The Sankey Canal was built principally to transport coal from the coal mines in Haydock and Parr to the growing chemical industries of Liverpool. The Sankey Navigation Act of 1754 was “for making navigable the River or Brook called Sankey Brook”. However a clause in the Act allowed for new cuts to be made. This was taken to the extreme and virtually the whole length of the canal was a new cut running alongside the existing brook. The canal was opened in 1757 and was very profitable until the 1830’s when competition from the railways began to reduce the amount of freight carried.
The Sankey Canal was built for Mersey Flats, the common sailing craft of the local rivers; they were used on the rivers Mersey, Irwell and Weaver and along the Lancashire and North Wales coasts. To allow for the masts of the flats, swing bridges were constructed for the roads which crossed the canal. When the railways were built, they too had to cross in similar fashion. The exception was at Earlestown, where Stephenson erected the Sankey Viaduct for the country’s first passenger railway from Liverpool to Manchester, leaving 70-foot (21 m) headroom for the flats’ sails.
Following the cutting of the Sankey Canal in 1757, the Sankey Valley became an ideal location to establish industry as raw materials could easily be imported and goods exported. The canal was the catalyst for the major industrial development of the area. The ending of the sugar traffic in 1959 led to the closure of the canal in 1963. Sections of the canal were filled in due to public demand in the 1970s.
Mucky Mountains are a heap of chemical waste, the by-product of soda making from the 1830s. Using the inefficient Leblanc process, Muspratt’s Vitriol Works produced two tons of waste for every ton of soda. Large volumes of hydrochloric acid were discharged into the Canal or nearby streams. Solid wastes were simply dumped on nearby land forming large mounds. It was said that conditions in the alkali works, which closed in 1851, were so poor that the escaping gases caused men’s teeth to rot and burn their clothes. “The Muckies” are now a well-loved local landmark, and are form part of the local heritage of the area.
Given enough time, nature masks the worst scars man inflicts on the landscape and slowly, as the waste material weathered, it began to be colonised by plants not normally found in the area. Lime-loving vegetation such as Quaking Grass, Red Fescue and Carnation Grass began to dominate the site with Blue Fleabane, Common Centaury and Pyramidal Orchids adding further interest and colour.