Before the coming of the narrow gauge railway to north east Antrim, iron ore was being mined extensively in the Glenravel hills with further trials being carried out at the Trostan Mines for bauxite. James Fisher, who had opened the mines in 1866, had built his own tramway for use by horse-drawn wagons from his mines in the townland of Legegrane to the nearest suitable road at Parkmore and thence by horse and cart to Red Bay pier. For the other mining companies the problem of transporting the ore was more difficult. They were further from the sea and the nearest main railway was at Ballymena but roads were only muddy tracks suitable for horse and cart and the carting of heavy loads especially in winter was slow, expensive and at times even impossible. Since the sea lay only a few miles away, with the sheltered harbour of Red Bay available for shipping, it seemed logical and sensible to transport the ore there for shipment. The alternative was a long and costly roundabout journey to Belfast via Ballymena.
So it was in 1871 the Antrim Wire Tramway Company was formed (a subsidiary of the Wire Tramway Co. of London) to lay out the course of an overhead bucket system between Cargan and Red Bay via Retreat. The course, about 8 miles long, was to be based on Charles Hodgson’s system of wire rope transport patented in 1868 and was to run through the townlands of Cargan, Evishacrow and Parkmore then to Essathohan and down Ballyeamon Glen through Knockans North, Ballynalougher to Red Bay. It would consist of an endless wire rope, supported on a series of pulleys and revolving round a horizontal wheel at each end and the whole lot carried on wooden pylons. The rope would be passed round a drum driven by a steam engine situated at Knockans.
Before work on this aerial ropeway actually started the railway was planned which was to run through the heart of the mining area.
The wire tramway was eventually started and completed in 1872. There were four sections each two miles long and the wire rope and pulleys were supported by 50 pylons per section. The main engine was a 20 horsepower steam engine at Knockans with a 10 horsepower engine at Evishacrow Grand Junction Station where there was a short offshoot towards the Evishacrow Mines. The tramway carried 200 buckets each with a capacity of two and a half hundredweight. The full ones went down one side and the empties came up the other and the average speed of the system was 4 miles per hour. About 200 tons of ore per day were transported on the wire tramway but the enterprise itself was short-lived for on the night of Sunday the 13th of July 1873 the wire rope was severed at a point just north of Essathohan Bridge thus crippling the entire mechanism.
At the time it was thought the carters were to blame as the construction of the tramway would have deprived them of their livelihood. On the other hand the railway company which was in the process of planning the narrow gauge line stood to lose much by the competition of the tramway. The fact that the sabotage occurred on the 13 th of July may have had a political significance but the other reasons seem more plausible. There had been a previous attempt to wreck the tramway when large stone blocks had been rolled down the mountain from the chalk
Two weeks later, 26th July 1873, the following reward notice appeared in the Ballymena Observer and was displayed elsewhere throughout the area:
Whereas on the night of Sunday the 13th day of July, current, some person or persons unknown, maliciously cut the wire rope of the Wire Tramway leading from Cargan to Red Bay, County Antrim, at a point near Essathohan Bridge, in the townland of Parkmore or Aghanlane, parish of Layd.
Now we, as Solicitors for the Wire Tramway Company (Limited) of London, hereby offer a
REWARD OF ONE HUNDRED POUNDS;
To be paid upon such information as will lead to the conviction of the offender or offenders, being given to us, or to Augustus W. Stafford, Esq., County Inspector of Constabulary, Ballymena.
L’Estrange & Brett, Solicitors, 6 Chichester St.,
17th July 1873 Belfast.
In the same issue of 26th July a lengthy condemnation of the outrage appeared on the front page, strangely reminiscent one might add, of condemnations of similar activities in our own day. Under the heading “Diabolical Outrage” it reads as follows:
“From our advertising column it will be seen that a most disgraceful outrage — one of a character hitherto without precedent among the peaceable and industrious population of this Province — was wantonly perpetrated at Parkmore, near Red Bay, in the County of Antrim, on the night of Sunday the 13th inst. On that night it appears that the massive wire rope of the Wire Tramway, constructed for the conveyance of ore from the iron mines at Cargan to Red Bay pier, was maliciously cut asunder by some person or persons at present unknown, whereby the traffic along the entire line, extending over a distance of about a dozen miles, was necessarily suspended. The tramway — which is the property of a London company — must have cost several thousand pounds and it has been in full operation for months past, doing important service in aid of a patriotic effort to develop the natural resources of our country, and provide remunerative employment for the people. An act of more atrocious malignity has not been perpetrated in this district of County Antrim within the present century, and, in view of this suicidal tendency among the Irish peasantry, it cannot be thought strange if Englishmen hesitate to invest their capital, or carry out their mercantile enterprise, among a people many of whom appear to be labouring under the heavy curse of a national blindness. The Company have offered a reward of One Hundred Pounds for such information as shall lead to the discovery of the offenders, and if clearly convicted, penal servitude for years is the lightest punishment they can expect. It should be known that every shilling’s worth of the damage inflicted, as well as every shilling’s worth of the concurrent loss, is recoverable by county assessment upon the cesspayers of the several townlands over which the tramway passes; and the well-disposed inhabitants should unite as one man in the public denunciation of these doings, and for the prompt suppression of such shameful practices. An additional reward by voluntary contributions should be offered for the apprehension and conviction of the guilty parties, and every honest man in the Glens should be a subscriber to the fund.”
This act of wanton sabotage put the wire tramway completely out of action and it remained so until 1875 when the whole concern was sold to the railway company which by this time was operating to Cargan Station. The Retreat to Red Bay section of the tramway was kept in position until 1881 although it was derelict. The Wire Tramway Company claimed damages of £1000 for their loss but the culprits were apparently never found, only their footprints.
In the week following the demise of the tramway the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club visited the area to see this ingenious method of transport for themselves. They were shown the tramway near Parkmore but in their journal later no mention was made of the fact that the system had been damaged. Perhaps this fact had been deliberately kept from them by the guide who had described its working. It may even have been that the Company thought that a simple thing like a wire rope could easily be replaced and that the tramway would soon be back in action but sadly this was not to be and this unique piece of engineering lapsed into history.
The photograph shows the tramway’s Red Bay terminus alongside the final cable-carrying pylon with the Red Arch in the background. The wooden bridge over the Coast Road was to protect traffic passing below from any ore which might spill out of the moving buckets before they entered the wheelhouse. As the buckets passed round the revolving horizontal wheel their contents were tipped sideways into a chute and thence to the ground below. One of the buildings on the right was for stabling the horses which were used on the pier. On the road below the bridge can be seen a horse and cart near an upturned cart and another horse and cart at a lower level. In the centre of the tower is a sign inscribed “WIRE TRAMWAY CO. Limited”.
Edward M. Patterson in his classic history of “The Ballymena Lines” made the comment that ‘nobody seems to have photographed the wire tramway’ but we now have the proof from the camera of Francis Turnly and our thanks are due to Mrs. Myoko Turnly for its re-discovery.
Ballymena Lines, The — E. M. Patterson; David & Charles, 1968
Ballymena Observer, The — 26th July 1873