It’s one of the great Calderdale stories, conjuring up visions of brave pioneers battling the elements on remote Pennine moors, carving out new reservoirs to service thirsty Halifax.
Indeed, this is a place so remote that a special railway had to be built to carry both men and materials to the building site. A place so remote that a temporary “town” – “Dawson City” – had to be built to house the workers.
And, unlikely as it may sound, it’s all true. It all happened during the early 20th century during the building of the three Walshaw Dean reservoirs, out in the wilds, miles north of Heptonstall.
A temporary railway was built, from Whitehill Nook, near Heptonstall, to the reservoir site, famously crossing a steep-sided valley at Blake Dean via a rather flimsy looking trestle bridge made of pine. And there was Dawson City, a collection of wooden shacks that served as home to the Walshaw navvies.
It’s a story redolent of courageous endeavour, but there was a lot of down-to-earth stuff as well – drunkenness, crime, dodgy sanitation, disease and a succession of financial problems that bedevilled the project and probably killed Walshaw’s builder, one Enoch Tempest.
This fascinating story is told in a new book called City in the Hills: Dawson City and the Building of the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs by two local women with a lifelong love of local history, Corinne McDonald, of Halifax Antiquarian Society, and Ann Kilbey, of Hebden Bridge Local History Society, which has published their book.
The story starts with the increasing need for water for fast-expanding Halifax, which had already built new reservoirs at Ogden, Pellon, Warley Moor and Widdop, not far from where the Walshaw lakes were to be built. After a lot of toing and froing Halifax Corporation obtained parliamentary approval for the Walshaw reservoirs in 1898.
Tenders were sought and the construction work was given to Enoch Tempest, of Marple, near Stockport, for £170,000, well under half the highest tender of £353,000. The first sod was ceremoniously cut by the Mayor of Halifax in September 1900 before 200 invited guests.
Tempest began site preparations and set up a base camp at Whitehill Nook, near Heptonstall, where the land levels out after the steep climb from Hebden Bridge.
Then a light railway was built from Whitehill Nook to the reservoirs site. It required several bridges, including the trestle bridge over Alcomden Water at Blake Dean. The 700 ft-long bridge was supported by enormous pine timbers on stone piers and reached a maximum height of 108 feet.
The tank engines used to haul the trains weighed around 10 tons and had to be hauled up the steep road from Hebden Bridge to Whitehill Nook on a bogie truck pulled by teams of carthorses.
The navvies, for their daily trip to the reservoirs site, travelled in coaches which were formerly horse-drawn tramcars, from Liverpool, painted blue and green and with destinations such as “Lime Street” and “Fazakerley”.
Meanwhile work continued apace on the shanty town at Whitehill Nook that was to be home for the navvies who built the reservoirs.
The wooden huts contained a large living room with a kitchen range, a bedroom for a man and wife and a “commodious apartment” where a number of men could sleep.
There were also washhouses and toilets, storehouses, workshops, a smithy and, later, a mission chapel – but no pub! There was also a lodging house run by a man called Suthers, while other workers lived in digs in Hebden Bridge.
The navvies came to Wal-shaw from all over the country – from Cumberland, Norfolk, even Devon. Many of them brought families, which put pressure on places at the local school in Heptonstall.
Soon the “town” became known as Dawson City, after the settlement at the heart of the Klondike gold rush in the Yukon, Canada, just a few years before. Dawson City became something of a tourist attraction and organised groups came to visit two or three times a month.
But Dawson City was not without its problems. Sanitary arrangements were heavily criticised by the local medical officer of health, concerned about the possible spread of disease, and both Tempest and Suthers were prosecuted and fined for failing to provide adequate sanitation.
Concern about disease proved justified when, as early as 1901, two people developed typhoid fever and were taken to hospital in Todmorden.
And two years later, despite warnings, there was an outbreak of smallpox, which spread in spite of a campaign of vaccination. Children were kept away from school and the navvies found themselves shunned by local people.
In all there were 60 cases of smallpox in the Hebden Bridge and Todmorden areas but only one victim died.
But disease was not the only problem. The reservoirs were dangerous places to work and there were many accidents, mainly through falls or damage to eyes caused by the explosive cartridges used to blast the rock.
Eventually a hospital was set up at Dawson City, with two beds, while serious cases were sent to the Royal Halifax Infirmary.
Then there was the demon drink. Suthers, owner of the Dawson City lodging house, planned a canteen, with grocery store and kitchen and applied for a licence to sell drink.
There was much opposition, not least from the landlords of Heptonstall’s four pubs, and the licence was refused, but there certainly was illicit drinking in Dawson City and one Eliza Howard was convicted for selling intoxicating drink without a licence.
But it was not all gloom. The Navvy Mission Society established a church in a hut built for the purpose and it became the hub of social life in Dawson City, with recreational activities, Bible classes and mothers’ meetings.
Dawson City also played sport, with cricket and soccer teams and even a series of bagatelle matches against the locals of Heptonstall Slack Mechanics Institute.
Meanwhile the giant construction enterprise was not going well for Enoch Tempest. His money problems increased and he had to use his property in Marple as security for loans to continue the work.
But costs continued to escalate and his life was made worse by criticism over the slow progress of the work.
By 1903 Halifax Corporation was told it would cost an extra £86,000 to complete the scheme and had to apply to the Local Government Board for permission to borrow the extra cash. This incurred the wrath of the Ratepayers Ass-ociation of Halifax, which accused the council of profligate spending.
In the end permission to borrow the extra money was granted – but the financial pressures continued and the matter became an issue during the local elections of 1905.
To rub salt into the wound, soon afterwards it was announced that completing the works would cost yet another £35,000. By 1906 the scheme had cost £240,000 and eventually the total reached £300,000 – approaching double Tempest’s initial contract.
But by 1907 the new reservoirs began to be filled and on October 1 of that year they were officially opened by the chairman and vice-chairman of the corporation’s waterworks committee in front of an invited audience of councillors and other local worthies who had travelled in a procession of wagonettes and charabancs from Halifax Town Hall.
But the celebrations were premature. Within a month testing showed that all three reservoirs were leaking. Tempest undertook to carry out remedial work but the strain on him had had its effect and he suffered a stroke and died on August 21 1908.
Even with his death the fin-ancial problems were not over. There began a long-running dispute between the Corporation and Tempest’s executors over payments made and additional work done. This was finally settled in 1909 – at a cost to the Corporation of £31,000.
A new company took over the work. Boreholes were drilled into the floors of the reservoirs and concrete poured in to stop the leaks – but the job was not completed until July 1915.
But this work did not need Dawson’s City’s navvies and by then they had moved on. By July 1913 the site of Dawson City had been cleared. Enoch’s locomotives were sold off to work on other contractors’ railways. Demolition of the spectacular viaduct at Blakedean began in August 1912 and was completed by November, leaving only the stone foundations. It was the end of a great engineering adventure.
City in the Hills brings to life a remarkable story from Calderdale’s past. But the book is also remarkable for its many photographs , thanks to the Hebden Bridge Local History Society and the Alice Longstaff Collection as well as several other collections which together make up the Pennine Horizons Digital Archive.
The illustrations range from rare photos of the Dawson City shanties to pictures of the Blake Dean bridge, the various locomotives and the navvies at work.
nCity in the Hills: Dawson City and the Building of the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs by Corinne McDonald and Ann Kilbey is published by Hebden Bridge Local History Society at £11.99, available from Fred Wade’s bookshop, Rawson Street, Halifax.