Friday, 5 July 2013

From Stoke-On-Trent to Wheelock

The Trent & Mersey Canal took me to the Harecastle Tunnel and  Kidsgrove to a bridge near Wheelock where I pitched up my tent for the night.
It was here where Josiah Wedgwood did the first cutting for the Trent & Mersey Canal on the 26th July 1766. At over 1,5 miles long James Brindley´s tunnel was the longest in the country. Channeling through the granite and millstone grit of Harecastle Hill had taken nearly 11 years when it was completed in 1777. Over 600 miners and masons worked with explosives in a series of shafts along the line of the tunnel. Hard rock and quicksand made tunneling difficult and flooding was a constant problem. Such dangerous work meant that many of these early navigators lost their lives. 
When Brindley´s tunnel was built narrowboats had no engines and needed manpower to move them. Two men lay on a board across the boat and walked along the walls of the tunnel. This was called legging.

As traffic increased, a new tunnel was planned as part of improvements to make the Trent & Mersey Canal more competitive. Built by Thomas Telford, it was completed only after only three years and even had a towpath, but few horses would walk through such a long tunnel in the dark. Men were employed to do the legging. For many years the two tunnels operated together with each tunnel taking traffic in opposite directions.
By 1914 there was so much subsidence in Brindley´s tunnel that it had to be closed - threatening traffic jams.
To speed up traffic tugs were introduced to haul trains of boats. As there was no ventilation to take away any fumes these tugs needed to be electric powered. Originally the tugs were powered by motors using batteries but overhead electric cables were soon introduced to improve efficiency. The tugs worked a long day from 6am until 10pm as around 200 boats a day passed through the tunnel in trains of 21 boats.

From his house the tunnel keeper could see how many boats were waiting to go through the tunnel.
In 1954 Telford´s original stone tunnel portal was hidden when a new structure was built to house large fans. By the 1950s most boats were powered by diesel engines and didn´t need towing through the tunnel. However this meant a build up of dangerous fumes. Once a group of boats entered the tunnel air tight doors were closed behind them. The air was forced through the tunnel by the fans, allowing the diesel boats to use it without suffocating their crews.

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