The International Steam Pages

Ponta Delgada and the Broad Gauge Harbour Railways

James Waite reports - there are pictures from his visit and other relevant images at the end of the text. Apart from the link within the article, previous web reports may be of interest, the first includes pictures of the demolished water tower:

Keith Downing has been in touch (3rd October 2014) having been to Ponta Delgada at a time when road works had exposed a section of track which might even be traditional Brunel 'bridge rail'. In the UK, when the Great Western Railway was regauged, much of the rail was recycled and it is often still seen today used for fencing and 'boundary markers'.

I recently made a 24-hour business trip to Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel in the Azores and while there was able to visit the harbour workshops to see the two old broad gauge locos (yes, Brunel's GWR 7ft 0 1/4 inch gauge, the real thing!!) which have been rusting away since the breakwater railway there closed in 1973, some 81 years after broad gauge working ceased on the GWR. They’re the only broad gauge locos to have survived apart from GWR no. 2180 “Tiny”, the vertical-boilered shunter which it inherited when it took over the South Devon Railway in 1876. “Tiny” survived thanks to spending many years as a stationary engine in Newton Abbot works. It’s good that these three locos are still around to be enjoyed though “Tiny” is, if anything, even less typical of the GWR’s magnificent broad gauge main line locos than the two at Ponta Delgada! They complement well the replica GWR machines now on show at Didcot, the NRM at York and the GWR museum at Swindon. You can read more about Brunel's broad gauge locomotives here - This is North Star at Swindon, the oldest of the replicas and which incorporates some parts of the original which was originally preserved and then scrapped in an act of total vandalism. :

The building at Ponta Delgada in which the locos live is the old workshop where they were looked after during their working days. The railway was built in 1861 in connection with the building of an enormous breakwater there which began that year and finished around the end of the 1800's. Its purpose was to transport the stone used to build the breakwater from a quarry a short distance inland. The railway was used only sporadically from then on, mostly for extensions or repairs to the breakwater and also for the infilling of a small portion of the harbour between 1948 and 1954 to allow for the construction of a new waterside main road through the town.

The history of the broad gauge harbour railways goes back to 1847 at the latest, or quite possibly a little earlier. In 1847 the Admiralty authorised the construction of breakwaters at Holyhead, Portland and Alderney. The consulting engineer for the Holyhead and Portland schemes was James Meadows Rendel who came from the West Country and had already overseen the building of a pier at Millbay Docks in Plymouth. It’s reported that the method of construction which he adopted for the two new projects was a development of that which he had used at Plymouth. Essentially it involved building a temporary wooden trestle from which stone was tipped around the trestle to form the permanent breakwater structure. At both locations broad gauge railways were used to bring the stone from nearby quarries on to the trestles.

The precise details of the Millbay project and whether it also involved the use of a broad gauge railway are less clear. Rendel is reported as having been a co-owner of a dock on the western side of Millbay and in 1840 an Act of Parliament authorised one Thomas Gill, a Plymouth landowner, to construct Millbay Pier on its eastern side and to deepen the harbour. The pier was complete by 1844 and the following year Millbay received a visit from Brunel’s celebrated ship the SS Great Britain.

Gill was also the chairman of the South Devon Railway whose broad gauge railway from Exeter to Plymouth, with Brunel as its engineer, was authorised in 1844. Its line didn’t reach Millbay station in Plymouth until 1848 and wasn’t extended the short distance to the docks until 1849 or 1850. In the meantime the Plymouth Great Western Dock Act 1846 authorised the sale of the docks and pier to a new company which also appointed Brunel as its engineer. Clearly the building of Millbay pier took place several years before the broad gauge main line reached Plymouth though it must have been obvious that it was coming and so the broad gauge would have been a natural choice for Rendel – or maybe it was just that it was obviously more suitable than any narrower gauge for carrying large blocks of stone..

The contractors at Holyhead were J&C Rigby. Their work took many years and wasn’t completed until 1873. The job at Portland was almost as lengthy and wasn’t completed until the previous year. In the meantime one of Rendel’s other jobs was the design of a new harbour at Cape Town for which he was appointed in 1854. He never visited South Africa and entrusted the detailed survey to his former pupil John Coode who had been the resident engineer at Portland from the start. Rendel died two years later whereupon Coode was appointed engineer-in-chief for the Cape Town project. Coode went on to design a second South African harbour, this time at East London and another one at Port Erin in the Isle of Man. Broad gauge railways were used at all three locations.

Construction of the breakwater at Ponta Delgada began on 30th September 1861. The consulting engineer was Sir John Rennie and the work was carried out using direct labour engaged by the harbour authority without any external contractors being involved. There was, however, a strong Holyhead connection from the start and J&C Rigby appear to have acted as agents for the supply of machinery and equipment. Maybe it was their influence and their experience at Holyhead which led to the adoption of the broad gauge for the breakwater railway. Details of quite what equipment they supplied are sketchy but it included either two or more probably three newly-built Neilson 0-4-0T’s, a large cast iron water tank and two lathes. Rigby’s weren’t backwards in advertising their involvement in the Ponta Delgada project. The water tank and the lathes were fitted with large cast iron plates to that effect and one of the Neilson locos which survived until the 1960’s is also reported to have carried a more modest plate.

At least one further loco arrived in the 1860’s. Local reports over many years suggest that it came second hand from Holyhead but its identity is something of a mystery. Six locos were supplied to the Holyhead line in about 1852 by RB Longridge & Co, the Northumberland firm which had been building locos since 1838. They were the last of the firm’s products and it ceased production the following year.

After the harbour at Holyhead was completed in 1872 one loco, Longridge 309/1852, was kept at Holyhead for use in maintenance work. Four were sold to IW Boulton, the proprietor of the well-known Boulton’s Siding where they were converted to stationary or winding engines and sold on for further service while the sixth was reported to have been sold for further service in South America. If this is right it would be the only known instance of a 7ft gauge railway there. Another possibility of course is that it actually went to Ponta Delgada and not to South America, if only because both places would have been in the same general direction for someone starting out from Wales! Longridge 309 remained in service until the Holyhead line was converted to standard gauge in 1913 and then languished out of use until it was scrapped as late as 1945. Fortunately by then it had been well photographed.

The Portland railway used six 0-4-0WT’s supplied by EB Wilson, mostly if not all in the 1850’s. Four of these also went to IW Boulton after the breakwater there was completed in 1873. One had gone to Port Erin when construction of the breakwater there began under Coode’s direction in 1864 and another, named “Queen” to the Torbay & Brixham Railway (which became the GWR’s Brixham branch) in 1868. Photos of both survive on these lines.

A set of old photos hangs in the corridor of the harbour authority’s office at Ponta Delgada and several of them show the railway. One of the quandaries about the locos there is that two of the photos show a loco which was clearly neither one of the Longridge locos supplied to Holyhead nor one of the Wilsons at Portland. In 2007 Frank Jux published a note in issue no. 125 of the Industrial Locomotive Society’s magazine about a report he had come across in the 1st December 1849 issue of the Railway Chronicle. It contains a report that a tank loco had been tested at Adams & Co’s Fairfield Works at Bow, east London and that it had been designed by one Thomas Gray, engineer to C&J Rigby, and was intended for service at Holyhead. No less a person that Daniel Gooch, then the CME of the GWR, attended the test, the only firm indication I have seen that anyone from the GWR had anything to do with the harbour railways or their locos. Maybe this is the loco which ended up second hand at Ponta Delgada and is shown in the harbour authority’s photos.

The Ponta Delgada breakwater wasn’t completed until the early 1900’s. By then the harbour authority had bought the two locos which are still there now. They are both 0-4-0ST’s, Black Hawthorn 766/1883 and Falcon 165/1888 – the latter, coincidentally, being built in the same year as “Great Western” and “Tornado”, the last in the long line of Daniel Gooch's magnificent 8ft 4-2-2's which had epitomised the GWR’s broad gauge for most of its existence. Unlike the Falcon they had a very short working life and were scrapped when the broad gauge was abolished only four years later.

These weren’t the first broad gauge locos to be built at either company’s premises. An early catalogue of Hughes at Loughborough, Falcon’s predecessors, refers to a loco supplied to the Cape Government in 1962 which very probably was for the Cape Town line. We’re on firmer ground with three locos built for Cape Town by Black Hawthorn, 642/1881, 646/1881 and 1079/1893. It’s tempting to think that their 1881 locos might have influenced the decision of the harbour authority at Ponta Delgada to buy no. 766 from them two years later. An inventory of the railway’s stock was taken in 1900, fairly shortly before completion of the breakwater. It includes five locos which suggests that out of the six presumed to have been delivered only one had gone.

The continued existence of the railway and its locos seems first to have brought to the attention of the gricing world by Dr. Fritz Stöckl, an Austrian enthusiast, in 1961 (see He and his family had been on a cruise around the Azores and discovered and measured the railway during a day ashore. He had the pleasure (or was it the frustration?!) of watching a loco making its way onto the breakwater as the ship was casting off and his wife and son were able to photograph it, seemingly from different positions on the ship. Subsequent correspondence with the harbour authority produced the information that three locos were still in stock. In addition to the Black Hawthorn, by then numbered 2, and the Falcon, no. 3, they included Neilson 0-4-0ST 697/1862.

The railway is next reported in 1966 by which time the Neilson appears to have gone. The quarry was located around 2km to the west of the town. It was filled in when the airport runway was extended. This required construction of a huge embankment which must have represented almost as great a civil engineering project as the breakwater had been in its day. Colin Garratt visited in 1982. By then the locos were standing in a scrapyard but their heritage value was recognised and they were later put on display outdoors. Here they suffered badly from exposure to the salty sea air – Ponta Delgada spends much of its time being buffeted by Atlantic winds. Around twelve years ago they moved back to the workshop where they are now.

Until recently the yard at Ponta Delgada must have remained largely unchanged for a century or more. It was dominated by the large, high-level cast iron water tank with Rigby's details and the Prince of Wales’s feathers prominently displayed. Very sadly this has now been demolished without any of the ironwork being conserved, the space being required for a modern building, which is now in course of construction. It is intended to provide new workshop facilities on its ground floor. Happily evidence of the Holyhead connection hasn't quite disappeared as the two lathes supplied through Rigby’s still remain in the workshop along with more modern machinery and still display their Holyhead origins.

The harbour authorities are still very much aware of the historic value of the locos and so with luck they will survive to be restored, at least statically, and eventually put on display. They certainly took on board my grumbling about the destruction of the water tower and the heritage importance of the old lathes as well as the locos.

As you'll see one of the locos, no. 3, Falcon 165/1888, has been partially dismantled with a view to restoration to working order but there's no funding for this. Much of the pipework etc. from the dismantled loco is now contained in the inspection pit under the locos and its saddletank stands behind the intact loco, no. 2, Black Hawthorn 766/1883. I was introduced to a gentleman named Jorge who told me that he'd been working in the workshop for 40 years and was still hoping one day to oversee their restoration.

My visit was arranged by Raquel Rego, a most helpful lady from the harbour authority’s office. I’m immensely grateful to both Raquel and Jorge for their help and for staying on late in the afternoon to show me round and to talk about the railway and its history.

A final note about the other lines. At Cape Town it wasn’t just the breakwater railway which was broad gauge; the railways throughout the harbour and on into the town were broad gauge as well until 1873 when most of them were converted to 3ft 6in and connected to the Cape Government Railway. The breakwater line and some miles of associated railway remained broad gauge until 1904 when the system was replaced by a 2ft gauge line – quite a contrast! At least two of its Black Hawthorn locos were converted to 3ft 6in gauge.

The Cape Town railway also had two Fletcher Jennings locos, no’s 128/1874 and 169/1879. FJ only ever built three broad gauge locos, the third being “Robin Hood”, works number 83/1868, which was a broad/standard gauge convertible 0-6-0T for the Severn & Wye Railway. However they weren’t the only FJ locos to run on the broad gauge since the Severn & Wye’s no’s 2 (FJ 53/1865 and 3 (FJ 54/1865) had been built in the days when the line was a 3ft 8in gauge tramway and were converted to broad gauge in 1868 for the brief period when it adopted broad gauge operation alongside the 3ft 8in gauge. They must have looked distinctly unusual running on a gauge almost twice as wide as that for which they were built! This period didn’t last long as four years later the railway and its locos were converted to standard gauge as part of the abolition of the broad gauge throughout Gloucestershire and South Wales.

Back in South Africa the East London line was built in 1872 and remained in use until converted to 3ft 6in, probably in 1907. It was worked by four vertical-boilered locos built by Chaplin of Glasgow between 1873 and 1879.

The Ponta Delgada line was not the only broad gauge railway in the Azores. In 1876 construction of a breakwater and harbour began at Horta, on Faial island. Once again there was an associated broad gauge railway for which Vulcan Foundry built three 0-4-0ST’s between 1876 and 1879. The photos in the corridor of the harbour authority’s office at Ponta Delgada include a fine photo of the first of them taken in 1882. They were followed by Black Hawthorn 1006/1890 whose main dimensions were the same as no. 2 at Ponta Delgada and it may well have been to the same design. The harbour works were finished around 1901 and it’s thought that the railway closed and was dismantled soon afterwards.

Nearer home the breakwater at Port Erin, begun back in 1864, was completed in 1876 by which time its ex-Portland Wilson loco had been sold on to IW Boulton. It had been the first steam loco to operate on the Isle of Man as the first of the IMR’s 3ft gauge lines, from Douglas to Peel, did not open until 1873. On the island it was named Henry B. Loch after the island’s governor who was later to give his name to IMR no. 4. The IMR’s second line, to Port Erin, opened the following year. Initially the intention had been to build it only to Castletown but it was extended to Port Erin to serve the new dock which the breakwater had made possible. Sadly this proved to be short-lived as the breakwater was destroyed by a severe storm in 1884 and was never rebuilt. It can still be seen at low tide and is also clearly visible on Google Maps. 

Back in the UK the Portland line had been isolated from the main line system until an Act of Parliament of 1871 authorised the building of a railway rather more than one mile long to connect it with the Weymouth & Portland line. The work wasn’t carried out until after the GWR lines around Weymouth had been converted to standard gauge in 1874, the work being finished two years later. The Portland line closed to passengers in 1952 and to all traffic in 1965. Presumably the harbour railways were dismantled soon afterwards. 

The Holyhead line was always isolated. Its conversion to standard gauge between 1911 and 1913 seems to have been precipitated by a need for extensive rebuilding of the breakwater. By then the quarry was in separate ownership, being run for many years by a firm named Wild. It seems that Wilds may have continued broad gauge working for a short period after the line along the breakwater proper had become standard gauge. The breakwater had by then become the property of the Board of Trade and two 0-4-0ST’s (Manning Wardle 1384/1898 and Andrew Barclay 1584/1917) were being used there. In 1934 the BoT relaid it with new rail and bought a new steam loco from Pecketts (1873/1934) along with a Drewry railcar and an electric crane. Responsibility for it passed to British Railways in 1948. 

In 1967 BR moved two diesel shunters to the line, AB 396/1956 and 397/1956, BR no’s D2954 and D2955. These obtained some notoriety amongst diesel enthusiasts after the introduction of the TOPS numbering system in 1974 when they became BR no’s 01.001 and 01.002. There was an arrangement under which the line was actually worked by Wilds using BR’s stock. BR and Wilds fell out over the price of stone which led Wilds to close the quarry. BR began to operate the breakwater section of the line themselves in 1976 to transport stone which was brought in by road from further afield. The line was last used in late 1979 or early 1980 and dismantling began in October 1980, bringing the story of these fascinating breakwater railways almost to a close.

Almost, but not quite! The third of the breakwaters whose construction began in 1847 was in Alderney. Rendel had no involvement here and the work was overseen by James Walker, an influential Scottish consulting engineer. One of his first major works had been the West Usk lighthouse at Newport which survives today as a distinctly unusual guest house. In 1845 he had published a report which damned Brunel’s proposal for a bridge across the Severn estuary. Maybe it should come as no surprise that at Alderney he spurned the broad gauge and instead built a standard gauge line to connect the site of the new harbour at Braye with a quarry two miles away in the north east of the island. 

The line remained in use both for maintaining the breakwater and for transporting stone from the quarry for export. In the winter of 1911 and 1912 a Peckett loco failed to stop when reaching the far end of the breakwater and fell into the sea, fortunately without loss of life. Ever since then locos working out over the breakwater have been required to carry lifebelts!

Immediately before the German occupation in 1940 the whole of the island’s civilian population was evacuated. The Germans used the island as a work camp for the infamous Organisation Todt. They lifted a part of the railway and replaced it by a 600mm gauge line. After the war the Admiralty, who by then were responsible for maintaining the breakwater, reinstated the standard gauge using modern concrete-sleepered track. 

By then the line was being worked by a Sentinel vertical-boilered loco named “Molly”. She was replaced in 1958 by a Ruston & Hornsby diesel loco which is still there now. Meanwhile the Alderney Railway Society, an enthusiast body, had negotiated terms to run trains over the two miles of track between the quarry and a point a little short of the breakwater. Operations began in 1980 and two years later the society bought 0-4-0ST “J.T. Daly” (Bagnall 2450/1931) from Allan Civil and started running steam services. I well remember taking a ride on the train behind it while we were attending a wedding on the island in 1986. The loco has now moved on to Jersey and is now one of several steam locos on display at the Pallot steam museum. The Alderney society now runs diesel-hauled trains of ex-London Underground tube cars. If only Rendel had got the job instead of Walker – then we might still have a working broad gauge railway! The picture below was taken during the visit referred to above:

Raquel asked me to stress that visitors to the depot at Ponta Delgada are most welcome. Ponta Delgada is a delightful town with fascinating old Portuguese architecture and the people I met were universally hospitable. The countryside is a vivid green with an abundance of wild flowers everywhere thanks to the mild climate. São Miguel used to have a flourishing orange trade but this collapsed in the 18th century when the trees were struck by disease. Alternative crops introduced soon after included tea on Europe’s only tea estate on the north coast, vines and pineapples on several farms around Ponta Delgada. These were introduced from Venezuela and are grown in glasshouses some of which are now more than 100 years old and are fascinating buildings in their own right. No-one would say that any of the islands are beach resorts and the climate can best be described as changeable. If it’s raining when you wake up the sun may well be shining an hour later! 

Much of this info comes from a series of very detailed articles by Derek Brown which appeared in issues 183 to 185 of the Industrial Railway Record. They are still in print and are essential reading for anyone wanting to know more about the broad gauge harbour railways.

No’s. 3, nearest the camera, and 2.

No. 2

No. 3

It’s well known that at dawn on April 9th, Brunel’s birthday, the sun shines directly through Box Tunnel as it rises, the only day when this happens. There are probably a few days leeway at Ponta Delgada but in mid-November the setting sun shines in through the workshop doorway and lights up the locos for a few minutes just before it sets. It’s a shame the locos aren’t facing the other way!

No. 3 still carries its Falcon builders plate on its right hand side and a plate from Julius G. Neville & Co who presumably must have been agents involved in the supply of the loco.

No. 2’s chimney. The initials on the plate probably refer to the Junta Administrativa das Obras do Porto Artificial de Ponta Delgada, the name of the harbour authority in the 19th century.

The two lathes carrying Rigby’s plates.

This cement mixer, mounted on a broad gauge wagon frame, is the only surviving piece of broad gauge rolling stock at Ponta Delgada apart from the two locos.

The breakwater seen from the east at dusk and looking down over the quayside to the left. Latterly the railway appears only to have run along the breakwater and its course is marked by the line of loose paving slabs. In the railway’s heyday there were also tracks on the quayside and one of the harbour authority’s photos shows a derrick leading from the high-level line over the quay apparently to enable stone to be loaded onto waiting ships.

Wagon wheels stored in the workshop.

Ponta Delgada’s rapidly changing weather leads to memorable sunsets. This is the view from the breakwater.

There’s a wealth of old buildings in the town centre. This is the church of São Sebastian with much baroque decoration though its oldest parts date back to the 1500’s when it was a Gothic structure. In the foreground are the old city gates.

This view over the caldera of a not-too-extinct volcano at Sete Cidades is probably the most photographed sight anywhere in the Azores. Here the islands’ rapidly changing weather from sunshine to rain and mist can be seen all at the same time along with the abundant green vegetation and the flowers which grow everywhere, though in November most of them were well past their best. The viewpoint is no more than around 20 minutes’ drive from Ponta Delgada.

Two views of the pineapple greenhouses at the Quinta das Três Cruzes in the outskirts of Ponta Delgada, one of several pineapple plantations still operating near the town.

Finally here are three more broad gauge locos, the first 'Tiny' at Buckfastleigh is an original, the second 'Firefly' and third "Iron Duke" at Didcot are replicas (the last picture is by the webmaster) :

Rob Dickinson