Ffestiniog Railway: Queen of the Narrow Gauge


1. Porthmadog Quay 6. Blaenau
2. Quarry Engine 7. Fairlie's Patent
3. The Longest Grade 8. Downhill Run
4. On Dwyryd's Flank 9. Evening Chores
5. Deviation


One: Porthmadog Quay


Shooing the automobiles out of its way, my Central Trains diesel car picked its way delicately across the aged road-rail trestle over the Afon Dwyryd. Herons stood watch in the marsh grasses below, waiting to harvest fish and crabs from the rich tidal waters where the river met the sea. The trestle was my landmark-- time to gather my things, and prepare to alight at Minffordd for my connection with the Ffestiniog Railway.  There was an easier connection available just one stop further down the line at Porthmadog, but I was in the mood for a morning's walk, and time to think about the adventures which awaited me. Mounting the ramp from the standard-gauge platform to the narrow-gauge depot above, I nodded a hello in passing to the FR's Minffordd Station and then set out hiking down the road to the railway's terminal in Porthmadog.            


As I walked, I thought about the railway lines I had ridden so far in Wales.  Each was remarkable, and any one of them would have been worth the transatlantic trip from the States. Yet today's journey would be different, for the Ffestiniog Railway is something truly special: it is, quite simply and incontrovertibly, the Queen of the Narrow-gauge.  Completed in 1836, the Ffestiniog began life as horse-drawn mineral railway. Then, in 1863, the FR introduced its first steam locomotive. Steam traction revolutionized the economics of the line, and caught the eye of the master Victorian engineer, promoter, gadfly, and narrow-gauge railway advocate Robert Fairlie. Soon Fairlie was promoting the little Welsh railway throughout the world as the new, cost-efficient railway of the future. Delegations from as far away as Russia and the United States all came to Porthmadog, and were escorted by Fairlie and the FR management through the shops and up the line to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Fairlie's indomitable spirit and advocacy persuaded many of them to launch similar projects. The result was "narrow-gauge fever"-- the boom in light-railway construction which swept around the world during the 1870s and 1880s. The spiritual antecedents of the great narrow-gauge lines of my own country-- the Silverton Train, the Cumbres and Toltec, the East Broad Top-- lay right here, along the Ffestiniog rails. 


All this lay in the back of my mind as I strolled down the hills and then out along the Cob, the great earthen dam which carried the railway and highway across the old valley of the Afon Glaslyn and into Porthmadog. The Cob and the railway-- these two together created Porthmadog.  Begun as a land reclamation project by absentee English developer W.A. Madocks, the Cob diverted the course of the River Glaslyn and scoured out a natural harbor on the north end of the dam-- Port Madoc, later transliterated as Porthmadog. Soon coastal sailing ships were calling regularly at the quay, a man-made island adjoining the new harbor. Meanwhile, investors bent on exploiting the vast slate deposits high in the mountains at Blaenau Ffestiniog began eyeing Port Madoc as an outlet for their commodity. What was needed was a railway connecting the two-- a mineral road to carry slate from the mines to the sea. The Ffestiniog Railway was born. 


Things change, yet sometimes with hard work and dedication one can hold back the clock, at least for a time and space. Porthmadog Quay is such a place. The tall, thin rails of the Ffestiniog mainline swung off the Cob and fanned out into a broad six-track yard studded with long rakes of carriages.  Behind the cars stood the same sprawling stone station building which had served the line since 1880s, roofed of course in Blaenau slates. Harbor waters still lapped at the quayside. All that lacked to make the scene 1898 rather than 1998 were the tall masts of the coastal freighters, the shouts of stevedores loading slate into the holds, and the whistle and pant of steam railway locomotives. Nothing could be done to bring back the sailing ships, but the railway engines-- these the Ffestiniog could supply. 



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All materials, images, text and presentation copyright 1998 Erik Gray Ledbetter.  See Terms of Use.