Cornwall’s first true railway?

Which was Cornwall’s first railway? The first steam-powered railway was the Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway of 1834. But it’s been argued that the accolade must go instead to the Redruth and Chacewater Railway. This opened on January 30th, 1826 and the wagons running on it had flanged wheels, like railway carriages nowadays. This contrasted with the earlier Portreath tramway, which had L-shaped rails and wagons with ordinary wheels.

Confusingly, the Redruth and Chacewater Railway did not go near one of the settlements in its title. The planned section to Chacewater was never built although earthworks were begun in 1853. Neither did the Redruth and Chacewater Railway reach Redruth itself until a year after its opening. But by 1827 the full nine miles of the line, from St Day Road in Redruth to Point Quay on the Fal estuary, was in operation.

The line climbed south out of Redruth to almost 600 feet above sea level as it skirted the edge of Carn Marth. It then fell to the village of Carharrack and from there through the mines towards its destination at the new quays built at Devoran. The main customers for the railway were the copper mines of Gwennap plus Wheal Buller to the south-west of Redruth. Their ore was carried to the port while timber for the mines and coal for their steam engines was brought up the line.

The section of the line in 1877 leading south from Carharrack up the hill towards Redruth

The line was built to the four-foot gauge common in the mineral railways of South Wales and North East of England. Because of this it was never linked directly to the standard gauge system. Nor did it take passengers. At least not officially, as some miners and others were reputed to have hitched rides to and from work on its trains. This was quite easy because the trains never travelled that quickly, or at least not on the steeper parts of the line. In any case for the first 30 years of its life, horses were used to pull the wagons.

In 1854 two small locomotives were purchased and a third added in 1859. On the steepest, 1 in 35 section from Carharrack up the hill to Carn Marth and Wheal Buller, these engines could only manage to haul a maximum of four or five wagons as they laboured up the incline, spewing smoke and sparks as they did so. On the down journey, the speed of the descending train was limited to eight miles an hour on this section and just five mph through the village.

In its glory days, around five or six trains a day might pass in each direction. At first the main freight carried was copper ore. However, this peaked in the 1830s, after which the company suffered competition from the Hayle Railway, forerunner of the modern rail route through west Cornwall. From that point coal for the mines and for the growing domestic market took over as the main traffic, peaking in the mid-1860s.

From the 1870s, the closure of the mines in the Gwennap district heralded a long, drawn-out struggle to survive. By the 1890s, on most days just one train each way was required, while the deteriorating track led to an increased number of minor derailments. The railway, with its staff in the 1890s of 20 or so working on the line and in the repair shops at Devoran, became a curious leftover from Cornwall’s industrial period.

The line entering Carharrack around 1900

In September 1915, the inevitable could not be staved off any longer and the last train puffed its way along the line. Parts of the track and its associated buildings were bought by locals. Some was grassed over, some built on. Nonetheless a few sections can still be traced on the ground, a handful of the 50,000 granite blocks used in its construction still providing a mute reminder of its passing.

4 thoughts on “Cornwall’s first true railway?

  1. A beguiling account which really highlights how much effort went into the railways for a short-lived industrial phenomenon. It must have been wonderful to see the trains chugging through the villages and to catch a ride. I love the photograph – looks like everyone is in their Sunday best – a sassy young woman to the right. When my parents bought their house there were two wagon wheels exactly like those in the photographs which we still have out in the garden and a horseshoe poked into a wall – memory of a loved horse surely. It’s a great photograph – surprising number of people. I counted 13 for sure then perhaps another …


  2. Dear Bernard, I don’t suppose you have the next section of the railway map as you go through Carharrack. That piece would include our old house. We found this article most interesting. The old Steam Engine public house is now a private dwelling and in the 1950’s was occupied by a reclusive lady names Miss Congdon.


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