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History of the canals we use today

Discover the history of some of the world’s most incredible canals

Corinth Canal, Greece

Posted on

26 Nov 2020

From the world-famous Panama Canal to the enchanting waterways of China’s Grand Canal, discover the fascinating history of the canals so widely used today.

The Grand Canal, China

The Grand Canal, China

Length: 1,115 miles

There’s a good reason why it’s called The Grand Canal. Spanning 1,115 miles from Beijing in the north of China to Zhejiang province in the south, the canal dates back as early as 5th century BC. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, The Grand Canal has a fascinating history and continues to draw visitors from all over the world.

Where it started: Known to be the second oldest section of the canal, Han Gou was ordered to be built by King Fuchai of Wu, ruler of the State of Wu (now Suzhou). Work began in 486 BC and within three years the Han Gou connected the Yangtze River and the Huai River. It is believed that the Hong Gou preceded Han Gou, connecting the Yellow River to the Si and Bian rivers.

Sections of the Grand Canal in Zheijiang and southern Jiangsu provinces were mostly created by the Sui dynasty to transport grain to the capital. By the year 600, major build-ups of silt in the Hou Gou canal obstructed river barges, so it was decided that a new canal would be built passing Suzhou.

Over five million men and women built the first main section of the Grand Canal, named the Bian Qu. The canal was fully completed under the second Sui emperor between 604 and 609. This allowed the southern area to provide grain to the northern province. In the years to come, the canal was responsible for a boost in economic activity and commercial profit. But parts of the canal were destroyed during the Jin-Song wars and restored between 1411 and 1415 during the Ming dynasty.

In 1855, the Yellow River flooded and changed its course, severing the route of the canal in Shandong. Because of the difficulty of crossing the Yellow River, the increased development of an alternative route for grain-ships and the opening of the Tianjin-Pukou and Beijing-Hankou Railways, the canal suffered and for decades the northern and southern parts remained separate. Even today, the Grand Canal has not fully recovered.

The Grand Canal today: Only the section from Hangzhou to Jining is currently navigable. The course is divided into seven sections, the Jiangnan Canal, the Li Canal, the Zhong Canal, the Lu Canal, the South Canal, the North Canal and the Tonghui River. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the canal has been used mainly to transport bricks, gravel, sand, diesel and coal.

While much of the Grand Canal is no longer in use, the ancient city of Suzhou still has many beautiful, traditional waterways to explore. Robert Einhorn, North American Representative for Suzhou Tourism, said, “Given China’s rapid economic growth and urban expansion, Suzhou is one of the few cities remaining that offers an opportunity for travellers of all ages to experience traditional China.

“Travellers can appreciate authentic Chinese culture when journeying across Suzhou’s narrow streets and winding waterways - which give way to its nickname as ‘Venice of China’ - or while exploring the city’s old town district, the layout of which has remained unchanged for the past 2,500 years.

“Boating on the canals is one of the best ways to get a panoramic view of the landscapes of typical water towns, such as Tongli, which include ancient dwellings, stone bridges of traditional designs and historical relics. Visitors can take in the Suzhou way of life and appreciate the surrounding scenery by enjoying tea and local cuisine at one of the many traditional teahouses on the canal.”

Did you know? The Grand Canal’s highest point reaches the mountains of Shandong at 42 metres.

Suez Canal, Egypt

Suez Canal, Egypt

Length: 120 miles

The Suez Canal is a huge artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Like most of the world’s most famous canals, the Suez has a remarkable history and continues to be developed to keep up with the modern shipping industry.

Where it started: According to ancient sources, the Pharaoh Senusret III may have built an early canal linking the Red Sea and the Nile River as far back as 1850 BC. Pharaoh Necho II and the Persian conqueror Darius are also said to have begun building then abandoned work on a similar project. The canal was reportedly completed in the third century BC during the Ptolemaic Dynasty. It is believed Cleopatra may have travelled on it.

After conquering Egypt in 1798, French military commander Napoleon Bonaparte ordered surveyors to look into the feasibility of cutting the Isthmus of Suez to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Following four trips to the region, the surveyors concluded that the Red Sea was 30 feet higher than the Mediterranean and attempting to build a canal could cause disastrous flooding.

When planning for the Suez Canal began in 1854 by a French company led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, he gained support from the French Emperor Napoleon III. British statesmen then considered the construction of the canal to be a political scheme, designed to undermine their dominance of global shipping. A war of words commenced between the British Primer Minister Lord Palmerston and Ferdinand de Lesseps and the British Empire continued to oppose the Suez Canal. But when the Egyptian government needed money in 1875, they auction off their share to Britain.

Using a combination of forced peasant labour and modern machinery, the canal took a long time to build. The Egyptian government forced tens of thousands of peasants to dig initial sections of the canal by hand, using picks and shovels. The project stalled when the use of forced labour was banned in 1863, so custom-made steam and coal-powered shovels and dredgers were brought in.

During the 1967 six-day war between Egypt and Israel, the Suez Canal was shut down, trapping a fleet of 15 international ships. They were moored at the canal#s midpoint in Great Bitter Lake and were stranded for eight years, earning the nickname ‘Yellow Fleet’ because desert sand filled their decks. Crewmembers passed the time by forming their own floating community and hosting social events. The stranded fleet even developed its own internal system of trade. When the ships were allowed to leave in 1975, only two were fit enough to take to the seas.

The Suez Canal today: The Suez Canal is still developing. In 2015, a new 22-mile section branching off the main waterway was opened. The canal has been a vital route for trade ships. The 120-mile canal passes the spectacular cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia, with grand yet crumbling architecture.

Did you know? The Statue of Liberty was originally meant for the Suez Canal. French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi tried to persuade de Lesseps and the Egyptian government to let him create a sculpture named “Egypt Bringing Light to Asia” at the Mediterranean entrance. The project never went ahead but Bartholdi carried his idea over to America where he unveiled “Liberty Enlightening the World” in New York Habour, now known as the Statue of Liberty, in 1886.

Kiel Canal, Germany

Kiel Canal, Germany

Length: 61 miles

Stretching from Brunsbüttelkoog on the North Sea to Holtenau on the Baltic Sea, the Kiel Canal is the safest, shortest and most convenient shipping route between the two seas. Build between 1997 and 1895, the canal is 160 metres wide, 11 metres deep and features seven high-level bridges rising 43 metres above the waterway.

Where it started: The first 27-mile section of the canal, at the time named the Eider Canal, was completed during the reign of Christian VII of Denmark in 1794. It spanned from Kiel to the Eider River mouth at Tonnin. After the 1864 Second Schleswig War put Schleswig-Holstein under the government of Prussia, a new canal was sought by merchants and the German navy who wanted to connect the Baltic and North Seas, to avoid sailing around Denmark.

Construction started in 1887 at Holtenau and took over 9,000 workers eight years to build. In 1895, Kaiser Wilhelm II opened the canal and it was, for some time, named after him. Over the years, the canal was widened to meet demands of the Imperial German Navy. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles required the canal to be open to vessels of commerce and of war of any nation at peace with Germany, while leaving it under German administration. The government under Adolf Hitler rejected its international status in 1936. After World War II, the canal was reopened to all traffic. In 1948, it was renamed the Kiel Canal.

The Kiel Canal today: Many large, modern cruise ships can’t pass through the Kiel Canal due to clearance limits under its bridges, but several cruise lines are able to transit the canal. Over 43,000 ships pass through the canal every year and it is considered to be the most heavily used artificial seaway in the world.

The city of Kiel is considered the gateway to this world-famous canal. Klaus Lohmann, director of the German National Tourist Office UK and Ireland, said: “Kiel is known as the Sailing City. Not only is it one of the most important ports in the Baltic Sea region, but it’s also a gateway to Germany’s beautiful coastal regions.

“While visiting this wonderful maritime city, exploring the old town is a must. Visit one of the daily local markets, take a city tour if you have the time or perhaps visit one of Kiel’s many museums. From arts to maritime history, industrial heritage or the city’s aquarium, there is something for everyone. Culinary Kiel is an experience in itself, so be sure to try local cuisine with plenty of fresh fish on offer.”

Did you know? Several railway lines cross the Kiel Canal.

Corinth Canal, Greece

Corinth Canal, Greece

Length: 4 miles

Corinth Canal is one of the world’s most famous due to its terrifyingly narrow passage. Cruise ships make the journey through this thrilling four-mile canal with just a few feet on either side. The canal connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea, cutting through the Isthmus of Corinth.

Where it started: Periander, tyrant of Corinth, was the first to propose cutting through the Isthmus, but the project was abandoned early on and a simpler, cheaper overland portage road was built instead. Throughout history, many more considered trying to build the canal. Historical documents suggest philosopher Apollonius of Tyana prophesied that anyone who proposed to dig a Corinthian channel would fall ill. Three Roman rules thought to build the canal, but all suffered violent deaths. Emperor Nero was the first to attempt the build, breaking through the ground with a pickaxe and removing the first load of soil in CE 67. But he died shortly afterwards. Nero’s workforce, including 6,000 Jewish prisoners of war, continued with the project. But it wasn’t until the 1890s that technology became available to cut across the four-mile Isthmus. The Corinth Canal finally opened in July 1893.

Due to the extremely narrow passageway, the canal failed to attract the amount of traffic anticipated by its operators. It did, however, save vessels from the 430-mile journey around the Peloponnese. It is too narrow for modern freight ships and can only accommodate vessels with a width of up to 17.6 metres. Every ship is guided through in convoy and operates on a one-way system.

The Corinth Canal today: It’s estimated that around 11,000 ships pass through the canal every year. It’s now used mostly by tourist vessels. Despite only being four-miles long, the journey is considered one of the most exciting of all the world’s canals, as the ships pass within a few feet of the towering cliffs.

Did you know? The bridges above the canal are used for bungee jumping.

Panama Canal, Panama

Panama Canal, Panama

Length: 50 miles

Perhaps the most famous canal in the world, the Panama Canal is a spectacular 50-mile passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The route created an important shortcut for ships, especially for a vessel sailing between New York and California at the time, which cut nearly 8,000 miles from its journey.

Where it started: In 1513, Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa became the first European to discover that the Isthmus of Panama was just a slim land bridge between the two oceans. His discovery sparked a fruitless search for a natural waterway and surveyors decided that construction of a canal was impossible.

The men behind the Suez Canal and the Eiffel Tower were convicted in connection with a failed effort to build the Panama Canal. In 1881, a French company led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who helped to develop the Suez Canal, began digging a canal across Panama. Engineering problems and poor planning delayed the venture and tropical diseases killed thousands of workers. De Lesseps had hoped to build the canal at sea level without locks, like the Suez Canal. But this proved difficult. Gustave Eiffel, who designed the Eiffel Tower, was hired to create locks for the canal, but de Lesseps’ company went bankrupt. At the time, France had spent more than $260 million into the project. The failed build caused a scandal in France and saw de Lesseps and Eiffel indicted on fraud and mismanagement charges.

More than 25,000 workers died in total during the construction of the Panama Canal. Builders had to deal with challenging terrain, hot and humid weather, heavy rainfall and tropical diseases. The French attempts to build the canal led to the deaths of more than 20,000 workers and America lost around 5,600 workers between 1904 and 1913. A lot of these deaths were a result of yellow fever and malaria, diseases initially attributed to bad air and unhygienic working conditions. By the 20th century, medical experts better-understood malaria and sanitation and were able to prevent more deaths.

The Panama Canal today: Between 13,000 and 14,000 ships use the canal every year. American ships mostly dominate the canal, followed by China, Chile, Japan, Columbia and South Korea. Each ship must pay a toll and around $1.8 billion is collected in tolls annually. In 2007, work began to expand the canal to handle the much larger ships travelling today. But the best way to explore the region is on a Panama Canal cruise.

Did you know? America originally wanted to build a canal in Nicaragua, not Panama, because they thought it would be more feasible for economic and military reasons.

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