The Park Bridge tramway is one of several early colliery railways to be found on the Lancashire coalfield. 1.5 km long (just under a mile), and of 2ft 4in gauge, the horse-drawn tramway followed the eastern bank of the River Medlock and took wagon loads of coal from Rocher Vale colliery (SD 943 023), and later iron from the Park Bridge ironworks, to the terminus of the Ashton Canal at Fennyfield Bridge (SD 934 017), a descent of roughly 25m. Horse drawn tramways using wooden rails go back many centuries but during the later eighteenth century iron rails were developed as a way of increasing the reliability of such tramways to cope with increasing coal production. These technical developments, combined with the increasing use of bridges, cuttings, embankments, and tunnels, allowed bigger loads to be transported over greater distances to the nearest navigable waterway. Colliery tramways were a common site on the Lancashire coalfield in the early 19th century.
The history and route of the Park Bridge tramway was investigated as part of the Tameside Archaeological Survey from 2000 to 2007, with excavation work undertaken in 2001. The construction date of the tramway belongs to the years around 1800. The Fairbottom Coal Company’s mine at Fairbottom Bobs was working when the Ashton Canal opened as far as the Fennyfield Bridge terminus in 1797. The canal terminus provided a convenient outlet for the coal mined from the nearby pit, which like the canal lay on the western side of the River Medlock. The company’s collieries in Rocher Vale, however, lay c. 1km to the north-east of the canal terminus and would have required a tramway to get goods to and from the canal quickly and easily. These collieries are first recorded in 1804 when there was already a steam engine pumping water, which presumably had been there for a number of years. The earliest map to show the tramway is an annotated edition of the 1765 Ashton-under-Lyne estate map. The map shows the line of the tramway from Fennyfield Bridge to Rocher Vale and it is annotated as ‘Railway’. At its southern end the tramway began near the foot of Keb Lane just west of where the Ashton Canal (also shown) ended and Fennyfield Bridge was located. The date of these annotations is unclear. However, a deed of 1803 for the building of the Top Forge at Park Bridge has a plan of the area but does not show the line of the tramway. This would have run along the southern edge of the land to be used for the forge but on the opposite, south-eastern, bank of the River Medlock. Although not conclusive proof, taken with the earliest evidence for the use of the coal pits at Rocher Vale, it strongly suggests that the tramway belongs to the years immediately after 1804. The next known map to show the line is Hennet’s map of Lancashire, surveyed in 1828 to 1829. It also occurs on a small-scale map of Ashton from 1831.
The Ordnance Survey map of 1847 (published 1848) shows the line of the tramway in detail. The tramway began opposite Dock Pit on the northern side of the Ashton Canal where there were canal buildings, coke ovens, and a boat yard. A short extension crossed the canal and river to the south-west giving access to the coal mines at Dock Pit. The main route of the tramway saw the line cross the river over Fennyfield Bridge and follow the eastern bank of the River Medlock. Another short line branched to the east towards the houses at Tanpitfield Row and presumably the coal pits in this area. The main line of the tramway continued north-eastwards following the River Medlock to Wellington Pit, where a third branch striking north-west gave access to that colliery. The main route now turned at 90 degrees to the east and the tramway entered the first of two short tunnels to taking it through a steep rocky headland overlooking the site of the old cornmill and the point where Sheepwashes Brook joined the River Medlock. This stretch ran for roughly c. 60m before briefly emerging below and to the north of Althill Road opposite the Lower Forge complex. The line disappeared into a second tunnel, for c. 35m, before emerging east of Althill Road and opposite the site of the Top Forge. Here there was a steep incline climbing more than c. 20m within a 200m length, before reaching the top of the valley side and turning another 90 degrees northwards to finish at the site of Rocher Vale pit.
There are two notable features along this short route. Firstly, writing in 1904 Joseph Newton noted that for part of its course the wagons might have been pulled by a chain system, normally used for steeper gradients. Almost certainly, the location for this would have been north-east of Althill Lane. Here is a steep section of incline, roughly 200m long. A winding engine would have been needed at the top of the incline, south and opposite Rocher Vale pit. Two small rectangular buildings are shown at this very spot on the both the 1847 OS first edition six inch map and the 1863 revision. These are absent on the 1879 OS map – perhaps the Ashtonian was powerful enough to manage the Althill incline on its own?
Secondly, the route includes two short stretches of tramway tunnel. Survey work in 2001 confirmed that these survived. Surviving stone arched entrances were located at the eastern end of both tunnels, Access was gained to the eastern end of the western tunnel and showed that the tunnel entrance was 1.70m wide and 2.9m high. The entrance arch was constructed of well coursed and worked stone blocks which formed a flat arch. Bonded into the north side of the entrance was a triangular buttress. This was possibly constructed to give support to the north (downslope) side of the tunnel which would have been subject to pressures exerted by slippage of the hillside. At a later date a brick wall had been added to the north face of the buttress wall. Projecting from the south side of the entrance was roughly coursed stone wall. This wall survived from the base of the tunnel arch to level with the spring of the tunnel arch. Its purpose was probably to protect the open section of tramway between the two tunnels from debris and soil slipping down the hillside. Although it was not possible to physically enter the tunnel it was possible to take photographs of the interior. These show the c. 15m of this section of tunnel to be constructed of the same well coursed stonework as the arch. There was a slight indication from the photographs that bricks may have been used in some places, possibly for repairs. There was no indication that any rail tracks survived within the tunnel.
Excavations outside the entrance of the second, eastern, tunnel revealed an in situ length of iron tramway track 2ft 4in wide and 5.40m long adjacent to an area of cobbles. Most of the south half of the trench was taken up by these tramway tracks. These were represented by two parallel sets of wrought iron rails which ran west to east for 5.40m. Each line comprised two rails. The two western tracks of each rail were 2.80m long the two eastern ones were 2.60m long. The I-section iron rails uncovered almost certainly belong to the mid-nineteenth century. 5m to the east of this a hand dug trench also contained sections of tramway tracks as well as what seem to be tramway sleepers.
The tramway was horse-drawn until the early 1860s when the steam locomotive Ashtonian was introduced. Joseph Newton, writing in the Ashton Reporter newspaper in 1904 noted that ‘After lowering the floor a little [of the tunnel]…men were soon at work laying the line of rails of a desired gauge to suit the existing dimensions of the tunnel. In 1859-60 a small locomotive engine named the Ashtonian, driven by Mr Samuel Kay, began to run to and from Rocher and Holm collieries to the companies [sic] canal depots with coal and other requisites in connection with the various mines. The engine made to allow of safe clearance in the tunnel worked on four low wheels and could not travel very fast. The chimney was detachable and the driver, Samuel Kay, a rather low man, would pull it off and drop on his knees at the levers of the engine prior to entering the tunnel’. This account of the arrival of steam locomotives in the valley is supported by Alfred Bennett, who wrote in 1927 in his reminiscences, entitled The Chronicles of Boutlon’s Sidings, that the ‘Ashtonian was a tiny 0-4-0 saddle tank, designed and built by Mr I. W. Boulton in 1865, to order of Leese & Booth of Fairbolton [sic – presumably for Fairbottom] colliery, Ashton-under-Lyne, who required a locomotive to work a 3ft. 6in track and small enough to go through a diminutive tunnel, 5ft. wide and 6ft. high, under a hill which divided their workings…’ This engine is reputed to have cost £350. It should be noted that the date of the engine is later than that quoted by Newton, whilst that the track gauge does not match that recovered by the fieldwork in 2001, suggesting that Newton’s account is more reliable.
Although the Oldham, Ashton and Guide Bridge Railway was opened through Park Bridge in 1861, and a station built, the tramway continued in use until the Rocher Colliery closed. The tramway itself continued to evolve. Both the Dock Pit and Tanpitfield Row branches are absent from the 1863 Six Inch OS map revision for the area. Perhaps the pits in these areas were worked out by this date. According to a number of letters written by Samuel Lees IV the south-western stretch of the tramway west of Fennyfield Bridge was abandoned and rebuilt as a roadway as far as the coke ovens in the period 1877-8. The northern end of the tramway course, which finished at Rocher Colliery, is still shown on the OS map surveyed in 1879 (though not published until 1885). However, since this map also shows the tramway west Fennyfield Bridge when it is known that it had been abandoned it is unclear whether the line was still in use. If it was, it was probably abandoned by the time that the last pit at Rocher Vale closed, in 1886-7. The tramway line is absent from the OS six inch map revision of 1891 (published in 1895), replaced by standard gauge railway sidings built east of the Park Bridge Station, giving access to the newly built Top Forge, west of Rocher Vale Pit and north of the River Medlock.
The line of the tramway can still be followed today as a pleasant walk. The stretch between Fennyfield Bridge, the ruinous canal terminus, and the site of the Park Bridge Bright Shop, is long and flat and appropriately called Wagon Road. This road was built at the end of the 19th century and follows the tramway alignment. In late spring it’s lined with wild garlic, the bluest of forget-me-nots, and overhanging trees just bursting into bud. The northern-eastern section has to be sort along the craggy escarpment below Althill road, which winds along the southern bank of the River Medlock, past the romantic ruins of the Park Bridge roller works and the surviving Lower Forge buildings. Branching off onto Mill Brow, access to the tramway can be gained opposite the Old Post Office (in origin an 18th century weaver’s cottage) where a path follows the southern bank of the river. Here can be found exposed tramway lines excavated in 2001 and then there is a stiff walk up the incline, at the top of which you are rewarded with a view of Rocher Vale, its gorge and the ruinous colliery pumping engine house. On a quiet day you can almost hear the Ashtonian puffing mightily to get to the top.