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Building the Boyne Viaduct

A new book published by Iarnrod Eireann, Crossing the Boyne: the Great Viaduct 1855-2005, recalls the great railway tradition of this area, and is reviewed here by Jack McQuillan, author of The Railway Town.

Crossing the Boyne: the Great Viaduct 1855-2005 Jack McQuillan The Railway Town

The Great Northern Railway (GNR) Company’s main line between Dublin and Belfast crosses the river Boyne at Drogheda by means of a viaduct which originally carried a double line of track. The structure is about 1760 feet in length consisting of 15 semi-circular masonry arch spans, 12 on the south and 3 on the north side as well as three girder spans of wrought-iron, two of which are 141 feet between bearings and one of 267 feet all spanning the waterway, quays and public roads and supported by massive masonry piers of limestone.

The bridging of the Boyne was a vital necessity for without the bridge the journey by rail from Belfast to Dublin could not be undertaken and the then Dublin-Belfast Junction Railway (called the Junction) could never be considered a part of the great trunk route.

Since George Stephenson’s No I Locomotive pulled a train from Stockton to Darlington in 1825 the story of steam had begun. Five years later when he drove his “Rocket” locomotive to pull three stage coach bodies from Manchester to Liverpool at a speed of 12 miles an hour he initiated the story of the railway which is still unfolding.

By the early 1840’s the “magic rod of iron’had touched Ireland, Belgium France and Germany. Rail transport was soon being accepted globally as the more serious technical difficulties were being overcome and high speeds being achieved. The twin ribbons of steel were criss-crossing Britain and Europe as well as Egypt, India and America.

Building railways involved great daring, risk and noble endeavour, cutting swathes through plains, pairies and bogs, building bridges and viaducts to cross rivers and valleys as well as piercing mountains, feats frequently accomplished by engineering impossibilities. During the second half of the 19th century railways were “bestriding the world like a colossus” linking towns, cities, countries and continents annihilating distances and expanding trade. As isolationism was being broken down, railways were becoming the great leveller penetrating the most inacessible interiors and accelerating the process of civilisation.

Here at home we were in the ferment of global railway building from its beginning as we received the early whiff of smoke and steam locomotives from our neighbours across the Irish Sea. In spite of famine there was an expansion of economic activity that was manifested in house and school building as well as railway investment between 1837 and 1848. Emerging were the four railways that were eventually to form the GNR, these being the Dundalk and Enniskillen Company, the Dublin-Drogheda, the Ulster and the Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway (D & BJR). The latter was just an extension of the Dublin-Drogheda Railway with Newfoundwell Station in Drogheda its southern limit and Portadown its northern extremity.

There were two obstacles to overcome for completion D & BJR both to be solved by viaducts. The Craigmore viaduct at Bessbrook outside of Newry built for £50,000 in 1851-52 by Dargan and Macneill as well as the Egytian arch should south of it. But by far the greatest challenge the Boyne River. The great chasm would have to be crossed by rail. Alternative routes were suggested and a stone viaduct was ruled out as clearances for shipping on the river had to be preserved.

Sir John Macneill, among the outstanding and most accomplished engineers of his generation was, among his other portfolios in Irish Railways, Chief Engineer to the Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway. Pupil of the great Telford, the road engineer, he subsequently introduced iron lattice bridges into Ireland and Britain.

The bridge over the Boyne remained to be built and in 1851. Macneill showed his lattice bridge design and a alternative tubular design to the Board of D & BJR. They accepted Macneill’s design of a lattice girder bridge of iron longer than any in the world at the time. Tenders for the construction were sought early in 1846 and varied between £28,000 and £105,786. In 1850 a loan of £120,000 obtained from the British Exchequer at 4% interest was raised.

From 123 tenders William Evans’ quotation of £68,000 was accepted and by September the 12 arch Newfoundwell viaduct was under construction. Train loads of limestone from Skerries were arriving and two massive 70 feet gantry cranes were in place.

William Evans who had built Conwy tubular bridge and assisted with the construction over the Menai Straits on the Chester-Hollywood Railway was from the very beginning of this venture plagued by a galaxy of adversities which he courageously confronted but which were eventually to render him bankrupt. He had not received accurate drawings and had to be allowed for extra work before even reaching the river. The plans he received were not the originals which were lost and the plans made from the originals by William Dargan contained a number of inaccuracies. Evans woes were compounded by the Harbour Commissioners who were most unhelpful and were continually critical of his attempts to erect coffer dams in the river bed to allow him to build the central piers of the viaduct.

It was pier 14 which ultimately caused Evans’ downfall. The rock foundation confidently predicted in the plans failed to appear. The workmen continued to dig downwards, working under appalling conditions in the coffer dam which was continually leaking, necessitating constant packing of soil round it to keep it from flooding. The Harbour Commissioners refused Evans’ appeal to be allowed to use stones mixed with the soil to reinforce the packing in case the stones should fall into the river bed and obstruct navigation. Water also seeped into pier 16 and it had to be lined while a great storm on Christmas Day 1852 demolished the crane at the top of the viaduct.

For the Great Industrial Exhibition in Merrion Square in Dublin William Gargan, the leading Irish railways entrepreneur, suggested to the Board that the wooden scaffolding surrounding the unfinished bridge be reinforced to take the heavy load of trains with all the visitors travelling to the exhibition. As Evans was in serious financial straits the task was undertaken by the Board and by 1853 Macneill began testing the bridge. Lieut-Col. Wynne of the Board of Trade approved the opening of the reinforced bridge subject to a speed limit of 5 mph amd a train of 80 tonnes.

The opening of the line for regular traffic was postponed until the Board could recover some of the cost involved and added eight pence to the fare for three additional miles in crossing the river. The Dublin and Drogheda Railway and the Ulster Railway vehemently opposed the surcharge and took the necessary measures to isolate the D & BJR. Following some hassle agreement was eventually reached on June 7th and the line was finally opened two weeks later. But crossing must have been a frightening experience for passengers with all the temporary scaffolding in place.

Throughout the summer of 1853 work continued on erecting the great arches and piers. By September work was only proceeding by sums paid in advance to contractor William Evans by the Board and he was declared bankrupt. The Board took over the responsibility for completion of the work and eventually in mid October a foundation was found for pier 14 and a cement foundation was laid.

The Board chairman ceremoniously descended to the base of the coffer dam and laid the foundation stone of the great viaduct, but this wasn’t the end of the woes. Work continued round the clock until the base of the pier reached above water level amid rumours that the workers were receiving the then enormous wage of seven shillings a day. This was not an excessive wage considering the work they were doing. However the men did eventually go on strike because of the nature of the work and their pay and had just been enticed back to work on October 15th when the coffer dam gave way.

At the end of summer of 1853 the great scaffolding remained in place and Macneill assisted by his equally famous contemporary James Barton (his pupil at TCD who built the pier and station of Dundalk, Newry and Greenore railway) who, it was always claimed, had completed the design and plans for the famous viaduct based on original sketches by Macneill, a controversy still extant. The new date for completion was set for July, 1854 and by mid-February of that year only two arches, both on the north side remained unfinished. 1854 passed into 1855 with petty disputes and slow progress.

However the end was nigh even though the weather throughout that winter, known as the Crimea Winter because Britain was involved in the Crimean War, was very harsh and bitter. On January 5th the last of the main girders was put in place and on March 30th Lieut-Col Wynne inspected the completed bridge, approving it after six hours of trials. A week later on April 5th the first train officially crossed the Boyne viaduct without ceremony, the directors no doubt rejoicing that their infinite troubles had now ceased at last. The final link in the great trunk route between Dublin and Belfast had been forged.

To accommodate the increased axle load of 22 tonnes from the standard 17 tonnes from 1932 onwards, the GNR undertook the task of repairing and strengthening the entire structure, and in more recent times on the week-end of September 11-12th, 1993, and with the help of a 300 tonne crane positioned in the timber yard below the viaduct, the steel beams were removed and replaced with new 40 tonne pre-stressed concrete beams.

Steam engine down memory lane

To mark the 150th anniversary of the building of the Boyne Viaduct and the completion of the Dublin Belfast railway line, Iarnród Éireann in association with the Old Drogheda Society are holding special celebrations on Saturday week, September 3rd at Drogheda Station at 12.45 hrs and also at Dundalk Station.

A special steam train will leave Dublin at 9.35 a.m. to convey guests across the Viaduct to Dundalk and when the train arrives in Dundalk a small ceremony will be held on the platform at which the Dundalk Brass Band will perform.

Later in the day there then will be two special runs on the steam train from Dundalk to Drogheda, crossing the Viaduct of course.

The train will leave Dundalk at 12.50 and again at 3.30 and one of the carriages has been allocated for passengers who will board at Dundalk for the round trip which will take about 90 minutes.

In total just 64 tickets have been allocated for the two trips and and these will be given out on a first come first served basis.

There is one flat fare of ?10 return for the return journey.