Abercynon and the Birth of Steam Railways

Abercynon and the Birth of Steam Railways

Abercynon seems like the smaller, upstream version of Pontyridd. It hosted some collieries, but its importance grew from sitting at the confluence of two valleys full of iron and coal – those of the Taff and the Cynon rivers – so it became an important junction for the tramroad, the canal, and then the railways.

For some time Abercynon was once known simply as “Navigation” – perhaps speaking to its role as a waypoint – and was once replete with pubs. But because it never quite reached the scale of Pontypridd, it never got enough industry and infrastructure before the boom times slowed.

So it shrinks. Each decade there are fewer people, fewer schools, fewer pubs. One of the few surviving pubs is called “The Navigation.”

But one thing that can never be taken away from Abercynon is that it was the end point of the first steam railway journey in history: on 21 February 1804, the inventor Richard Trevithick drove his steam locomotive hauling five wagons – or ‘trams’ – carrying ten tons of iron and seventy men from the Penydarren ironworks up in Merthyr Tydfil to here in Abercynon on his new tramroad.

The 10 mile stretch of what became known as the Penydarren Tramroad took just over 4 hours to travel – more than walking it would take today!

A couple of years earlier, Trevithick had built high-pressure steam engines to drive hammers at the Pen-y-Darren Ironworks in Merthyr. He then simply mounted one of these engines on wheels, turning it into a locomotive, and sold the patents for his locomotives to Samuel Homfray – owner of the Penydarren Ironworks – for a pretty penny.

But Homfray then wagered 1,000 guineas with Richard Crawshay, the owner of the Cyfartha Ironworks, that he could build the first steam locomotive, and promptly won. It would take 36 years for the technology to be commercialised on the same route with the Taff Valley Railway.

~ For the travellers ~