The idea of developing a railway to serve west Cavan and Leitrim was first considered in 1883, the primary reason being the existence on mineral deposits (iron ore) around the eastern shores of Lough Allen and the coal seams at Arigna in Co. Roscommon.
On 14th September 1883 Lord Kingston chaired the first public meeting in Ballinamore where it was resolved to build a light railway to connect Belturbet, Ballyconnell, Ballinamore, Fenagh, Mohill and Dromod with a steam tramway upon the road from Ballinamore to Drumshambo and Boyle. An act of parliament in London was required to set this work in motion.
The name of the company would be the Cavan, Leitrim and Roscommon Light Railway and Tramway Company incorporated under the Tramway and Public Companies (Ireland) Act 1883. The line would be 33.5 miles long, the gauge was fixed at 3 feet wide using 45lb rail in 27ft lengths fully mileposted. The construction costs were set at £4,200 per mile and the overall capital sum required was £30,000 divided into £5.00 shares. Baronial guarantees were granted at the sprind assizes of 1884, whereby investors were guaranteed 5% on their investments, with any deficit to be levied on the residents and businesses within a 5 mile radius of the railway lines. At this stage Roscommon withdrew from the project.
Construction work on the main Dromod to Belturbet line began in the Autumn of 1885. Work to the branch to the Arigna mines, which was always referred to as the tramway, began in 1886.The main line was completed in the summer of 1887. It was inspected and approved by Major General Hutchinson in October of that year.
The first train from Belturbet to Ballinamore was recorded on July 26th 1887, at its head was the "Lady Edith" engine. The first proper revenue earned was when a "pig Special" ran from Mohill to Dromod and Belturbet on September 6th 1887. The engine crew consisted of driver Barber and fireman O'Hanlon, guard Henshaw and the No.2 engine, the "Kathleen" at its head.
On October 17th 1887 the C&L line was officially opened for goods traffic on the 24th of October opened for passengers
Belturbet represented the northern terminus for the GNR branch line from Ballyhaise on that company's mainline from Belfast to Cavan. The trains terminated on opposite sides of the single platform
Most of the buildings at Belturbet were owned by GNR. The Cavan and Leitrim Railway had a small locomotive shed here, but it was not used in later years. The C&L Stationmasters house is still in use locally as a family home. The C&L good's shed is still intact but its engine shed and carriage shed were both demolished. The C&L turntable was removed from the site when it became derelict, but its water tower was recently rebuilt close to its original location at the site. Water supplies for the GNR and C&L were pumped from the river Erne by windmill pumps until 1925, when mechanical pumps were installed.
Up until 1914, the C&L service consisted of 3 mixed trains(1st and 3rd class only) in each direction on weekdays, with special trains laid on as necessary for local fairs. The journey from Belturbet to Dromod took 2 hours and 10 minutes. From Ballinamore to Arigna generally took 1 ½ hours owing to a speed limit of 12 MPH on the sections alongside the public road. After 1921, services were reduced and up until 1939 two trains ran each way on weekdays, except between Ballinamore and Dromod, where there were three. There were good onward connections available on the GNR at Belturbet and the MGWR at Dromod.
Passenger fares in 1887:   2 pence per mile in 1st class and 1 pence in 3rd class
Though the Traffic on the C&L was substantial, it did not live up to the very optimistic forecasts of the line's promoters and the first operating surplus was not recorded until 1893. All through the C&Ls independent existence profits were never sufficient to pay the guaranteed interest and the ratepayers were called upon to make up the difference.
In 1905 there was a spectacular board room row, which resulted in the loss of a grant of £24,000 of government money to build an extension up to the coal mines from the existing C&L terminus at Arigna. In 1914 the need to maximise Irish coal production during WWI was the catalyst which led to the construction of the 4 mile and 374 yard extension of the Arigna line.
The coal from Arigna was a very good revenue earner for the C&L and GNR, this kept both lines and the station at Belturbet open for much longer than would otherwise have been the case. Coal from Arigna was transshipped by hand at Dromod and Belturbet. During WWII Arigna coal became vitally important nationwide.
On January 1st 1945 the Great Southern Railway became Coras Iompair Eireann, or C.I.E, which in turn became Iarnroid Eireann. In 1952 proposals were drafted to close the Belturbet section of the C&L line, but no action was taken. In late 1955 the Irish Government decided to build a coal-fired power station on the shores of Lough Allen, set to open in mid 1957. Consequently, the entire output of the Arigna mines would have been needed to fuel it. This was very bad news for the Cavan and Leitrim Railway Company. There was some reprieve in 1956 when Laydens, the Arigna mining company won a contract to supply Drogheda Cement Factory with 300 tonnes of coal per day. This was certainly a boom time for C&L
However by 1958, this contract had expired and the C&L was running at an annual loss of £40,000 with an estimated £200,000 needed for urgent modernisation of the line. Easter Monday and Tuesday 1959 were the last days of the Cavan and Leitrim Railway Company. Extra trains were provided on all the lines. By then only one original C&L engine (No.4 Violet) remained in service. Four engines from the closed down Tralee and Dingle line worked the last day of the C&L
The Cavan and Leitrim Railway Company was the second last narrow gauge railway company to close in Ireland (the last was West Clare Railway company). The C&L was the only Irish narrow gauge company to stay with steam throughout its lifetime.
The last journey took place on a dark night on Tuesday 31st March 1959
All who knew the C&L felt a deep sense of personal loss at the passing of a service that had become an integral part of their lives.