Cornwall was once laced with a network of tramways and railways, used to bring coal to power the mine engines and take the ore away.
They may be long closed down, but many of them are still fascinating to explore by foot or bicyle. Until the 19th century mules were used to transport coal to – and tin and copper from – mines as the roads were unsuitable for heavy use, particularly in winter months. During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) fodder prices rose steeply, side-lining mules and leading to the emergence of Cornwall’s first tramways and railways.
Cast iron rails were first adopted in Coalbrookdale (Shropshire) in 1767 and short industrial tramroads were soon in use at mines and quarries across the country. Far heavier loads could now be moved, by the same power, than on the finest road surface.
Linking up the industry
During the 1820s, many of the more important mines in the region adopted horse-drawn tramroads to link production shafts and dressing floors. Traction continued to be provided by horse and mule power until steam locomotives were introduced. The early Cornish tramroads and railways were built to link copper mines with mineral ports. Up until the early 19th century, almost the entire copper mining region was within a 13km radius of Carn Brea.
Until the early 1800s practically the entire copper mining region of Cornwall was within 13km of Carn Brea.
Portreath Plateway (1809)
Portreath Plateway, the first of the mineral lines, was started in 1809 to link the copper mines of North Downs and the Gwennap district with the harbour of Portreath on the north coast. It was leased from the Bassets of Tehidy and promoted by the Williams family and their friends, the Foxes of Falmouth. Gwennap parish alone produced one third of the total output of Cornish copper and mines such as Poldice benefited greatly from the new plateway. Poldice was both the richest mine in Gwennap and the last to close down (in 1873). It had gradually switched from tin to prolific copper production during the last quarter of the 18th century.
Redruth & Chasewater Railway (1824)
John Taylor (1779-1863), industrial rival to the Lemons, the Williams and the Foxes, built the Redruth & Chasewater Railway in 1824 to link the principal mines which he leased in Gwennap – including Consolidated – to his new port at Devoran. This was built on one of the creeks on the River Fal, above Falmouth harbour on the south coast.
Hayle Railway (1834)
The Hayle Railway linked the Camborne & Redruth mining district to the port of Hayle from 1834 to 1839. The Portreath branch was constructed in 1837 and was intended to capture the trade of the rich mines in the district north of Carn Brea.
In 1829 Joseph Thomas Austen (later changing his name to Treffry) opened a canal from Par to the foot of Penpillick Hill, later to be extended to Ponts Mill. This connected via an inclined plane and tramroad to the rapidly expanding Fowey Consols copper mine. Ten years later work began on another incline (also to be worked by water wheel) and tramroad through Carmears woods and across the viaduct/aqueduct which spanned the Luxulyan Valley. After leaving the viaduct the line terminated at Molinnis near Bugle. In 1844 Treffry turned his attention to the north coast and constructed a railway from Newquay harbour to St Dennis with a branch to East Wheal Rose. The line was completed in 1849 and was the beginning of what was to become the Cornwall Minerals Railway.
Liskeard and Caradon Railway (1844 - 1915)
This railway was started in 1844 and linked the Liskeard & Looe Union Canal at Moorswater to South Caradon Mine. In 1846 the line was extended to Minions and Cheesewring Quarry via a long incline at Gonamena. Further extensions took place over the years including the incorporation of the Kilmar Railway and a route around Caradon Hill, taking in more productive mines such as East Caradon and Marke Valley Mine, and avoiding the Gonamena incline. By the late 1850s the canal was proving to be inadequate, due to the increasing traffic, and so the canal company constructed a railway – mostly built on the bed of the canal. This gave the railway a direct route to the port of Looe.
The East Cornwall Mineral Railway
The first turf of the Tamar, Kit Hill and Callington Railway was cut in 1863, and the line was completed as the East Cornwall Minerals Railway in 1872. The line connected the mines in the Kit Hill-Gunnislake area with the port of Calstock. The railway above Calstock (worked by two steam locomotives) was connected to the Calstock quays and the River Tamar by a rope-worked single track incline with a passing loop at its mid-way point. The line was taken over in 1901 by the Plymouth, Devonport & South Western Junction Railway. The Calstock viaduct was built in 1907; subsequently the Calstock incline was abandoned and a 15-ton wagon lift was constructed against one of the viaduct piers. This was dismantled and sold for scrap in 1934.
The Pentewan Railway (1829)
The Pentewan Railway was built by Sir Christopher Hawkins primarily for china clay traffic, although there was however a siding near London Apprentice that served Polgooth Mine. It was not until 1874 that a locomotive replaced horses. The silting of the harbour at Pentewan combined with the reluctance of the clay companies to transport their clay by horse and cart to the terminus at St Austell brought about the closure of the line in 1918.
Other notable railways
Other railways constructed in Cornwall and west Devon to link developing industrial areas to the coast were: the Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway (1834); the Newquay to St. Dennis line (1849) with its branch to the Newlyn East lead mines; the Ponts Mill to Par Harbour line (1851) replacing the Par canal; and the line linking Devon Great Consols to Morwellham Quay (1857).
Click here to view a map of the mining trails in central Cornwall.
Learn more ...
If you want to delve even deeper into Cornish mining, you may wish to visit the 'Dig Further' page for details of archives, information sheets, a bibliography and more...