This week marks the 97th anniversary of the Owencarrow Viaduct disaster when the Derry to Burtonport Train was blown off the Viaduct during a storm, resulting in the loss of four lives.
On this day, 97 years ago, the ill-fated train had left Derry Station earlier in the evening. By the time it had reached the Owencarrow Valley, winds were gusting to 120 miles per hour. These winds derailed the train carriages off the viaduct causing it to partially collapse. The roof of a carriage was ripped off, throwing four people to their deaths. The four killed were: Philip Boyle and his wife Sarah from Aranmore Island, Una Mulligan from Falcarragh and Neil Duggan from Meenbunowen. Five other people were seriously injured and locals showed great courage in tending to the dead and injured when word of the tragedy reached Creeslough.
The company opened its first railway line 1863, extending as far as Letterkenny in 1883. In 1903, the building of the Burtonport extension was a great engineering challenge with little machinery or electric power used. As well as serving the towns, the main purpose of building the railway was to serve the bustling fishing industry at Burtonport. It was built with one hundred percent manpower and horsepower with dynamite being used to blast the huge cuttings. One of their main challenges was to build a bridge across the Owencarrow river and bog. To achieve this a temporary steam-driven pile driver was used to push oak trees from Derryfad and Umerfad into the bottomless bog and swamp, Fleeces from sheep were also driven down and then rocks and concrete. This was their platform before the piers were constructed with granite blocks that had been cut and numbered and hoisted into place with a block and tackle. This was a great engineering feat and many locals were involved in its construction and the quality of their workmanship is still there for all to see today in the remains of the viaduct that they constructed over 100 years ago.
During the War of Independence and the Civil War the Train and the track were attacked many times as they were used by the British Forces to transport personnel, munitions and supplies to their troops in West Donegal.
The accident on the Owencarrow Viaduct was the worst disaster to befall the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway but it was by no means the only incident to happen to the railway during its time of operation on the line. On Christmas morning in 1922, another trip from Derry had almost led to loss of life in the locality.
A train left Derry that morning and made its way through a storm towards Burtonport. Nearing Dunfanaghy Road station where the line crossed an embankment, the coach next to the engine was lifted completely off the tracks by the wind and the couplings snapped. The coach toppled over and crashed down the steep embankment. The only occupant was a boy who was able to crawl out of the wreckage. The second coach which contained five or six passengers was toppled over also but was held from tumbling down the embankment by a wall. Luckily, none of the passengers was injured.
On 7 February 1923, the 8.30 a.m train was making its way from Burtonport and near the 6814-milepost at Cruckakeehan, between Kincasslagh Road and Crolly. As it was about to enter the cutting beside Owen Sharkey’s house, a gust of wind lifted two carriages and a bogey wagon off the line and dropped them sideways down the bank. Only the engine, driven by James Deeney, and the third brake van were left on the line.
The frightened passengers gathered together in the brake van before being taken into Sharkey’s house where they were comforted and given tea. Deeney took the engine and travelled to Crolly for help. When he returned, the brake van was also off the line. In the weeks that followed the wreckage was set on fire and destroyed.
There were also numerous accidents with livestock on the line and on the morning of 10th September 1922 during the Civil War, a party of irregulars tore up the railway line at Loughagher between Creeslough and Dunfanaghy. The Ganger was threatened and told not to repair the line but it was repaired and trains were soon running again.
The railway played a big part in the success of the Fishing industry in places like Downings and Burtonport with the big Scottish boats landing their catches there at these piers before transporting their catches by train to their markets. The train also transported tattie hokkers on their way to work in Scotland and those traveling to and from the hiring fairs in East Donegal and further afield.
Last July a new memorial was erected at the site by the Creeslough Development Association and the memorial was unveiled by the late Kathleen Doyle representing the families of those who died and whose grandfather was killed in the tragedy. Hundreds of people traveled from all over Donegal and beyond to see the memorial unveiled.
The disaster is also commemorated in the nearby Log Cabin Bar and in recent years the disaster has been brought to the fore in a song “The Owencarrow” written by Creeslough man Ben McFadden and recorded by local singer Ailish McBride.
Today the pillars of the old railway viaduct stand high above the tranquil flowing Owencarrow river which elies the fact that it was on this spot that the worst tragedy in the history of the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway occurred on a stormy night in 1925.