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The Great (Iron) Bear Crane, 1960-61

  • Great Iron Bear

This 250t capacity railway recovery crane was named URSA MAJOR (the Great Bear) and was sold with a smaller 150t capacity crane called URSA MINOR (the Little Bear) to mining company Quebec Cartier, Canada in 1960-61. URSA MINOR was built to the same design but had a smaller jib. The nickname ‘The Great Iron Bear’ name was given to the larger of the cranes due to its sheer size and North Canadian destination.

More info

The recovery cranes were used on the Cartier Railway, one of the biggest private railroads in Canada owned by mining company Ouibec Cartier. Iron ore is sent from Fermont to Port-Cartier by train on a 400 km railroad. The company owns about fifteen locomotives and about 500 open-deck cars.

Cowans Sheldon of Carlisle

Founded in 1846 at Woodbank, Upperby, this Carlisle based engineering firm established a world leading reputation in the construction of rail and dock cranes. The firm was simply known in the city as “The Cranemakers.”

In 1857 Cowans Sheldon moved to the St Nicholas site on London Road. Richardson’s engineering firm had occupied the site until bankruptcy stopped operations. The site had once been the St Nicholas Leper Hospital. By 1858 the first railway crane had been produced and was used by the Carlisle & Maryport Railway Company.

By 1866 Cowans Sheldon had built a massive 532 railway turntables. Many were exported around the globe to locations including Australia, India, Egypt and Russia. By 1891 the company had built the largest dockside crane in the country and in 1907 the first floating crane had been produced. During both World Wars I & II the company boomed due to the high demands placed upon heavy engineering for both military usage and the home front.

In 1969 the firm was bought by Clarke Chapman of Gateshead. The firm had returned to the Geordie roots of its four founders who had moved west to Cumbria.  Following a merger in 1982 with John Boyd the firm was renamed Cowans Boyd. However the omens for the firm were not good due to the decline of Britain’s heavy industries. Many British manufacturers and engineers disappeared during this time. Cowans Boyd followed this trend and in 1987 the St Nicholas works had closed. The yard may have gone but the firms legacy lives on through the roof of Carlisle Market Hall, the Citadel Railway station’s footbridge and the revolving pulpit in St Cuthbert’s Church.

Key facts: 
  • The Great Bear is the largest crane railway (railway with a steam powered crane) ever built by Carlisle firm Cowans Sheldon
  • It was sent to Quebec in Canada to be used as a mining truck for iron ore
  • Cowans Sheldon was founded in 1846 at Upperby, with a world leading reputation for rail and dock cranes. They were also important manufacturers through WWI and WWII.
  • In 1969 the firm was bought by Clarke Chapman of Gateshead, and re-named Cowans Boyd after they merged with John Boyd in 1982. Unfortunately, like a lot of British engineering works in the 1980s, Cowans Boyd declined and closed the Carlisle works in 1987. A model of the Great Bear can be seen on the Border Galleries in Tullie House Museum

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