The Loss of the SS Alder

4th April 1937

The loss of the SS Alder was another shipping tragedy which took place in Carlingford Lough.  Kilkeel man Robert Campbell and his wife Kate were lost as a result, along with four other crew members.

Captain Robert Kate Campbell

Captain Robert Campbell and his wife Kate Campbell.

On board the Alder were; Captain Robert Campbell, his wife Kate and the crew: Chief Engineer; Robert McGrath, Second Engineer; J. Davis, Mate; Michael O’Neill and Deck Hands; Jack Gormas, John Conlin, James Hollywood and W. Cahoun.

ONeill, Hollywood and Cahoun

O’Neill, Hollywood and Cahoun.

The Collision

At 4am on 4 April 1937 the SS Alder steamed her way into the Lough through dense fog. Captain Robert Campbell did not want to proceed in the bad conditions so to dropped anchor off Greencastle, to lie up for a few hours before heading on to Newry.

Around 45 minutes after dropping anchor the SS Lady Cavan bound for Liverpool loomed out of the fog and struck the Alder amidships. Captain Campbell, O’Neill, Hollywood and Cahoun were on deck at the time, about to change watch.

SS Lady Cavan

The SS Lady Cavan

Those aboard the Alder thought there was no immediate danger, but the Lady Cavan saw that there was and offered them assistance and a chance to board their ship but the Alder crew declined.

Captain Campbell went below to get his wife and she came on board wearing an overcoat.

When the Lady Cavan reversed her engines the damage became apparent and the Alder began to list. Water began to rush in through the gaping hole in the Alder and she sank to the depths of the Lough, taking all aboard with her.

Remains of the SS Alder

The remains of the SS Alder.

O’Neill and Hollywood however were strong swimmers and managed to surface and made it to an upturned lifeboat. Cahoun who was a non-swimmer luckily came to the surface beside an oar and was able to hold on until the Lady Cavan rescued him.


The lifeboat of the Lady Cavan searched until daylight but there was no sign of Captain Campbell and his wife or the other four crew members. Robert and Kate left behind four children. The search continued for the bodies on the Sunday and Monday to no avail.

Funeral of Captain Robert Campbell

Funeral of Captain Robert Campbell

On the morning of Tuesday 7 April the body of a woman was washed ashore at Rathcor on Dundalk Bay. It was identified as Mrs Kathleen Campbell. She was clad in her night attire and fur coat. Searches continued for the other bodies. Captain Campbell’s body was not recovered until July 1937.

Funeral procession of Captain Campbell coming through Kilkeel Town

Funeral procession of Captain Campbell coming through Kilkeel Town.

Construction of the Silent Valley, Stage 2


Stage 2: Construction

The tender was awarded to Messers S. Pearson and Sons in 1923 to construct the Silent Valley; an impounding reservoir with a capacity of 3000 million gallons. Lord Carson cut the first sod on 10 October and within weeks Watertown began to form.

Cutting of the first sod by Lord Carson at the Silent Valley in 1923

Cutting of the first sod by Lord Carson

There was a purpose built railway running between the Valley and Annalong Town. It was used for machinery, materials and men. Over 2000 men worked on the Valley between 1923 and 1933. It was a godsend for Mourne folk looking for employment. Many crossed the mountains twice a day to get to work.

Locomotive and wagons at Silent Valley 1926

The Dam Cut Off Trench

This 212 ft. trench was required below the dam to make sure the water did not seep out under the dam. This was a challenge as the subsoil was wet silt and the solid bedrock was not located until a depth of 60m was reached. A pioneering method was used to dig the trench by using compressed air.

Dam cut off trench during construction

The dam cut off trench during construction.

Shafts lined with cast iron were sunk into the ground at 11m apart by working in the compressed air. The water was then pumped out through the shafts from the waterlogged silt. The shafts were connected by a trench and then filled with concrete. This extremely tough work was reserved for the fittest men. An air lock chamber, ‘The Gazoon’ was used to decompress the workers to prevent them from getting the bends.

Decompression chamber used for workers diggin the dam cut off trench

The decompression chamber used to de-compress the workers.

The Embankment

Above the dam trench a watertight barrier of puddle clay was built up layer by layer to prevent water seeping through the dam. The embankment slopes were then completed with ‘graded rock fill’, soil, grass and then with covered with granite blocks.

As one of the greatest civil engineering achievements ever, the Silent Valley Reservoir was opened on 24th May 1933 by the Duke of Abercorn. The final cost of the scheme was £1.35 million.

The opening ceremony 1933

Opening of the Silent Valley, 1933.

The third stage of construction would begin in 1949 to build the Slieve Bignian Tunnel and the Ben Crom Reservoir.

Tragedies During Construction

Some Silent Valley workers unfortunately lost their lives due to tragic accidents:

  • Jimmy Baines: found at a stone crushing plant after falling from a concrete staging.
  • Sam Cooke: a rope holding a skip full of concrete broke and fell on him.
  • John Cousins: caught between two wagons.
  • William Forsythe: timber staging for tipping concrete collapsed on him.
  • John Murphy: 18 years old when he lost his footing coming out of a trench.
  • George Phillips: a rope runner who got a leg infection when injured jumping onto a moving train.
  • Hugh Quinn: a pump man who drowned in a flooded shaft.
  • Michael Synott: a steam crane overturned but he managed to save his workmate by pushing him out of the way.
  • Jim Moore: killed during construction of Ben Crom, crushed by stones.

John Murphy John Cousins

John Murphy and John Cousins

Construction of the Silent Valley, Stage 1

The Silent Valley Scheme was drawn up, consisting of three stages due to the ever increasing demand for water. The Mournes were recommended to supply Belfast with water due to the quantity of water available and its purity. Frederick William McCullough, Chief Engineer to Belfast City and District Water Commission designed the Silent Valley Reservoir but died before its completion.

Silent Valley, known as the Happy Valley before construction began

The Happy Valley, as it was known before construction


Stage 1

The first stage began with the purchase of 9000 acres of ‘water catchment area’ in the Mournes and plans to build a 22 mile boundary wall. The water was to be diverted from the Kilkeel and Annalong Rivers, via 35 miles of tunnels and pipelines to a holding reservoir at Knockbracken near Belfast.

Workers in a crane

Workers in a crane

1904- 1922

The Mourne Wall was started in 1904 to define the boundary of the 9000 acres purchased. It stretches for 22 miles and took 18 years to complete. The work was carried out during April to October, giving employment to those Mourne men skilled in granite working.

The Mourne Wall

The Mourne Wall


This small town was built on the Western side of the Valley. The workers lived here; carpenters, electricians, plumbers, engineers. It became home to 600-700 people and a total of 2000 lived here over the period of construction. The houses were made from wood for the workers and their families.

William Cousins' Cycle Workshop at the Silent Valley 1929

William Cousins’ Cycle Workshop at the Silent Valley, 1929

Women made porridge for the men and left it outside overnight. It was then cut into slices for the workers lunch or ‘piece’. Watertown had a small hospital with a doctor and a nurse, a hall for dances, snooker, boxing etc. which also acted as a ‘silent movie’ cinema. There were shops which ranged from grocery to hardware to boot mending. A blue van called the ‘Tin Lizzie’ would take people to Kilkeel on Fridays and Saturdays if they needed any extra shopping. A generator provided the first street lights in Ireland through the original vacuum lamps.

The Silent Valley police squad 1926. Seated is Sergeant William Bullick and Constable Lawless

Silent Valley Police Squad, 1926. Seated is Sergeant William Bullick and Constable Lawless