Whenever we look up at a mountain one of the first questions we ask ourselves is, ‘I wonder what it all looks like from up there?’ Yr Wyddfa, or Snowdon, is no exception. Indeed, its summit, without doubt, offers the grandest view of the entire National Park: a panorama of a most beautiful landscape not remotely obtainable from a vantage point 1000 metres below.
Access to this view for the less energetic was first proposed by Sir Richard Moon, Chairman of the London & North Western Railway, after a branch line from Bangor to Llanberis had been completed in 1869. Initial Parliamentary Bills were met with stiff opposition from the landowner George William Duff Assheton-Smith. But plans in 1877 to promote a railway from Porthmadog to the summit of Snowdon, and the opening of a narrow-gauge railway to Ryd Ddu on Snowdon’s southwest flank in 1881, led to a significant loss of trade to the community of Llanberis.
All this gave Assheton-Smith’s agent, Captain N.P. Stewart, concern enough to argue for a railway to the summit from Llanberis. Rumours of these plans circulated widely enough for a long and acrimonious debate to ensue between Canon Hardwick D. Rawnsley (Secretary of the newly-formed National Trust for the Preservation of Sites of Historical Interest and Beauty) and the proponents of the railway.
The ill-tempered debate was acted out in the ‘Letters’ columns of The Times.
Assheton-Smith eventually withdrew his objections; Sir Richard got his way; the Snowdon Mountain Tramroad and Hotels Company Ltd. was formed; and the scene was set for one of the world’s great feats of engineering to begin in 1894.
Given the Victorians’ fascination with solving complex engineering problems, this wasn’t such a crazy idea. Just as improvements in our lives today are made possible by innovations developed by the continual conquests of space and speed, the Victorian love affair with technical ingenuity often resulted in improvements in the ongoing search for a more comfortable and fulfilled lifestyle.
The great wealth that industrialisation had brought to the middle classes of Britain also brought a curiosity for what the world looked like beyond the back door. This was the age of the European ‘Grand Tour’ and, closer to home, the mini-tours of the Wye Valley and the Lake District. Snowdon was no exception. The A5 had opened in 1815 and the Llanberis Pass in 1830. A mechanised trip to the top of a mountain was simply a logical extension. The age of the ‘destination attraction’ was upon us, and Sir Richard wanted another at the top of a mountain. So now that all objections had been overcome, laid to rest or simply ignored, build it he did. One hundred and fifty men with picks, shovels and dynamite built two viaducts, carved out a hundred-metre cutting from solid rock, constructed several bridges and laid almost eight kilometres of track up a one-in-seven gradient to the top of a mountain – all in fourteen months. And the public, now constantly on the lookout for novel experiences at home and abroad that could be undertaken in their Sunday best, flocked to the mountain just to take that hitherto, for the majority, unattainable peek from its summit.
The technology for safely transporting carriages of people up and down a mountainside had existed in Switzerland for some time so that was where the newly-formed Snowdon Mountain Tramroad and Hotels Company went. A patented rack-and-pinion railway system, perfected by Dr. Roman Abt, was reliably working in the Swiss Alps and on the Manitou & Pike’s Peak railway in America. There were no other likely contenders and Abt’s system is the one still working today. So why not buy the locomotives from the same source? Of the original Swiss-built steam locos, four are still chugging up and down the mountain today. It has been calculated that No. 2 locomotive, ENID, has covered a distance equal to four journeys to the moon and back since entering service in 1896 – that’s 3,075,200 kilometres.