mrs Traill.

Tram Car 24 - Before
Tram Car 24 – Before

Tram Car 24 - After
Tram Car 24 – After

On 6th May 1916 the tramway joined what must have been the very exclusive circle of British tramways to have suffered damage from a naval engagement. At about 11.00 that morning the coaster “Wheatear” on her way from Coleraine to Great Britain was confronted by a German submarine off Runkerry head.  The “Wheatear” being armed with a four inch gun, shots were exchanged. Mr. William Traill who watched the action reckoned that about 250 shots were exchanged, one of which formed a crater of ten feet diameter and five feet depth beside the track. “Wheatear” turned away and escaped and the submarine dived and apparently left the area

but two tramway men off duty and who happened to be near Gortnee siding, had their cloth­ing torn by splinters. A straining wire of one of the overhead poles was cut by another splinter.

Throughout its life the tramway used a relatively small fleet of tramcars and trailers. Make do and mend were the watchwords as cash was always in short supply. A good example of this is car No. 24 which started life as a Dunfermline tram.

The original tramcar would have been a standard two storey tramcar and had to be heavily modified for operation on the causeway tramway. The upper seating and sides were removed; the trolley pole was remounted; the steps were removed and the ends were glazed to protect the driver. The work was undertaken by the tramway workers and a fine car emerged for use from 1938 onwards.

Tram Car 9 with box ends
Tram Car 9 with box ends

Tram Car 9 as tea shop in Youghal
Tram Car 9 as tea shop in Youghal

Tram Car 9 with glazed ends
Tram Car 9 with glazed ends

Car 9 was modified in 1911 by the addition of crude box structures at each end to provide some protection for the driver. Not exactly a thing of beauty likely to win any design awards however, some years later it was modified again to provide proper glazed ends which resulted in a very elegant car indeed.

Sadly after the closure of the tramway the body of car 9, like so many others, was sold at auction.  Car 9 found its way to Youghal in County Cork as the property of a local lady, Miss Nellie Mahir who used it as a holiday home and tearoom. After her death in 1981 it was rescued and is now undergoing complete restoration in the National Transport Museum of Ireland at Howth Castle, County Dublin

Cars numbered 18 to 23 were seven bench toast rack cars. They were all of a similar design although they were brought into service at various times between 1897 and 1908. The later models were fitted with electric motors.

Tram Car 22 with canvas side rolled up
Tram Car 22 with canvas side rolled up

Trailer with canvas down on one side
Trailer with canvas down on one side

All these cars were originally open third class with no protection for passengers but early in the 20th century roofs were fitted to cars 20 to 23 and roll down canvas side screens could be lowered to provide additional comfort for passengers.

Passenger comforts were never a priority for the tramway company. No platforms were ever provided at stations so passengers had to clamber up and down long wooden steps.  Not so easy or elegant for the ladies especially in windy weather.

The wrap round canvas side screen was fitted so that it could be rolled up when not required and could also close of one or both ends of the car.  As with all this type of protection the lower half of the car was left unprotected so wind and rain could leave legs and feet cold and wet.

If the wind was behaving itself and only coming from one side cars could be operated with one side screen up and one down reducing the claustrophobic effect and giving the passengers a view of sorts.

In 1888 with the demise of the iron ore and limestone trade William Traill decided to convert seven of the goods wagons to five bench toastrack cars. The ride would not have been particularly comfortable as the goods wagons had no suspension and there is no record of such being fitted at the time of their conversion and the wooden bench seats had no cushions.

Portrush depot grew over the years with the addition of sheds of various styles and materials. It was here that all modifications to rolling stock were made by tramway staff.  Materials for the purpose were bought second hand or if possible begged or borrowed.

The car sheds were sufficiently large to accommodate all the vehicles in dry conditions where work could be carried out, particularly during the winter when many of the modifications would have been carried out.

The Tower Wagon
The Tower Wagon

The open wagon used by the permanent way staff for many years consisted of the body of an early goods wagon fitted to the chassis of one of the first two steam locomotives, probably No. 1. Nothing was ever wasted! This open wagon usually accompanied the tower wagon; a wonderful piece of construction strongly resembling a medieval engine of siege warfare. The working platform was 11 feet above rail level. Slats fixed across the supporting timbers at one end provided a ladder giving access to the working platform. The entire wooden structure was mounted on one of the goods wagons.

Incorporated in its superstructure was a sort of mobile blacksmith’s shop cum workshop formed by boarding between the supporting timbers and cladding the lot in roofing felt.  The portable forge which it carried had, of course, to be lifted into the open before lighting up.  Motive power was supplied almost invariably by Car 22 driven by Bob Scott who had worked on the tramway from boyhood in all capacities and who for the last 30 years of its existence was general maintenance man.  He survived the tramway by only three years as he died in Bushmills on 18 December 1952.

Members of a Geological Society
Image G: Members of a Geological Society

Many humorous stories surround the tramway. In image “G” you can see the members of a Geological Society outing helping the tram round an uphill corner. American soldiers who travelled on the trams during World War 2 took great delight in hopping off the slow moving vehicles and running forward to overtake the tram and jump on to a car further along.

During World War 2, especially in the build up to Operation Overlord great numbers of troops, mainly American and Canadian were stationed in training camps in Northern Ireland.  Several of these were near the Causeway and the authorities would regularly use the tramway to transport arriving or departing soldiers between Portrush and the Causeway.  Many of these troop movements took place during the hours of darkness and must have seemed ghostly to residents along the route as the blacked-out trams rumbled and rattled their way along the line.

In the early days of operation the tramway’s only competitors were operators of horse drawn cars and coaches. Its uniqueness and novelty also gave it a great competitive advantage over its rivals and it was well supported by passengers especially during the summer season. However, that season was relatively short and from quite early on a very much reduced service was operated during the winter months. In some instances the service provided was the minimum required by law to maintain the tramway rights of way.

The advent of the motor car and motor omnibus provided competition which was more flexible and which enjoyed the novelty factor that the tram had had some years earlier. Despite several price wars between the tramway and its rivals, some of which the tramway won in the early days, the tramway found that it really could not compete and maintain economic viability. Charabancs, omnibuses, hotel cars, private cars and motor taxis are to the fore in pictures taken during the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The tramway struggled on and provided a vital service during two world wars by providing transportation which did not use up valuable and scarce petrol resources.  The wear and tear of over 60 years of operation eventually told and in the light of continuously falling receipts, higher operating costs and the lack of any financial resources to carry out the necessary maintenance, repairs and replacement of track, overhead electrics and rolling stock the tramway finally ground to a halt. The last service was run on 30th September 1949 and the majority of staff were paid off on 15th October that year.

In August 1950 the company sought financial support from the government. They estimated that to keep the tramway open would cost £14,600, a not inconsiderable sum at that time. On 22nd September 1950 the government, which was still trying to recover financially from the depredations of the war informed the company that they were not prepared to offer assistance. An auction of rolling stock, track, etc. was held on 15th March 1951 with a second on May 1951 when the Portrush Depot & ground were sold. The Final Abandonment Order was made in September 1951 and on 12th March 1952 the remaining  buildings and land was sold at auction. The total realised from all the auctions  £15,155 – 0s – 0d, an economic value of approximately  £523,000.00  at 2019 values. The Final Creditors meeting was called for 2nd September 1958 but no-one turned up! The Company had cleared all its debts and could be finally wound up.

Walkmills Power House
Walkmills Power House

Overgrown Turbine & Shaft Cutting
Overgrown Turbine & Shaft Cutting

With the passing of time nature has reclaimed and hidden much of the evidence of the tramway but the walkmills hydro-electric power station building remains, although as a bare shadow of its former self. All the internal workings have long gone, even the commemorative plaque.

The turbines, their shafts and all that wonderful Victorian engineering has been removed or covered by nature. The weirs, laydes, sluice gates, electric poles and cabling has all gone; blown up, filled in, broken down and sold off!

The overhead cabling and poles along the road-side have been cut down and removed leaving only rusty concrete filled stumps and the granite kerbs which once supported the track-bed have been lifted and now retain grass verges at the back of pavements along the route or make steps down to the white rocks at Portrush.

A stranger visiting walkmills today would probably not even stop to wonder what this place might have been or to contemplate the potential for power generation offered by the river bush; now returned to its normal passage and no longer fought over by engineers and salmon fishermen.

If you happen to pass that way just remember that nearly 140 years ago a far-sighted engineer and his enthusiastic friends did recognise that potential power and developed it into a practical and economic electric supply to operate the world’s first hydro-electric tramway; and forever give this little corner of North Antrim a place in social and scientific history.