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Discover the Great Laxey Mines Railway's Ant & Bee Locomotives
Re-birth of a lost 19” gauge mine railway
Great Laxey Mines Railway - A Brief History. InSeptember 2004 saw the re-birth of yet another 'lost' Manx railway system. While the Isle of Man is noted for its unique three-foot gauge railways and tramways; this narrow gauge sanctuary in the Irish Sea was also home to many other narrow gauge railways as well. Perhaps the best known of all these is the little two-foot gauge Groudle Glen Railway, which was restored back into working order in the 1980s by the Isle of Man Steam Railway Supporters.
Many of the other Manx narrow gauge systems on the island have not been so fortunate, and have simply been lost in the mists of time. One of these railways was the 19inch gauge Great Laxey Mines Railway used to transport ore from the main adit, close to the famous Laxey Wheel, to the washing floors further down the valley. The original railway dates from around the 1850s, and was initially worked by manpower alone.
As production increased in the mid-1870s, two tiny steam locomotives took over. The pair of Lewin Engine Co. 0-4-0T engines 'Ant' and 'Bee', dating for 1875, hauled material in open tipper wagons from the mines down to the washing floor in what is now the Laxey Valley Gardens. The line above ground was only approximately ½ mile long; however, there are no exact records of how far the line extended underground, but it is believed that could have been up to two miles of track below ground.
Small mining operations in the Laxey Valley began around 1781, and the Laxey Mining Company was formed in 1848. The peak of output from the lead, copper and zinc mines in the Laxey area was in 1892, but this was followed by a slow decline and eventual closer in 1929. Since closer, all traces of the railway has long since disappeared, apart from the overgrown trackbed and a disused 100-foot long tunnel, which runs under the main Douglas to Ramsey coast road.
The railway originally exited the mine's main adit, which was just below the famous Laxey Wheel, and ran along the north bank of the river, passing under both the main Douglas to Ramsey coast road and the Manx Electric Railway by means of the 100ft long tunnel. On the other side of the tunnel was the tippers above the crushing and washing floors, where the ore was tipped out of the wagons into stone built sloping bunkers below. A short branch leads off to a stone lean-to engine shed.
The main adit, which the railway uses, runs for approximately two miles underground. However, the railway itself only runs as far as the Dumbells shaft (1110 yards approx from entrance), which is also the deepest shaft at a depth of 2,100 ft from the surface, or equivalent height of the Island's tallest peak Snaefell mountain. Horses originally pulled the wagons out of the main adit, which was also know as the 'horse level'. This became the 'engine level' once steam traction arrived in 1875.
The restrictive nature of the mines meant that the driver of the locomotives had to remain seated whilst travelling underground or traversing the road/rail tunnel at the other end of the line. The two engines were modified a few years later with larger tanks and the rear frames extended to allow the driver to sit further away from intense heat of the firebox. In service, the engines hauled six or seven full wagons at a time, and over 200 wagons were in use in the mine.
Resurrection and re-birth of the Laxey Mines Railway
The resurrection and re-building of the Laxey Mines Railway was the brainchild of the Richard Booth and Captain Stephen Carter of the Laxey & Lonan Heritage Trust. Up to 1999, the Manx Electric Authority had a large transformer located in the former tramway's tunnel under the main road and Manx Electric Railway, which had prevented any possibilities of reconstructing the line; however, once the transformer was removed, it gave the green light to the trust to plan to re-build of this unique tramway. The impetus that drove the project was to have the tramway re-built and running in time for the 150 celebrations of the world famous Laxey Wheel in September 2004.
The pair of replica Stephen Lewis 0-4-0T locomotives ‘Ant' and ‘Bee’ were built by Great Northern Steam Services in Middlesbrough. It was originally hoped that ‘Bee’ would be built in 1875 as-built condition, and ‘Ant’ in a later modified condition; however, they were both delivered in original condition. The first of the 19in gauge replica Stephen Lewis 0-4-0T locomotives 'Ant' arrived on island at Easter, followed by 'Bee' was delivered a few months later on 20 July. A steel man-rider carriage was also delivered at the same time as 'Bee' to allow passengers safe transit through the extremely tight tunnel section of the railway.
The Laxey Mines Railway was officially opened on 27 September 2004, as part of the Laxey Wheels 150 celebrations, by the Isle of Man's Tynwald Parliament member Steve Rodan, who is also the chairman of the Laxey & Lonan Heritage Trust. Since opening, the railway has extended towards the main adit, and the whole are developed into a heritage trail. In addition to the engine shed, a carriage shed has been added to tunnel end of the line to provide safe storage of all the rolling stock, and project is currently under way to build a proper station area for passengers.
Remember, this was originally a mineral line only, with no passenger faculties at all. Both engines were sent off the island in 2007 for various modifications and improvements similar to the original 'Ant' and 'Bee', and a second carriage has been purchased to allow two trains to run at same time. The restored Great Laxey Mines Railway is a new railway, and its story is still developing.
© David Lloyd-Jones 2010
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