The construction of the Barrow Bridge

Anyone growing up in Cheekpoint, or anyone that visits can’t but be impressed with the Barrow Railway Viaduct.  Stretching from Co Kilkenny to Co Wexford across the Rivers Barrow and Nore (which join above New Ross) it’s 2131Feet in length and up to the 1990’s was the longest railway viaduct in the country.

looking from Great Island, Co Wexford
c/o Waterford Co Museum

The bridge, which was many years in the planning, was part of an initiative to link Waterford with Rosslare Port and thus speed the journey times between the South of Ireland and England/Wales.  As a concept, the railway line originated in 1864 and elements of the project were advanced in stages but it was not until the turn of the century that the project to span the river became realisable. 

New Ross Harbour Board had many concerns for the proposal of a bridge, as they wanted to ensure access to the port at all times.  At one point it appears that the plan was to bring the railway line to Passage East and that passengers would be ferried across the river.  If you think that’s bizarre consider this, designs existed from 1833.  Of course there are many unique solutions available to the engineering mind.

It was also conceived that the line would run along by the river at Snow hill (instead of through Drumdowney Hill) and cross to Great Island over the site where the Power Station now stands.  This would have certainly been an obstacle to the ESB in 1965.  However one of the formost engineers of his time, Sir Benjamin Baker, was employed to draw up plans that would suite the needs of both the railway and the Harbour Board. 

before the bridge was built
Photo courtesy of Tomás Sullivan

The plan that was accepted necessitated the tunnelling of Drundowney, and the provision of a opening section that allowed ships access and egress from New Ross port.  Both elements causing significant cost and engineering challenges. 

As said the Bridge would be 2131 feet in length and consist of 13 fixed spans mounted on twin 8 foot diameter cast iron cylinders filled with concrete.  11 spans would be 148 feet long and the two closest the opening would be 144 feet.  The opening had to be in the deepest part of the river channel, thus the Kilkenny side.  The bridge had to be 25feet above high water on the spring tides.

The railway would be a single track steel line. This would be built within the protective casing of a mild steel girder frame with cross trusses to provide stability.

One of the more detailed and trickiest engineering elements was the opening.  The opening span would be constructed on 4 pillars and would turn with an electric motor, situated on the pontoon around the pillars.  The opening had to pivot with an 80 Foot clearance allowing ships through. Inbound ships took the Wexford side of the opening, outbound, the Kilkenny side.

Tendering for the bridge commenced in late 1901 and was won by a Glaswegian firm – William Arrol & Co.  The winning bid was £109, 347 and work had commenced by June of 1902.  The main yard for supplies was based in Wellington Bridge Co Wexford and apparently the work was carried out from the Wexford side. 

work progresses circa 1903
sourced – John Power’s book (see ref below)

As it happens, one of the biggest issues was unforeseen in the tendering process.  The twin pillars onto which the spans were placed had to be laid on a foundation of the river bedrock.  However, as they proceeded out into the Barrow the depths got ever deeper and in some cases the workers had to dig to 108 feet below the mean water level. Such extra work added a cost of £12,000 to the bridge.

nearing completion April 1905

Not all costs were financial however.  My wife’s great grandfather John Bible who resided in the Waterside fell during the construction and damaged his spine.  He was listed in the 1901 census as an Iron Moulder and he recovered to an extent that he could move around without the use of his legs and went on to use his skills in the repair of musical instruments in Waterford city.  John was also a gifted  accordion player,  and according to family tradition went on to cut the first, or one of the first, records in the country.

Despite the challenges, construction went smoothly enough and as the photo above shows it was well advanced by April 1905.  Despite this, the bridge did not finally open until July 1906.  Closer to the date we will do a piece on the grand opening.

Thanks to
Ernie Shepard – The South Wexford Line.  Journal of the Bannow Historical Society (2013)
John Power – A Maritime History of County Wexford Vol 1(2011)
Julian Walton – a piece from WLR FM – On this day
Vic Bible, Faithlegg for his family recollection

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