Eric Leaver explores a monument to Victorian railway engineering

THE breadth of vision of our Victorian ancestors is well-documented.

But the sheer courage and enterprise that gave birth to the Sough railway tunnel under the bleak Cranberry Moors south of Darwen is extraordinary.

Opened 150 years ago, it took just under three years to build after the first sod was cut in September, 1845, near the present-day Darwen Station by the railway company chairman, Blackburn mill magnate WH Hornby, to start the work on the Blackburn-Bolton line.

The tunnel is 2,015 yards long and has a bore of approximately 22 feet. It is not quite straight and is uphill from Darwen to Entwistle at the other end.

The consulting engineer to the railway company was CB Vignoles, well-known throughout the world for his skills in building railways. During the construction of the line he was assisted by a Mr Terry, who attended to the day-to-day problems.

The actual tunnelling operation was contracted to a Mr Evans and the method of construction was to sink 13 vertical shafts ranging in depth from 40 feet to 260 feet. The bottoms of the shafts were extended and joined.

The conditions for the workers, mostly coal miners from South Wales and the Wigan area, were appalling and five lost their lives during the construction. The rock formation they burrowed through consisted of sandstone, shale and small coal seams interspersed with underground streams and the work flooded a local coal mine and polluted streams with mud which caused a nearby calico printer to sue and win a £5,000 out-of-court settlement.

When the tunnel opened in June, 1848, with the completion of the whole Blackburn-Bolton link, it was discovered it was very difficult to work on the railway lines in the tunnel because of the smoke from the engines.

When the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway was developing its network in 1903 and needed to use the tunnel for express trains, the problem was partly solved by reopening two of the original shafts - one at 158ft and another at 210ft.

Still, many plate layers and engine drivers dreaded the tunnel because of the smoke and there are reports of staff being trapped. It was not until the 1960s that the problem was solved with the introduction of diesel locomotives.

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