The coming of the railway to Donegal opened up a whole new vista of commercial and social activity in the town and surrounding area. Rail transport became an important element in the economic structure of the countryside. Journeys that took several days by horse drawn coach heretofore could now be covered in a fraction of the time, and in what appeared to be luxurious comfort. Cargo deliveries too were unbelievably quick compared with the previous method of getting supplies by horse and cart or by boat to the local port.
The railway appeared to be the answer to many problems. The railway line from Stranorlar to Donegal was opened in April 1882. The company had serious financial difficulties and the line stopped short at Driminin four miles from the town where a temporary railhead was established. Passengers were brought to Donegal town by horse drawn cars at a cost of sixpence each. The rail track extension to the town was not completed until 1889. Even then the Station buildings were not the property of the West Donegal Railway as the company was then known, but were leased to them by an independent company. Donegal lost a golden opportunity for still further development when this company expressed interest in building a hotel and golf course on a site convenient to the Spa Baths and promoting the latter to the status of those in Leamington England and some continental countries. The company failed to get local business people interested in the proposed project.
In June 1892 the West Donegal Railway and the Finn Valley Railway amalgamated to become the Donegal Railway Company. In August 1893 the Donegal/Killybegs extension was opened and twelve years later in September 1905 the Ballyshannon line was opened. There was a week's trial run over the Ballyshannon section during which time goods traffic only was carried before the directors pronounced it safe for passengers. The Donegal Independent reporting on the opening said, "it ran as steadily as if the line had been opened for years."
The introduction of rail excursions brought a new era of enterprise to small communities along the routes served by the rail system and while seaside resorts like Rossnowlagh benefited most from these nevertheless Donegal Town, because of its scenic attractions and Spa Baths figured largely in the excursion itineraries. On the 1st August 1890 The Ballyshannon Herald carried this report: "Over 400 people, accompanied by two bands, travelled by train from Stranorlar to Donegal Town. They were met by a large crowd at the station and marched over the wooden bridge, up Castle Street and into the Diamond where they gave a selection of music outside McGinty's Hotel. The Donegal Band, under Daniel Carr, turned out to meet them. The party was led by Father Edward McDevitt, C. S. Stranorlar. In the afternoon dancing took place in the Market Hall, kindly lent for the occasion by Mr. Henry Kyle, agent for Lord Aran. Some took advantage of the visit to take the health giving waters of the Spa".
Over the years there were frequent excursions from Derry to Donegal and this tradition persisted right up to the 1930's when the famous Oak Band excursion, among others, stopped over in Donegal for some hours before going on to Ballyshannon to join the G.N.R. train for Bundoran. The popular Hills of Donegal excursions also made a stop-over in Donegal town. These operated from Belfast in conjunction with the Great Northern Railway. They returned to Belfast via Ballyshannon and Bundoran.
The little resort of Rossnowlagh with its two miles of golden beach became a popular venue for excursionists, and it was particularly favoured by Sunday School groups for their annual outings. Rossnowlagh was also the traditional venue for the annual 12th of July Orange parade and very often the railway company had to bring out all its available rolling stock to cope with it. On one notable occasion the demand was so great that open goods wagons were whitewashed and used for passenger transport. The A.O.H. demonstration held every 15th August was also a good source of revenue for the railway and depending on the venue these often called for travel over the two railways systems in the county - C.D. Railway and Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway.
This also occurred on excursions to Doon Well, a popular pilgrim site. No doubt many people in this area will recall with pleasure rail excursions organised in the 1930s by the local St. Vincent de Paul Society. Upwards of three to four hundred people availed of Sunday trips to places like Portrush and Warrenpoint.
The railway became a part of the people. They depended on it for all their transport needs. It had nostalgic memories too for many of them; memories of a son or daughter leaving the first time to emigrate to America, some of them never to come back again; or perhaps a more pleasant memory of a loved one returning after a lifetime spent abroad.
It became a timepiece too for the farmer in the field, a reminder of milking time; a jolt to the loiterer; a joy to the school child awaiting the whistle the 'Master' was certain not to ignore. The steam train became a familiar sight as it chugged its way through mountain and glen. People living near the tracks came to their doors to wave to the drivers most of whom they knew by name - "It must be half-past one, there's Jimmy and Francy".
In its early days, the train presented some intrepid motorists with an opportunity to pit their racing skills against the steam engine especially along the Barnesmore Road which ran alongside the railway track. Mr. Henry White recounts how his father Major Henry White of Lough Eske Castle, made an arrangement with one engine driver to race through Barnesmore Gap, the steam engine against the Major's French manufactured Sizare sports car. However no finishing line had been set so the engine driver assuming it to be Stranorlar raced through the station at full speed. He was half a mile away before he could halt the train and shunt back to the station.
The railway continued to enjoy a transport monopoly but this was threatened when escalating costs caused them to increase their rates. They found this a useful expedient each time they were faced with a heavy outlay until eventually merchants began to object and in 1924 the merchants of Donegal, Ballyshannon and Killybegs united in their decision to inaugurate a direct shipping service from Liverpool and Glasgow into this area. Mr. John Gallen, a well known Donegal Town business man who convened the meeting, said the railway company were not in favour and would do their best to nip the project in the bud. Mr. Gallen and Mr. Joseph Irwin were appointed to seek a meeting with the Minister in Dublin. The outcome of this interview is not known but the proposed shipping service did not materialise. No doubt the traders were able to come to some accommodation with the railway company.
A Donegal shipping company, The Irish Steam Trawling Company with a share capital of 20,000 £1 shares was registered some time earlier but it is not clear if this was connected with the proposed Liverpool/Glasgow project mentioned above. The directors were P. J. Ward, solicitor, Francis Campbell, Tirconaill Street and John Gallen, Diamond.
A time arrived when steam trains were becoming too expensive to operate and the company were forced to consider an alternative motor power. One wonders if electrification, as suggested by one of the directors in the early days of the railway, would not have been more economical and might perhaps have prevented the inevitable close-down in later years.
At this time there was a small four wheel inspection car in use at Stranorlar. It was covered and could seat six people. The original engine had been replaced by a Ford 22 hp. The vehicle was pressed into service during the coal strike of 1926 to operate the Mail Service from Stranorlar to Glenties. This gave Mr. Henry Forbes, General Manager of the C.D.R. the idea of using this kind of transport to replace steam trains and in 1926 he purchased two railcars from the Derwent Valley Railway, had them altered to 3ft. gauge and put into operation in Donegal. It was not long until all the services were being operated by railcars. This enabled the company to maintain an excellent service during the last war when other railways could only provide skeleton schedules. The rail cars are fondly remembered by the many hundreds of people from the Twin Towns and Donegal Town who travelled on them to cut and win their turf during the war years.
Although Henry Forbes was a railway man first and last and made no secret of his preference for trains he was also a man of great perception. When he recognised that private road haulage was becoming increasingly competitive he decided to meet it head on and had no hesitation in using lorry operations for his goods traffic. There was also useful revenue to be earned by supplying lorries for contract work with the county council road making department. Despite the best efforts of Mr. Forbes and his successor Mr. B. L. Curran the railway became unprofitable and the rail operation was closed down.
Railway enthusiasts can sympathise with the feeling of many at that emotional time and an amusing incident reveals the extent of that feeling; two of the staff, Joe Thompson and Guard Tommy McCafferty, who operated the services between Donegal and Ballyshannon simply refused to accept the company edict that all rail services cease as from the night of December 30, 1959. They continued to use the rail car laid up in Donegal to carry on a regular goods service between the two railheads. They submitted their journals regularly and it was a month before the powers-that-be realised that they had a two-man Railway operating their goods service out of Donegal. A saddened Joe later commented, "I was broken hearted when I came in for work one morning and found that my rail car had disappeared - men came over from Stranorlar the previous night and took it away".
The C. D. Railway had a very good safety record. Their most serious accident occurred on August 29, 1949 when a steam goods train and a rail car met head on at Hospital halt about a half-mile from Donegal Station (see 'Tragedies'). The rail car driver James McIntyre, Ballyshannon and two passengers Mrs. Mary Stevenson, Donegal and Mrs. Rebecca Fawcett, Ballinamallard, Co. Fermanagh were killed. A number of people were injured.
No feature on Donegal Railways would be complete without reference to some members of the staff who gave long service in Donegal.
The first stationmaster was George Hanlon. He was followed by John McGowan who had 45 years service with the company. When the latter retired he was succeeded by George Long who was transferred from Glenties. The last stationmaster to serve in Donegal was Willie Johnston. Other staff members who served in Donegal station over the years included Eddie Birney, Willie Hegarty, Dessie Hegarty, Jim Craig, Sonny McGinley, John McHugh, Christy Kennedy, Dermot McMahon, Donal Feely, Sean Monaghan, Jim Weir, Jack McMullen, Seamus Crawford, Michael Boyle, Dan Boyle, Jack Wilson, Connie Friel, Jimmy Melly, Paddy Brogan, Kathleen McGinty (Meehan). The first lady to take over the book stall in the station was a Miss Hanlon daughter of the stationmaster, later by Miss Dorothy Keenan and finally Miss Margaret Walsh. Miss Keenan emigrated to Canada where she maintained her links with the railway. She attained a high rank in the trade union - The Canadian Brotherhood of Railwaymen and played a leading role in the great strike of 1919. She was fatally injured in an accident some time later and the union honoured her by renaming Divison 142 The Dorothy Keenan Division. Miss Keenan was a member of the Keenan family, Castle View.
The Old Station House has been renovated and given a new lease of life by the South Donegal Railway Restoration Society. It is now known as the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre and is the headquarters of the Society. It comprises a museum, information centre and a shop. It will appeal to locals and tourists alike with information on the history of the railway, photographic displays, guides to the old routes and treasured railway memorabilia. There are even hopes of building a substantial section of the original track.
An Post has commemorated the Narrow Gauge Railways by issuing four new stamps, one of which shows the engine Blanche at Donegal Station.