In 1820 the Hetton Coal Company led by Arthur Mowbray, a leading land agent and banker, started to sink the first ever colliery through the thick limestone stratum covering most of East Durham.
A railway was required to carry its coal to the River Wear at Sunderland for shipment to London, the main market for the coal.
The sinking of the colliery was begun in December 1820 and completed in the summer of 1822.
The engineer appointed to design the new railway was George Stephenson. It used only steam and gravity power through its 8 mile main line and was opened on the 18th November 1822.
The railway used two of George Stephenson’s steam locomotives to haul coal for the first 1½ miles.
From here two steam stationary engines hauled waggons to the line’s summit at Warden Law, over 600ft above sea level.
Four gravity-worked rope inclines then took the waggons down to North Moor near Silksworth, from where more of Stephenson’s steam locomotives took them down to near the staiths on the river for shipment.
In 1825 Elemore Colliery, south of Hetton, was added to the line, followed by EppletonColliery, east of Hetton, in 1833 and Silksworth Colliery in 1939.
Although part of the route in Sunderland was put into tunnel after 1900, the operation of the Railway remained largely unchanged. With one diesel exception, the locomotives, although updated, remained steam, as did the two stationary engines, from 1876 and 1836.
The end came when the National Coal Board decided to sink a large ‘combined mine’ to draw coal from Elemore, Eppleton and Murton Collieries, making the railway redundant, and
most of it closed on 9th September 1959, after 127 years’ service.
The section from Silksworth to Sunderland survived to serve a coal depot, finally closing on
30th June 1972.