Iron Ore Mines and 'Ghost' Railway Stations - just part of the Dungonnell Trail

Dessie Blackadder


Dessie Blackadder

ONE of the Ballymena area’s best kept walking ‘secrets’ is found in the hills above the village of Cargan which is the population centre for the beautiful wider area known as Glenravel.

Skerry Road East, perhaps the least busy road in Northern Ireland, is part of the Dungonnell Trail but it also runs past the evidence of this area’s industrial past.

If you’ve ever driven out of Cargan and on towards Cushendall and Waterfoot you will have seen the signs of railway lines in the valley below.

The article below, which sets this story in context, first appeared in its entirety in The Glynns Volume 8 (1980) and is currently hosted online via the website of the Glens of Antrim Historical Society.

It is drawn from the ‘Iron Mines of Glenravel’ by Kevin J. O’Hagan

“Within the last two years an extensive and valuable iron mine was discovered at Glenravil about 7 miles from Ballymena by James Fisher Esq. of Cleggan Lodge near this town and of Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire. Under the energetic management of this enterprising gentleman it was opened about 18 months ago.”

So read the editorial of the Ballymena Observer, Saturday, July 25th, 1868, commemorating the opening of the first of the Glenravel iron ore mines.

Just three weeks earlier Mr. Fisher himself had given an open-air party for about fifty gentlemen friends on the mountainside near the mine.

It was an unusual repast, but no more unusual than the event it commemorated for here, in one of the bleakest, most barren and out-of-the-way places in the country, rich seams of iron ore had been found and mud-stained miners were raising 300 tons of top quality ore per week.

This situation could hardly have been envisaged a few years earlier, not even by Fisher. Others before him were aware of the existence of iron-bearing rock but failed to exploit it or to locate the richer seams.

The first had been Nicholas Crommelin, who, in 1843, in his task of settling the area and building the village which bears his name, found a sample of the ore.

He had it analysed by Professor John F. Hodges who found it to contain from 18 to 25% peroxide of iron. Crommelin’s enthusiasm got the better of him and he set about building a furnace to smelt the ore using the local peat for firing.

He made repeated attempts to smelt the ore and succeeded in obtaining some metallic iron but the difficulties were so great that he abandoned the idea altogether.

His furnace still stands near the village of Newtowncrommelin, a monument to his endeavours.

Some years later Hodges was again called to examine some specimens in the possession of Edward Benn, the Glenravel landlord.

These were obviously much richer specimens than Crommelin’s for Hodges was now convinced that valuable deposits lay hidden in the Glenravel mountains.

Benn had his ore smelted by a local smith, John McAlister of Legegrane, who managed to produce a small sample of iron.

This was then taken to Rowan’s foundry in Belfast where it was mistakenly identified as having been produced from the best Swedish ore.

This was praise indeed but it seems strange that Benn himself took his discovery no further.

Perhaps he was deterred by the failure of various other projects with which he was connected — the distillation of alcohol and the distillation of paraffin — and was reluctant to invest money in any new venture.

At any rate, it wasn’t until the arrival of James Fisher on the scene that mining the ore became a serious proposition.

Credit for the initiation of the successful exploitation of the mineral wealth of this area is traditionally given to the parish priest of the time, Rev. Wm. John Macauley. He was a keen rambler and interested in geology and he was aware that the home-based linen industry, by which the majority of his parishioners lived, was in decline owing to the rise of the large spinning mills.

His parish included the Braid and no doubt because of this he became acquainted with James Fisher who was then residing at Cleggan House, the property of Lord O’Neill.

When a parishioner showed Father Macauley a piece of red rock he had found, Mr. Fisher was immediately contacted for Fisher already had mining interests in N. W. England, an iron ore producing region.

The pair of them then set off on an exploration trip to Ballynahavla, near Cargan accompanied by two other men, one of whom had found the ore in the first place.

They went almost directly to the spot and lifting back a piece of overhanging turf discovered a seam two feet thick. They at once proceeded to Glenravel House to see Edward Benn who encouraged them to investigate further and gave Fisher permission to dig for a year at a rent of £10.

The stage was thus set for one of the greatest industrial booms of the century which was to last nearly 70 years.

In 1866 Fisher began by outcrop digging or opencast mining at a place known as the Gullets, on the slopes of Slievenanee, and in the first six months was able to ship 18,000 tons of ore to England worth about £1 per ton.

It was not long, however, before he realised that more and better ore lay within the outcrop and he began to drive adits.

The first underground mine to be opened was aptly named the Glenravel mine, situated in the townland of Legegrane on the south slope of Slievenanee.

This was in January 1867. Soon, other enterprising gentlemen began to take note, among them Silas Evans who laid the foundations of the Antrim Iron Ore Company which quickly took up large parcels of the country.

There was a great influx of people into the area and several mining villages sprang up, chief among them Fisherstown, named after James Fisher, but now with the uninteresting name of Cargan.

The ordinary farm workers of the area took to the novel type of employment and soon acquired the new skills of mining.

Wages of 7/- per week in 1867 rose in 1875 to 15/- and 20/- per week for underground workers and to 13/- and 14/- per week for surface workers.

By 1873 there were about 700 men employed directly in the mines and 600 horses were being used in carting away the ore.

To facilitate this Fisher had built his own tramway which ran from the Gullets to Parkmore, a distance of two miles.

There was as yet no narrow-gauge railway from Ballymena.

Most of the miners were labourers and small farmers and the owner of a small farm could even do part-time work at the mines when farming conditions permitted.

This helped to supplement his farm income. This new-found source of wealth led to a rather unruly sort of life and drinking sprees and brawls were common.

Fisherstown was so wild that children were not allowed on the street when the miners were in town — a situation more akin to the Wild West in the goldrush days.

At the start of mining operations levels were driven generally two or three at a time. A connecting passage was then cut to join these levels together to provide a cir-culation of air to the miners and to disperse explosive fumes.

From this stage the mine was extended horizontally generally following the ore seam and this gave rise to the term — the Longwall method — literally along the wall of the passage. As soon as a sound roof was met with, side roads were driven right and left and from these the working areas branched off approximately 8 yards apart.

In these areas the miner excavated the ore with a pick and shovel in a cramped and awkward position lying on his side. He removed the ore and waste rock in a wide circular sweep and if the roof was thought to be unstable or unsafe he left pillars of rock standing to support it. This method of mining was known as the ‘room and pillar’ and many examples of it are still visible today in these mines.

Probably early in the process rails were laid into the mine to provide a means of removing the waste rock as well as the ore. For this reason the main adit was driven 7 feet high by 8 feet wide to accommodate a double line of rails. Alternatively, if a single line was considered sufficient or the level was for ventilation only, e.g. an air drift, it was driven only 5 feet wide.

As the workings progressed the waste rock within the mine was used to block off workings which became exhausted or to support the roof in place of the ore which had been removed.

The miners worked on a shift system so that they would not be mining ore all day.

This meant that they worked half the day in the mine digging ore and the other half on the surface loading it or doing some other job. They would be replaced at the ore face by other miners who had been on the surface during the morning shift.

The hours in the Glenravel mines were 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. By the early 1870’s several mines were being worked — Fisher at Slievenanee, the Crommelin Mining Co. at Tuftarney, the Antrim Iron Ore Co. at Cargan and Dungonnell and Mr. Charles Chambers and the Evisnacrow Iron Co. at Evishnacrow. Mining had also extended to other areas, namely Parkmore, Glenariff, Rathkenny, Carncormick and Broughshane.

Up to this time the mines had been worked solely for iron ore. Aluminium was still a virtually unknown commodity and it was only in 1870 that it was realised it could be obtained from bauxite.

In fact, these minerals, aluminium and iron, are two of the most common elements of the Earth’s crust between them making up nearly 15% of the total composition. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the ores of these metals, bauxite and iron ore, formed by the prolonged weathering of basalt lavas, are found side by side in the Antrim hills.

It was Professor Hodges again who, probably because of his familiarity with the ores of the district, discovered bauxite in the Cargan Mine in 1871.

This discovery added more interest and potential to the mining industry and boosted out-put from the mines for several years.

During these years too the narrow-gauge railway had arrived, reaching Cargan in May 1875 and Retreat in October 1876. Branch lines were laid to the various groups of mines and these facilitated the ore being removed quickly from the mines to Ballymena and thence to Larne for shipment.

The Wire Tramway, an overhead bucket system built in 1872 for transporting the ore from Cargan to Red Bay, had come and gone, having been sabotaged on the night of Sunday, July 13th 1873 and never repaired. Nevertheless, mining then even as today was dependant on an efficient means of getting ore away quickly. The railway encouraged expansion in the mining industry and made the ore more valuable because it was more accessible.

However, in the early 1880’s, due to a slump in the iron industry in Britain and the exhaustion of the better-class

ores, production started to dwindle. The production of bauxite continued and some mines went over completely to the mining of bauxite e.g. Tuftarney and Evishnacrow mines, the latter being worked up to 1926. Iron ore production carried on at a reduced pace in most of the mines and towards the turn of the century the Crommelin company even opened a series of new mines along the east side of the Skerry Water and two bauxite mines on the west side.

In general, however, the number of working adits steadily declined and desperate ef-forts were sometimes called for to prolong mining, e.g. at the Cargan Mine where numerous volcanic dykes displaced the ore seam, the miners had to bore their way through 200 feet of solid rock in an attempt to locate the seam but had to give up. Three of the five adits were soon to be closed but in 1907, in attempting to reopen one of them, an additional problem was encountered for the mine was by this time flooded.

In 1874, a prophetic writer, R. A. Watson, in an article in the Dublin University Magazine, made the comment that it would take some hundreds of years before these ore deposits would become exhausted, but sadly prophesy and actuality are seldom one and the same.

All mining enterprises have to be abandoned sooner or later either because the deposits are exhausted or their extraction no longer pays.

Mining, therefore, must eventually disappear from any area since it is only a temporary form of occupation. It is a natural progression. It took Nature millions of years to produce these minerals and what the miners removed in a few short decades cannot be replaced.

The mines eventually closed and no one is really to blame. Various factors contributed to the decline, one of the main ones being the unfavourable dip of the ore seam which often caused flooding.

Fisher’s mines, the original Glenravel Mines closed on 29-10- 1913 because the best quality ore had been worked out and the second quality was considered uneconomical to work. Adits 3 and 4 of the Evisnacrow Mines were last worked on 31-12-1923 and closed because of the company’s inability to work them at a profit.

The British Portland Cement Manufacturing Co. took over the bauxite mine here in 1925 but the bauxite proved unsuitable for their purpose and the mine was abandoned on 7-8-1926.

The Dungonnell Mines were subject to flooding but they were abandoned in 1891 because of disagreements between the mining company and the leaseholders. The Crommelin Co. too was plagued by flooding problems as well as the ore failing but still managed to excavate an exten-sive series of workings at Skerry East, many of which are still accessible.

Quite apart from these reasons there are three other factors which contributed to the closure of the mines.

Firstly, there were no smelters in Co. Antrim and the ore had to be shipped to mainland Britain.

Secondly, the quality of the iron ore was not good enough for smelting on its own — it had to be mixed in the furnaces with other richer, imported ores. The bauxite, too, was not entirely suitable for the manufacture of aluminium and only a small proportion was used for this purpose. Imported bauxite was cheaper and more suitable and so the demand for Antrim bauxite declined.

Thirdly, the high cost of transport from the mines to the smelters and processing plants left little profit for the mining companies.

Although the mining industry in Glenravel appeared to have died prematurely it was not forgotten. With the outbreak of World War Two a new crisis loomed in the shape of U-boats and it became increasingly difficult to obtain foreign bauxite.

In 1940 Lord Beaverbrook announced to the nation that there was a scarcity of aluminium, and aluminium was a vital ingredient in the manufacture of war planes.

By this time Germany was producing about 50% more aluminium than the USA because of her control of Aluminium-producing countries. So it was that interest in the Antrim bauxites was rekindled and this led to re-investigation of local reserves. In 1941 new bauxite mines were opened at Newtowncrommelin known as the Skerry Mines.

Other abandoned workings were reopened for their bauxite content and many Glenravel miners and sons of miners were recruited to work in the new mines. Many travelled daily to work in the vast labyrinth at Lyle’s Hill, Templepatrick.

The Skerry Mines closed early in 1944 and mining as an industry finally ceased on 31-12-1945.

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