Porthmadog is on the estuary of the River Glaslyn where it empties into Tremadog Bay, and the town is a convenient base for birdwatchers admiring the rich birdlife on the Bay's broad tidal flats. Westward of the town rises Moel-y-Gest, 860 feet high and looming above the town.
Since the decline of the slate industry, Porthmadog has thrived as an important shopping centre for the surrounding area and as a popular tourist destination. It has easy access to Snowdonia and is the end of the Ffestiniog Railway.
Porthmadog came into existence after William Madocks, in 1811, built a sea wall, the Cob, to reclaim a large proportion of Traeth Mawr from the sea for agricultural use. The diversion of the River Glaslyn caused it to scour a new natural harbour out, which had a draught deep enough for small ocean-going sailing ships.
The earliest documented references to the name "Port Madoc" are in the 1830s, coinciding with the opening of the Ffestiniog Railway and the town's consequent growth. The first Ordnance Survey map to use the name was published in 1838. The name was given by it founder, William Madocks, although he also justified the name as inspired by the folktale of Madog ab Owain Gwynedd, who was said to have sailed from the coast in those parts. Madog's name also appears in "Ynys Fadog" ("Madog island"). Since 1974 the town has used the Welsh form in place of ""Portmadoc".
The first public wharves at Porthmadoc were built in 1825. Individual quarry companies followed, building a series of wharves along the shore almost as far as Borth-y-Gest, and slate was carted from Ffestiniog down to the quays along the River Dwyryd, then boated to Porthmadog for transfer to sea-going vessels.
In the second half of the 19th century Porthmadog was a flourishing port, its population expanding from 885 in 1821 to over 3,000 by 1861. The rapidly expanding cities of England and Scotland needed high quality roofing slate, which was transported to the new port by tramway from the quarries in Ffestiniog and Llanfrothen. The Ffestiniog Railway opened in 1836, followed by the Croesor Tramway in 1864 and the Gorseddau Tramway in 1856, and by 1873 over 116,000 tons were exported through Porthmadog in more than a thousand ships.
By 1841 the trackway across the reclaimed land had been straightened out and was to be developed as the High Street, the main commercial street of the town. Along this street were a range of shops and public houses and a post office, with the open green retained. A mineral railway to Tremadog ran along what was to become Madoc Street. To the north was an industrial area where foundries, timber saw mills, slate works, a flour mill, soda-pop plant and gasworks were constructed.
A number of shipbuilders were active at this time, and were particularly well known for the three-masted schooners known as Western Ocean Yachts, the last of which, the Gestiana, was built in 1913.
In the 19th century Porthmadog had at least three iron foundries. The foundries produced slate-working machinery and railway equipment, supplying goods to all but one of the slate quarries operating in England and Wales. A lucrative sideline was the production of large numbers of drains and manhole covers for Caernarfonshire's roads.
Porthmadog's role as a commercial port, already reduced by the opening of the Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway in 1867, was effectively ended by the First World War, when the lucrative German market for slate disappeared. The 19th century wharves still survive, but the slate warehouses have been replaced by holiday apartments, and the harbour is used by leisure yachts.
Porthmadog is a predominantly Welsh-speaking community, with 74.9 percent of the population able to speak the language. The highest percentage of Welsh speakers is in the 10-14 age range, standing at 96.3 percent. Porthmadog hosted the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales in 1987.
Porthmadog Maritime Museum on Oakley Wharf is housed in an old slate shed and has displays about the schooners built in the town and the men who sailed in them.
The Cob is a substantial embankment built across the Glaslyn estuary in 1811 by William Madocks to reclaim land at Traeth Mawr for agriculture. The opening was marked by a four-day feast and Eisteddfod celebrating the roadway connecting Caernarfonshire to Merionethshire and which figured in Madocks's plans for a road from London to his proposed port at Porthdinllaen. Three weeks later, however, the embankment was breached by high tides and Madocks's supporters were forced to drum up money and men from all around Caernarfonshire to repair the breach and strengthen the whole embankment. By 1814 it was open again, but Madocks's finances were in ruins.
By 1836 the Ffestiniog Railway had opened its line across the embankment and it was to become the main route for Ffestiniog slate to reach the new port at Porthmadog. In 1927 the Cob was breached again, and took several months to repair.
The former tollhouse at the north western end of the Cob has slate-clad walls and is one of the few buildings which preserves the interlocking slate ridge-tiles devised by Moses Kellow, manager of Croesor Quarry. The toll was abolished in 2003 when the Welsh Assembly Government bought the Cob.
Pen Cei to the west of the harbour was the centre of the harbour's commercial activities. Boats were built and repaired and there were slate wharves for each quarry company, with tracks connecting to the railway. Bron Guallt, built in 1895, was the Oakeley Quarry shipping agent's house. Grisiau Mawr (Big Steps), connected the quay to Garth and the houses built to house the ship owners and sea captains, and it was here that the School of Navigation was built.
The Snowdon Mill on Snowdon Street is a former flour mill. It was built in 1862 and has now been renovated and converted into luxury apartments.
Buildings in the town
Kerfoots, located in a Victorian building on the High Street, is a small department store established in 1874 and contains a unique spiral staircase, chandeliers and slender cast iron columns which support the upper floors. The Millennium Dome, constructed by local craftsmen in 1999 to celebrate the store's 125th anniversary, is made of stained glass and depicts scenes from Porthmadog in 1874.
The Royal Sportsman Hotel on the High Street was built in 1862 to be a staging post on the turnpike road to Porthdinllaen. The arrival of the railway five years later brought increasing numbers of tourists, and the hotel soon became famous for its liveried carriage and horses, which transported guests to local sightseeing spots. The building was constructed using Ffestiniog slate, and the original stone and slate fireplaces are still in position.
The War Memorial stands on top of Ynys Galch, one of the former islands reclaimed from Traeth Mawr. In the form of a Celtic cross and standing 16 feet high, it was fashioned from Trefor granite and unveiled "in memory of ninety-seven fallen war heroes of Madoc Vale" in 1922.
An iron-age walled hillfort is found on Moel-y-Gest.
- Porthmadog : Gateway to Snowdonia
- Ordnance Survey : Election Maps : Gwynedd
- John Dobson and Roy Woods, Ffestiniog Railway Traveller's Guide, Ffestiniog Railway Company, Porthmadog, 2004
- "Archif Melville Richards". http://www.e-gymraeg.co.uk/enwaulleoedd/amr/cronfa_en.aspx.
- Frommer's England 2007 - Google Books. books.google.co.uk. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=flXWgM0TFhoC&pg=PA744&dq=William+Madocks&as_brr=3&client=firefox-a&cd=6#v=onepage&q=William%20Madocks&f=false. Retrieved 2010-03-28.
- Gwynedd Archaelogical Trust : Porthmadog : Historic Background
- Porthmadog : Gateway to Snowdonia : Heritage
- The Industrial Railway Record : The Britannia Foundry
- Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru : Eisteddfod Locations
- Y Ganolfan : About Us
- Gwefan Tremadog : Porthmadog Maritime Museum
- Gwynedd Archaelogical Trust : The Vale of Ffestiniog
- Welsh Assembly Government : Assembly Abolishes Toll on Porthmadog Cob
- Gwynedd Archaelogical Trust : Porthmadog Harbour
- Porthmadog : Gateway to Snowdonia : Places to Visit
- Royal Sportsman Hotel
- Geograph : War Memorial
- Welsh Stone Forum : Newsletter : Number 5 : February 2008
- Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales : Moel-y-Gest Hillfort