Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Llangollen Canal we see today was previously called the Ellesmere Canal, but the Ellesmere Canal as originally envisaged was very different from what was eventually constructed.
The history of the line was bedeviled with indecision as to which route to take, fuelled by the unreasonable expectations of the canal boom of the 1790s, and what was planned as a roughly north-south route ended up being roughly east-west.
The formal proposal was launched at a meeting in Ellesmere in 1791 for a canal from Netherpool (now known as Ellesmere Port) on the River Mersey to the River Dee, and from their via Overton (south of Wrexham) to the River Severn at Shrewsbury via the iron ore and coal mining areas between Wrexham and Ruabon.
The engineer William Jessop was called in to advise, and he recommended the westerly route. However, this posed formidable engineering obstacles, with the hills near Ruabon to be pierced and then the steep-sided valley of the Dee to be crossed. More height gain would shorten the tunnel near Ruabon, but would increase the height of the Dee crossing. Jessop proposed a climb of 92m (303ft) from Chester to Ruabon, a 4212m (4607 yard) tunnel, and an aqueduct over the Dee at Pontcysyllte.
An Act was passed in 1793, and Jessop appointed engineer, and Thomas Telford as general agent. The easy section from the Mersey to the Dee, now part of the Shropshire Union Canal, was completed in 1795, and joined to the Chester Canal in 1797.
For the crossing of the Dee, it had been proposed to have locks on the north side of the valley to take the canal down to a more normal height, but this would have required a longer tunnel at Chirk and another tunnel near Weston Lullingfields. Although it is not clear exactly with whom the credit should lie, between them Jessop and Telford developed the proposal for a cast-iron aqueduct at Pontcysyllte without any locks, thus reducing the length of the Chirk tunnel, but requiring a higer crossing of the Ceiriog at Chirk.
Chirk Aqueduct was opened in 1801, and Pontcysyllte in 1805. However, by this time the line from the Dee to Ruabon had been abandonned as there was competition from tramroads to carry iron ore and coal to the Dee. Also abandonned was the plan to reach the Severn, as the Shrewsbury Canal was already serving the town, and the poor navigational state of the Severn meant that additional traffic would not justify the cost of the building works. As the canal would now not reach its summit level near Ruabon, additional water supplies were needed, and a feeder was constructed along the side of the Dee valley to Llantisilio; the narrow feeder branch was made navigable, allowing boats to reach Llangollen.
So the main line as constructed only ran from Trevor to Weston Lullingfields, some 29 km long, while the 47 km "branch" via Ellesmere to the Chester Canal at Hurleston became the canal's only link with the rest of the waterways network in 1806, and became considered the main line.
The Ellesmere Canal merged with the Chester Canal in 1813, and a further merger with the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal in 1845 was followed in 1846 by the formation of the Shropshire Union Railways & Canal Company. The Company was taken over in 1922 by the London & North Western Railway.
By 1939 traffic on the line from Hurleston to Llangollen had ceased, and the whole of the Ellesmere Canal network other than the line from Ellesmere Port to Chester was abadoned by Act of Parliament in 1944, though the line from Hurleston to Llangollen was retained purely as a water feeder for the Shropshire Union Canal main line and for drinking water, with an agreement in 1955 with the Mid & South East Cheshire Water Board securing the line's future.
Increasing popularlity with pleasure boats led to gradually increasing maintenance, and the decision to rebrand the Ellesmere Canal as the Llangollen Canal. As the canal was never intended to go to Llangollen, this renaming is a delightfully ironic twist symbolic of the canal's convoluted development and failure to do what it started out to do, but the route today makes for a delightful journey with a dramatic final few kilometres from Chirk to Llangollen.
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