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Solway Firth Viaduct

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1. 1869. Viaduct over the Solway Firth.
2. 2019. Looking north from the embankment at Bowness-on-Solway
3. 2019.
4. 2019.
5. 2019.
6. 2019.
7. 2019.
8. 2019.
9. 2019.

The Solway Junction Railway was built by an independent railway company to shorten the route from ironstone mines in Cumberland to ironworks in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire.

James Brunlees was the engineer of the railway. The superintendent for the viaduct was A. McKenon, and the contractors were Waring Brothers and Eckersley.

The viaduct was 1940 yards (1 mile 8 chains, 1.8 km) long, crossing the Solway Firth between Bowness-on-Solway (Cumbria) and Annan (Dumfries & Galloway). It had 193 lattice girder spans of 30 ft, requiring 2,892 tons of cast iron and 1,807 tons of wrought iron. Every 5th (16th?) pier had a double set of iron columns. The cast iron was 'best light grey metal' mixed with scrap [wrought?] iron so as the satisfy the specified bending test requirement (a 1" square bar on supports 54" apart was to bear a weight of not less than 700 lbs).

The rails were 35 ft above low water, and the tidal range was 20ft.

Construction started in October 1865, and was completed in October 1868.

The first passenger train over the line (28 July 1870) was a 'special' from Aspatria to an agricultural show at Dumfries. A regular passenger service between Kirtlebridge and Brayton began on 8 August 1870. The station at Abbey Junction opened 31 August 1870

The Board of Trade required a 50-foot opening span to allow the passage of vessels, but Parliament was persuaded that traffic on the Firth was insignificant in comparison to the projected traffic over the viaduct, so the viaduct was built without provision for ships to pass through it, ending any commercial use of the harbour at Port Carlisle.

It was wide enough to take double track, but only single-track was laid. The greatest engineering difficulty on the line turned out not to be the construction of the viaduct, but the mile and a quarter section of line over Bowness Moss on the Cumberland side.

In the winter of 1874-5 longitudinal cracks appeared in a few columns, due to water entering and freezing. To prevent any repetition, half-inch holes were drilled just above the high-water mark.

In January 1881 sheets of ice up to 6" thick inches formed; fragments of these sheets rode over each other and froze together, leading to the formation of blocks of ice up to six feet. Rakers and load-bearing columns were damaged by the ice floes on the ebb tide. In some places where piers were completely swept away the spans remained in position, but there were two complete gaps in the bridge where piers, girders, plates and railway had completely disappeared.

Reconstruction of the viaduct began in summer 1882, and by August 1883 the work was sufficiently advanced that construction traffic was run over it. Passenger services over the line resumed on 1 May 1884.

Despite serious concerns about the deterioration by corrosion, the viaduct saw increased use in WW1 for iron-ore and pig-iron traffic from West Cumbria to Scotland. The creation of a large munition works at Eastriggs, to the east of Annan, gave the line additional traffic.

The line was closed in 1921.

In 1933 arrangements were made to demolish it. Arnott, Young and Company purchased the bridge and dismantled it, work being completed by November 1935. The section of railway between the south end of the viaduct and Kirkbride Junction was dismantled as part of the process.

The section of line between Abbey Junction and Brayton continued in use until 1933.

The above information is largely condensed from the excellent Wikipedia entry for the Solway Junction Railway and from The Engineer [1]

Today only the shore embankments remain, together with the remains of iron piers on the Cumbrian side. The shore embankment on the north shore is 154 yards long, and 440 yds long on the south side. They are made of clay and faced with large sandstone blocks 15-18" thick (photo 9).

Some Details

Each pier comprised cast iron columns of hollow cylindrical section, 12 inches diameter, with wrought iron tie bars. These were bolted to the columns using the bolt flange bolts (photo 8). The outer columns were raked, acting as buttresses to the inner load-bearing columns.

The columns were founded on iron tubular piles. The piles were intended to be screwed into the ground, but after many failed attempts it was decided to reject the screws and replace them with chilled cast iron points and driving the piles using Sissons and White's steam pile driver with a 25 cwt monkey with a 5 ft drop, working at 12 - 15 strokes per minute. The piles were driven easily to a depth of 17 - 18 ft, but 6 - 10 blows were required for the final inch. The ground was boulder gravel covered by sand.

Photos 5, 6, & 7 show examples of vertical and raked columns. The top vertical and raked column castings are identified by the letters D and D1 respectively. Referring to image 1, we see that each pier had four sections, presumably identified as 'A' (the piles) B, C and D. The lattice girders were seated on the top of the D columns, and photos 5 & 6 show that the bolt holes are slightly elongated, presumably to accommodate expansion.

It will be evident that the iron piles would all be driven in to different depths, while the columns would be made to standard lengths, begging the question of how the differences were accommodated. Image 1 shows the use of sockets to connect the piles to the lowest columns, so we must assume that the contractors had the unenviable task of cutting off the tops of all the driven piles to the same height.


Very few weeks — probably six — will now see the completion of the great engineering undertaking of forming a direct line of railway between the south of Scotland and the west coast of Cumberland by means of bridging the broad estuary of the Solway Firth. The earthworks are completed throughout, the masonry may likewise be said to be finished, the viaduct has been entire for some time, and the permanent way has been laid for sixteen out of the eighteen miles of the line. The principal work remaining to be done is ballasting, the formation of the junctions, and the stations. At the point where the railway crosses the Solway Firth, the distance from shore to shore is 2,544 yards, or a mile and between three and four furlongs. Of this stretch nearly 600 yards are composed of sea embankment, and the remaining 1,950 yards consist of the iron viaduct. The sea bank on the Scotch shore is seven chains long, and 28 feet deep at the extreme end where it joins the viaduct. On the Cumberland shore the sea bank measures 21 chains in length, and at the extreme end it is 29ft. deep. These banks have been a source of considerable anxiety in making, as the spring tides rise upon them 21 and 22 feet. The core of the banks is made with clay. The outside is then carefully puddled a depth of one foot; a layer of broken stones and quarry red averaging two feet in thickness is laid over the puddle; and upon the quarry red the pitching is set, the stones being from 15 to 18 inches deep. The Seafield bank on the north side of the Solway has been completed for some time, and the bank on the south or Cumberland shore is rapidly approaching completion.

'The principle upon which the viaduct is constructed shows great simplicity of design. The structure is built of wrought and cast iron. The wrought iron is used for the girders which span the bays, and likewise for the noes bracing which ciffens the whole structure. These bays or spans are 30ft. in length. The pillars that support the girders at intervals of 30ft. are composed of cast-iron. The foundations are piles about 20ft. long; but these vary according to the nature of the strata in which they are driven. They are 12in. in diameter, cast hollow, the thickness of the metal being 7-8ths of an inch. They were cast with a chilled point for driving, and were all driven at low water from barges fitted with patent pile-driving engines, the monkeys used for this operation weighing about 20 cwt. The levels of the foundation piles vary with the bed of the Solway. The lowest level is in the English Channel, where the top of the foundation piles is within 18in. of low water at spring tides; and the height from the foundation piles to the level of the rails is 38ft. Each pier is composed of six columns, of which the foundation or driving pile is the lowest; and the height from the foundation piles to the girders is made of of columns 9ft. in length, cast with flanges at their end, and bolted together at their junction, the faces being turned in lathes to ensure a perfect fit. Angle irons are placed between the columns, and the angle irons are again tied together by diagonal bracing. Although there are six foundation piles driven, five only are made use of for the single structule; but as the addition of a sixth is all that is required to enable the line to be doubled at any future perked, the Directors wisely determined to make this provision, the extra outlay being immaterial compared with what it would be to drive a single pile at each pier separately afterwards. The platform of the viaduct is covered with Mallet's patent buckled plates, which are riveted to the girders and to each other by strips of iron, this helping to give stiffness to the structure. The permanent way is laid on longitudinal timbers, bolted through to the two middle girders. The longitudinals are secured in their places by ties and transoms at intervals of ten feet. The rails are secured by cast iron chairs, spiked to the timbers. A light hand-rail, supported by cast iron standards, is fixed on both sides of the viaduct for its entire length.

'The original intention in erecting the viaduct was to have used screw piles for the foundation, but after fruitless trials and experiments extending over nearly six months, it was decided to adopt driving. In the trials and borings that were made it was found that the bed of the Solway is composed of very strong coarse gravel, interspersed with boulders and on the top of this gravel there is generally from five to six feet of sand, which is constantly being shifted with the currents of the Firth. In the experiments, screw piles were never got down more than 12ft. below the surface, and that with great labour and difficulty. In fact, the torsion was so great that the piles generally broke between 10ft. and 12ft. down. In driving, no difficulty was experienced in getting the piles down 17ft. and 18ft., although it required from six to ten blows of the monkey to drive them an inch at this depth. The whole of the piles had to be driven at low water, and the work was carried on as tidal work, night and day. Barges were constructed specially for the operations, and these were generally moored with four anchors, head and stern. In such an exposed estuary, accidents, of course, occurred—such as the barges being swamped—but, on the whole, the work was carried on with very few disasters, and only one life has been lost over the whole undertaking. The weather at some seasons rendered the work very difficult and dangerous; and the storms were occasionally so strong that the men could not hold on to the bridge to continue their work. On one occasion, in a heavy storm, two of the barges were lost; but they were afterwards recovered, along with their machinery.

'The total weight of cast iron in the viaduct is 2,892 tons, and of wrought iron 1,807 tons. The whole of the superstructure was erected without scaffolding. The piers, as we have said, were built from barges at low water, and the girders were carried over the top of the viaduct, and swung into their positions by means of travelling cranes. The erectors could generally put up a bay in a single day, without the cross bracing, which had to be fixed afterwards.

'The first commencement of the viaduct was in May, 1865, and the last girder was laid on the 27th July, 1888, by the Chairman of the Company. For a work of this enormous kind, the cost has been comparatively small, as it is expected that the total of spanning the Solway and forming the sea bank will not exceed £100,000.

'The viaduct is a straight line, and, in preserving this straight line, not only had the piers to be constructed 30 feet from centre to centre, but each pile had to maintain its relative lateral distance ; and when we consider that the whole of these piers were driven from barges, with intervals between, the work must be pronounced to have been remarkably well executed. Standing underneath the viaduct at the end of the sea-bank, and looking alone its entire length, the perspective between the cross-bracing and the angle- irons has a very good effect, and shows how true the lines are, as a faint glimmer of daylight can actually be seen at this far end. We may mention that every sixteenth pier is made double, to give stability and strength to the structure.

'The line touches the English shore a little to the West of the ones busy little bathing place Bowness. A windmill on a cliff overlooking the Firth is the prominent mark of the village seen from the Scotch shore. About a mile still farther up the Solway is Port Carlisle, now as lifeless and silent as any place well could he. The port is distant from the city of Carlisle about ten miles, and was formerly connected with it by a canal. Some ten or twelve years ago, on the formation of the Carlisle and Silloth line, the canal was drained off, and the railway to Silloth was laid in the bed of it, as far as Drumhurgh, a branch to the port being constructed from that junction, and still continued in the old channel. Previous to this time, two steamers were plying weekly between the port and Liverpool, and a large coaling trade was carried on. The opening up of the new port of Silloth did not increase the trade of Port Carlisle, and what little has been left in recent years seems to have wholly departed. The viaduct of the Solway Junction has shut up the little place entirely within itself. Sea communication west of the viaduct is quite cut of except for small boats, as the bridge is a barrier to all shipping passing up the Firth, and the structure shutting out both the Cumberland and Scotch ports. Port Carlisle is confined to a basin which, except for fishing and sea-bathing is of little practical service to it. The Solway Junction Company, however, have powers to make a branch to the Port, and, should this be carried out, the increased railway accommodation may have good effect.

'The first notable portion of the works on touching the English shore is the bridge and approach carrying the public road over the railway, near to which is the ground which the Company have set apart for a station to accommodate the district. By the side of the line a deep drain is cut, which is the main drain for carrying the water from the north end of Bowness Moss. There are two short cuttings in the clay, and 27 chains from the Solway the line enters Bowness Moss. This extends rather more than a mile and three quarters. The first mile and a quarter of this moss was in a very unreclaimed state when the Company began their operations upon it. Horses could not go upon it, and, except in the height of summer, cattle even could not traverse it. The Company have cut drains, at one chain each, along each side of their line along the whole extent of the moss. The operations have therefore been very extensive, nearly 100,000 yards having been excavated from the drains. Cross drains are likewise cut, at intervals of half a chain each along the entire length of the moss. Faggots are used for laying the road wherever the moss is in such a state as to require them, two layers being put down before the road is laid. The last half mile of the moss is in a sounder condition, having been drained by the Earl of Lonsdale, whose property it is. The draining operations carried on by the Company have reduced the level of the moss for a considerable distance, on each side of the railway, on an average from 4 to 5 feet. The moss is 50 feet deep in places, and a ridge of clay rises in the centre which has made draining operations more difficult than they otherwise would have been. 66 chains of the north end are drained into the Solway, and from that point the drainage is carried south into the Wampool. An engine has not yet been over this portion of the line. From the moss the line passes into a clay cutting at Anthorn, and there is then no particular feature except that there is another cutting at Whiterigg, until we come to the Wampool, an estuary of the Solway, where the Company have another iron viaduct similar to that over the Firth, but on a smaller scale, it being only seven spans, or 210 ft. long. Leaving the Wimpool Bridge, the line crosses the public road at Angerton, and continues till it joins the Carlisle and Silloth Railway, four or five miles from the shore of the Solway. The Company have running powers over this railway, which they are going to exercise in preference to making a line alongside, which their act of Parliament gives them power to do, the advantage from this being a considerable saving of capital.

'The run over the Carlisle and Silloth line extends between the stations of Kirkbride and Abbey Town, a distance of 3½ miles. On striking off at the latter place, it is carried over the river Waver, and passing through the lands of Mr. R. E. W. P. Standish, where the Company have a ballast field, it first crosses the public road leading to Kirkbride and Port Carlisle, anti then continues along a high embankment down to the meadow skirting the Waver. It proceeds then over a nearly natural formation of the country—passing under the turnpike road to Wigton, which is carried over by an approach and bridge into the property of Sir Robert Brisco and other landowners — until a cutting is reached which has given the contractors a great deal of trouble, being bog and quicksand, distant 2½ miles from the junction. The line now goes forward on a low embankment to the village of Broomfield, where some day, no doubt, the Company will have a station. From this point there are two heavy embankments, and the line then begins rapidly to descend towards the Brayton Station on the Maryport and Carlisle Railway, where it terminates.'[2]

Yesterday, Major Marindin, of the Board of Trade, made an inspection of the Solway Viaduct and held an inquiry into the cause of the disaster. Major Marindin inspected the Viaduct in the forenoon, accompanied by Mr. Brunlees, C.E., and Mr. Mc.Kerrow, C.E.. of the bridge; Mr. Tabourdin, secretary of the Solway Junction Railway Company; Mr. Brown, resident engineer, Annan ; and Mr. Geo. Graham, engineer of the Caledonian Railway.
At half-put two o'clock an inquiry was held in the Queensberry Arms Hotel, Annan, when the same gentlemen were present.
Mr. John Brown, engineer, Solway Junction Railway, said he had been in charge of the bridge since it was opened in 1870. There were always two men under and sometimes four as occasion required. He visited the bridge several times a week. No serious damage occurred to the bridge from the time it was opened till 1873 when thirty-two or thirty-three of the piles were cracked. At the time the frost was very severe. Eleven of these, which were bearing piles, were renewed. The remainder were rakers and were “clipped." It was considered that the cracks bad been caused by frost and water inside the tubes, and by the instructions of Mr. Brunlees, half-inch holes were bored in all the columns a little above high water mark. Since that time no columns have been cracked until the 19th January of this year, when a crack was observed in pier No. 115. The crack was hooped, and the pier is still standing. None of piers formerly cracked have fallen. The frost this year continued from the end of December to the latter part of January. The ice came down in small quantities before the 25th January without doing much damage. About the 25th the ice began to come down, but no damage was done until the 29th. At three o'clock of that day three of the east rakers and a bearing pile were found to be broken. High water on that day was about noon, and the broken piles were noticed about half-ebb. A great quantity of ice came down at the time. There was a large floe, measuring in thickness from six inches to eighteen inches. The ice struck the bridge with great force. Standing on the bridge blows could be felt plainly, and they could be heard a mile off. A train was about to pass across from Bowness at the time, and it was stopped until the extent of injury was ascertained. The bearing column was broken at the bottom flange. Of the rakers, one had gone altogether, the others were broken through the middle of the first length from the bottom. They were hanging from the top. They were chained down and the bearing pile was “clipped." The viaduct was examined from end to end and before the train was allowed to pass. Eventually, after between detained two hours it was allowed to pass. It was a passenger train. Three other trains afterwards passed, the drivers being cautioned to run slowly. Witness then gave details of the further destruction of the bridge, which commenced with the tide of Sunday morning, 30th January, and continued until Wednesday. The total number of piers destroyed was 340. The foundation piles were not at all disturbed below the flanges. The fractures as a rule were about the second joint, or 18 feet from the top. That was about the level of half ebb. The ice broke up when the spring tides were at their height, and large masses were lifted from the margin of the river. The ice accumulated In large masses. One piece he measured aground was seven yards square by six feet thick. During the tides which destroyed the Viaduct there was very little wind. It was considered by everyone in the neighbourhood that large floes of ice had never been seen in the Solway.
George W. Irving, fisherman, Annan, gave evidence as to the extent of ice.
Peter Hunter, fitter, said he had been employed at the bridge since it was built. He was on duty on the 29th with three assistants. On the morning of the 30th, when they were in the hut together, they felt the bridge shaking and the piers cracking and he said to the men, " It is time for you to be away ; every man most look after himself." He had not found any vertical cracks in the broken columns, and they were mostly broken clean through.
Alexander Downie, town clerk, Annan, gave evidence of the quantity of ice generally to be seen in Solway. The ice had never been in such large quantities or of so much thickness. The inquiry was shortly afterwards adjourned.'[3]

Major Marindin’s report on the Solway Viaduct disaster has been issued. He says that the absence of any vertical cracks, and the nature of the fractures in nearly all cases, show clearly that they were not due to the freezing of water Inside the tubes. He proceeds “ The evidence leaves doubt as to the exceptional or almost unprecedented state of the estuary at this time, both as regards the amount and thickness of the ice, and the size of the floes, owing to there being no wind to break them up, and when the momentum which would be acquired by piece of ice twenty-seven yards square, and in places six feet thick (the dimensions of one piece actually measured), upon a tide running at ten miles an hour is considered, it is not surprising that cast-iron columns twelve inches diameter, seven eighths of an inch in thickness, and owing to the long-continued frost were in a very brittle state, were unable to withstand the shock. There does not appear to have been any failure due to the pressure of the large masses of ice piled up and jammed against the upper side of the piers, but it would seem that the floating blocks struck and broke off column after column until at last the whole of a pier succumbed, after being destroyed piecemeal. It is remarkable that in only two cases out of the fifty-one damaged piers still standing — namely, Nos. 158 and 159 — can be found a bearing column broken with both the raking columns entire, and this shows clearly that if the rakers had been of sufficient strength to resist the blows from the ice the bearing columns would not have suffered very much, and the viaduct would probably not have fallen. The disaster furnishes very convincing proof of the unreliability of small cast-iron columns, when used for the piers of viaducts in positions where they are likely to be subjected to any blow or sudden shocks, and it was proved by the fate of the Tay Bridge that they are equally unreliable in cases where they are exposed to heavy transverse strain from wind pressure, it must be evident that, whether for high viaducts exposed to wind or for viaducts across estuaries in this climate, where they are subjected to sudden change of temperature and to blows from floating ice, it would be far better in future to avoid any such mode of construction. But upon the permanent way strong wooden guards outside the rails, as protection in case of run off, should be provided, in accordance with the requirements of the present time; and it is worthy of consideration whether it would not better to increase the width of the spans at the centre of the channel, to permit the ice to pass more freely than it does at present. In conclusion, I would observe that the engineer in charge of the viaduct seems to have taken every precaution, by carefully watching the state of the river and the piers, to guard against any accident happening to a train, and I consider that in permitting trains to run over it cautiously, after the first damage had occurred, he was not exposing the passengers to any risk, inasmuch as he had satisfied himself that none of the columns supporting the rails were injured, and with the state of the tide at that time there was no risk of farther damage while the trains were crossing.”'[4]

Messrs Dixon & Thorne, contractors, have during the past three months been actively engaged in repairing the damages sustained by the Solway Viaduct in January and February. At first the energies of the workmen were directed to removing the old raking columns, placing the new ones in position, and filling up the gap near the Scotch side. Now a considerable number of the new rakers have been put into position. They are complete in one length, and consist of an inner column of wrought iron, with an outer jacket of the same material strongly rivetted. They appear to well adapted to resisting an ice floe. The flanges where the jackets are rivetted will at once protect the shaft of the column from a blow, and present a sharp edge to the ice as it comes down the channel, tending to break it. With the exception these columns, the viaduct will be reconstructed mainly on the same principles as before. Since the small gap has been finished, the work of repairing the large gap on the Scotch side has been begun. While the reconstruction on this side is thus making rapid progress, a large number of workmen are busily engaged in repairing the English side, and equally satisfactory results have attended their labours. It is expected that the viaduct will re-opened for traffic about April next.' [5]

1883 'THE SOLWAY VIADUCT. The railway viaduct across the Solway from Annan in Dumfriesshire to Bowness in Cumberland was, it may be remembered, destroyed by immense floes of ice early in 1881. In consequence of various difficulties that arose between the Solway Junction Railway Company and the Caledonian Railway Company, who worked the Solway Junction Railway, the reconstruction of the viaduct was not begun until about a year ago, when arrangements were made for the restoration of the viaduct. It was stipulated that the erection must be made sufficiently strong to withstand such strains those which it succumbed in 1881. Messrs Dixon & Thorne, of London, to whom the work of restoring the line of communication was entrusted, agreed to complete their contract by the first week of next month. Notwithstanding that they were greatly hindered by the storms of last winter, they seem likely to be able to fulfil their engagement within the time stipulated, an engine and tender full of coals belonging to the contractors having several times passed over the new structure. As restored the viaduct is supported by 192 rows of pillars, each row consisting of five separate pillars. While in the former viaduct all the pillars were of cast-iron, in the new one only the central three are of that material, the outside ones being one continuous piece of wrought iron, made steadier by being filled with concrete, and protected by having fenders attached to break any mass of ice that may come down. It is thus expected that even should ice-floes of greater strength than the unprecedented ones of 1881 strike the bridge, whether at ebb or flow tide, no such calamity as then occurred will happen. The old foundations of the viaduct have been repaired with cast-iron clips bolted round the outside bottom pile, and then tilled up with cement. Agreeably to the requirements of the Board of Trade, a guard rail has been run along the line, so as to check the engine in the event of its leaving the rails. Altogether the work seems to have been satisfactorily performed.'[6]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. [1] The Engineer, 9 April 1869
  2. Soulby's Ulverston Advertiser and General Intelligencer - Thursday 18 February 1869
  3. Carlisle Journal - Tuesday 22 February 1881
  4. Dundee Evening Telegraph - Friday 18 March 1881
  5. Aberdeen Evening Express, 5 December 1882
  6. Dundee Advertiser - Friday 31 August 1883