The North east of England has always been known for its coal production and along with areas such as Nottingham, Derbyshire and Wales were the key stones in providing power for the industrial revolution. But as with many areas of the country at that time the transportation of any form of goods was a slow and laborious exercise and could result in high expenses. The solution? To build a wagonway that would allow horses to move heavier loads with the minimum of exertion thus allowing the products to be moved over greater distances at cheaper cost. One area in the North east that was separated from waterways and needed some form of transport system were the mines around Tanfield. The Tanfield wagonway started life in 1725 to carry coal from Today part of the Tanfield Wagonway forms a section of the Tanfield railway, a preserved railway in the north of County Durham. The purpose of the 4′ gauge Tanfield wagonway or ‘Old way’ was to take the coal from the pits around Tanfield moor, between Stanley and Sunniside in Durham, 8.1 miles to the river Tyne at Dunston. The wagonway was double track throughout with the line that carried the loaded wagons actually having wooden bulwarks twice the depth of the empty carrying side to maintain equal wear. The operation of the wagonway was carried out by horses or on steep sections gravity and counter balance where loaded wagons going downhill would draw up the empty wagons coming up hill. In its heyday the wagonway could see traffic of up to 1 wagon every 20 seconds with 45 metre headway. This produced traffic of about 1000 wagons per day!
For a wagonway there was quite a lot of extensive earthworks with the Causey burn which runs through a deep valley having to be crossed by the main line. To resolve this, in 1723 a culvert was built and thousands of tons of spoil and earth were moved by hand horse and cart and poured over it to create a level surface for the wagonway. Today the earthwork is still used by a main road built in the 1930’s along part of the route and also by the Tanfield railway. Not only that, when the wagonway was extended to the newly opened Dawson’s drift colliery in 1727 the wagonway ran over what is now the world’s oldest railway bridge. This was the 103ft span, 80ft high Causey arch or Dawson’s bridge carrying the wagonway over the Beckley burn. The arch was built of stone and no engineering feat of this size had been accomplished since Roman times, and most of their practices had been lost over the years. However this did not stop Ralph Wood the local stone mason from assessing other such roman built bridges and then attempting to build the Causey arch. What made it possible for this compression arch to be built were the sheer cliff faces of the gorge it was crossing and the huge buttresses pushing against them. When the bridge was completed at a cost of 2000 Pounds and track laid the route became just as busy as the main line. The bridge was also for 30 years the largest span bridge in Britain.
The wagonway over the bridge was in regular use for the next 30-40 years serving the drift mine and various off shoots, before a diversionary route was made resulting in the bridge route being abandoned due to various landslips causing concern over its safety. By 1740 several of the neighbouring pits that were mostly small concerns anyway had closed or were starting to be wrapped up in favour of the far more effective deep cast mining that was to become the norm in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Tanfield wagonway still kept going however and it eventually reached to South Moor and Pontop with a short branch to Marley Hill colliery, the most productive colliery and branch being the Tanfield moor colliery. There was even a connection from the nearby Beamish wagonway though by 1857 this was gone, though it is believed that part of it was an extension of the Tanfield wagonway sometime in the early 19th century. One of the oddities of the Tanfield wagonway was that it ran north to South whereas many of the other wagonways in the area ran east to West. When the line was purchased in 1837 by the Brandling Junction Company, the northern end was converted to what had become standard railway consisting of iron edge rails laid on wooden sleepers and by 1840 the relaying had reached Tanfield moor colliery. This was to benefit the former route which was to remain open until gradual closures from 1947 to 1981. From 1973 however the southern part of the railway firstly from Marley hill yard to Sunniside and most recently to East Tanfield passing the Causey arch on route has been operated by the Tanfield railway a group of enthusiasts preserving the lines industrial heritage, though running passenger services using industrial locomotives.