Whitehead’s Railway Heritage
The coastline around Whitehead was opened up by the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway
Whitehead has the railway to thank for its development from a small ‘clachan’ of houses to a pretty Edwardian seaside resort.
In 1864, Whitehead lay on the recently opened Carrickfergus and Larne Railway, with one platform and an old carriage as a waiting room. A new station opened in 1877. Following protests by the Women’s Temperance League in 1883, the refreshment room had to offer tea as well as alcohol, and close after the last train.
In 1894, a second platform, loop, and full signalling were added. In summer 1902, King’s Road was developed and a new bridge replaced a level crossing, while the main line was lowered between the station and Slaughterford Bridge.
In July 1903 extensive improvements commenced, including the erection of a two road engine shed, water tower and goods shed, sidings, turntable, stabling for horses and jaunting cars, and four railway workers’ cottages. A windmill pumped water for the engines into the water tower.
By 1903, the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway had issued 145 ‘Villa Tickets’ for Whitehead. These gave families who built a house in the town free travel for up to seven years. Ten years later, the town’s population had increased to 1200.
In spring 1904, Whitehead Golf Club opened with help from the railway, and three years later new island excursion platforms opened. In 1908, a site at the Belfast end of the promenade was rented to Whitehead Sailing Club to erect a clubhouse (now the premises of the Co Antrim yacht Club), and in 1911 the old landing stage was replaced by a concrete structure. The railway company built bathing boxes and a 500 seater pavilion, and created the beach by carting sand from Portrush, building groynes using old railway sleepers.
In 1892, the BNCR opened up the coastline around Whitehead and Blackhead to excursionists to encourage rail traffic from Belfast and Larne. The Gobbins was an elaborate coastal cliff path on the Islandmagee peninsula a few miles from Whitehead station, designed by Berkeley Deane Wise.
Construction work commenced in May 1901 and the 3km path incorporated tunnels and spectacular bridges linking several sections of walkway high above the sea. The tubular and suspension bridges were built in Belfast and floated out from Whitehead on barges before being lifted into position. The first section of the path opened in 1902, and the advertisement proclaimed that the ‘New cliff path along the Gobbins Cliffs, with its ravines, bore caves, natural aquariums ... has no parallel in Europe as a marine cliff walk’.
The Gobbins could be reached from Whitehead by walking along the Blackhead path, and from Ballycarry station, where jaunting cars met the trains. Visitors could stop for refreshments in the tearoom at the entrance. When Wise retired in 1906, the company seemed to lose interest. The path, intended to stretch 5km with a northern exit at Heddle’s Port, was never completed.
Severe gales and rock falls meant a high annual maintenance bill and, after a lack of repairs or maintenance during the second world war, the railway decided it could not afford the rebuilding costs. The path closed in 1961.
© The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland