One of the most intriguing events in Blackpool’s history saw a steam train, known as the ‘Sand Express’ which ran alongside the famous tramway in 1911.
Also referred to as the ‘Sand’s Express’ it consisted of five industrial steam engines namely Netherton, Horbury, Reliance, Annie and Alice.
After building a concrete wall 18ft high and 100 yards along the beach by the Metropole Hotel, the gap between it and the former sea wall required a quarter of a million tons of sand for infill.
Due to the change in tides with the construction of the sea wall between North and South Piers in 1905, huge deposits of sand had accumulated at South Shore with a great bank stretching from St Chad’s Road to Balmoral Road.
Three options were considered for the conveyance of sand to be used for infill: the use of horse and cart transportation was deemed to be expensive. Using the tramway would cause damage to the track. The third option was chosen, this being a standard guage light industrial railway, to become known as the Sand Express.
The first saddle tank engines of the express to arrive were the Netherton and the Horbury. They arrived via the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway sidings at Rigby Road then along a loop to the highways yard then on to temporary tracks laid through the streets to the promenade. Each engine was capable of hauling twelve wagons. The sand was loaded by the Victoria Pier (now known as South Pier) by a gang of 80 men working with shovels. The loaded wagons were then shunted along temporary tracks on the beach to the slade at Waterloo Road known as Waterloo Junction. As one engine pulled the wagons up the slade, the other engine then transported the sand filled wagons northwards to the Metropole.
On the return journey (unladen) the engines were capable of reaching speeds of 40mph and easily beat the trams in a race to the Victoria Pier as they trundled along at a sedate 12mph.
Due to the inferior quality of coal, the engines were unable to get a good head of steam which consequently extended the deadline for completion. A third engine ‘Reliance’ was called for and worked round the clock to make up for lost time. Although a more powerful engine than either the Netherton or the Horbury she was capable of pulling 20 trucks. However the Reliance belied its name by the frequency with which it jumped the rails, blocking the track and delaying the work yet again.
Due to the continuing bad weather, in February a fourth engine ‘Annie’ arrived. Despite frantic efforts the project could not be completed for the Easter deadline. By mid-April the fifth engine ‘Alice’ arrived for the final push (or pull). The project was finally completed. By 23rd May, all that remained of the Sand Express were the indentations of the track along the promenade and the waves broke over the sea wall at South Shore for the first time in 15 years.
The whole of the reclaimed area is known as Princess Parade after being officially opened by HRH Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll on May Day 1912.
James Shanks Brodie, the borough engineer was responsible for the project which also included an extension of the promenade between the North Pier and Cocker Square commencing on 1st February 1911. It was completed by May the same year.
Four and a half acres was reclaimed from the sea at a cost in excess of £40,000. 4000 tons of basalt stone blocks were used to face the concrete wall. These blocks some are still visible, were imported from quarries in Northern Ireland and the Rhine Valley in Germany.
The sand diggers were first paid 5d per hour – after much discontent by diggers/loaders this was raised to 6d per hour. The workmen who managed to put in 80 hours a week received the princely sum of £2.
With many engineering projects over the years attracting discontent the Sand Express had its own problems. There were complaints of sand, coal and cinders being scattered along the promenade.
With smoke nuisance from the locomotives due to inferior quality of coal leading to the seafront, landladies trying in vain to remove the accumulation of soot and grime from their premises and loss of sleep at night with the shrill and prolonged whistling of the engines keeping them awake.
The war memorial erected in 1923 stands today on sand conveyed by the Sand Express in 1911.