Man-made Shortcuts for Trade
BY “AWAKE!” CORRESPONDENT IN CANADA
IT HAS been ranked in importance with victory in battle, acquiring territory or building a temple. This is how building a canal has been rated.
Are you surprised? You may well be, for the simplest canal is just a ditch dug to carry water—hardly a mighty accomplishment in itself. Although certain super-canals have been hailed “marvel of the century” or “one of the world’s wonders,” these watercourses are valued more for what they do than as monuments to human achievement.
Man long has appreciated the waterways of planet Earth, and has used them for transportation, trade and recreation. But rivers do not always lead where men want to go, and sometimes they are too wild to carry boats. Oceans are separated by land masses that take many days to sail around. So men have built detours around obstructions on rivers, and have dug shortcuts through narrow arms of land. These canals then supplement earth’s natural waterways.
The earliest ship-carrying canal on record appears to have existed in Egypt during the second millennium before the Common Era. That waterway followed almost the same route as the modern Suez Canal.
The ancient Phoenicians, Assyrians, Sumerians and Egyptians all constructed elaborate canal systems that served as a means of communication and transportation. In Babylonia, shallow basketlike vessels and rafts carried goods to and from the sea. The rivers Chebar and Ahava mentioned in the Bible may have been canals.—Ezek. 1:1; Ezra 8:21.
However, we must look to the ancient Chinese for a most significant innovation in canal building. In the year 983 of our Common Era, it is said that Chhiao Wei-Yo, assistant commissioner for transport on a section of the Grand Canal, invented the first pound lock.
A lock is a hydraulic elevator that uses water in a canal system to raise or lower a ship from one level to another. One type is the pound lock, which has gates at each end and a system of valves to fill it with water up to the level of the canal above or empty it to the level of the canal below. The first pound lock on European canals probably was built in 1373 C.E. at Vreeswijk, in Holland.
About 1485 C.E., Leonardo da Vinci put the finishing touch on basic lock design by devising the swinging or miter gate, a type still used. When the gate closes, its two leaves form an angle pointing upstream so that the water flowing downstream holds them tightly together.
With the new lock designs, canal builders could take ships up one side of a summit and down the other, and go around falls or rapids on navigable rivers. The stage was set for the Canal Age in Europe and North America.
The Canal Age
Europe’s first major canal was built in France during the early 17th century. The Briare Canal was opened in 1642. It was 34 miles (55 kilometers) long, had 40 locks, and rose 128 feet (39 meters) from Briare on the Loire River, thereafter falling 266 feet (81 meters) eventually to connect with the Seine. Reconstructed, it is used today as part of a canal system from the Seine to the Rhône.
Other major canals soon followed. The 150-mile (241-kilometer) Languedoc (now called Canal du Midi) opened in 1681 to join the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Built almost 300 years ago, it is recognized as the first modern canal.
Europe’s waterway system continued to expand, especially during the first half of the 19th century. New locks and canals opened shortcuts and connected waterways to speed along the Industrial Revolution and create the thousands of miles of interconnected systems in use today.
Farther east, canals were built in Russia to connect the Baltic Sea with the White Sea, as well as with the Black Sea and with the Caspian Sea by way of the Volga. This great river, with its many tributaries, offered some 7,200 miles (11,585 kilometers) of navigation.
In England, a frenzy of canal-digging activity from 1760 to 1800 almost doubled the navigable waterways to about 2,400 miles (3,862 kilometers). Viewing this work in progress during 1772, visiting American Benjamin Franklin wrote from London: “Rivers are ungovernable things, especially in hilly countries. Canals are quiet and very manageable.”
Franklin’s praise for the British canals may have stimulated American canal building. However, several factors brought the Canal Age to North America. There were few highways, none of them paved, and water travel was both convenient and efficient. A horse on the bank pulling a barge along a canal could move 50 tons of goods—about 400 times what it could carry on its back!
Following the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain, the push was on for westward expansion. The route along the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario did not suit the U.S., for it was controlled mostly by Canada. Moreover, there was as yet no way past Niagara Falls into Lake Erie.
So the great Erie Canal was cut. It was 363 miles (584 kilometers) long, with 82 locks, and ran from Albany on the Hudson River north of New York city to Buffalo on Lake Erie. Opened in 1825, the Erie Canal was a commercial success from the start. Consequently, in foreign trade, New York city took ascendancy over Baltimore, Boston and Philadelphia. The Erie Canal contributed to making New York one of the world’s greatest seaports.
From less than 100 miles (161 kilometers) of canals in the United States in 1816, that country’s navigable waterways have increased to 25,000 miles (40,225 kilometers) of inland systems and improved coastal channels. Although the coming of the steam locomotive brought the dominance of canals to an end, one sixth of all U.S. inland freight still is transported by water.
After the War of 1812, Canada wanted a safe route to the interior of the country and the Great Lakes, well away from the St. Lawrence and the U.S. border. The main reason was for defense, especially to bring supplies unmolested from Montreal to Kingston on Lake Ontario.
The route chosen was up the Ottawa River, a tributary of the St. Lawrence, to about 120 miles (193 kilometers) northwest of Montreal, where the Rideau River joins in from the south. From there, the Rideau Canal was built, to run 124 miles (200 kilometers) along rivers and lakes to Kingston, Ontario. It was opened in 1832, and with the Ottawa River it was for a time the best steamboat navigation route to the Great Lakes. The settlement that grew up where the Rideau Canal meets the Ottawa River is known today as Ottawa, the capital of Canada. So well was the canal constructed that its original locks are still in use. Busier than ever, each summer the Rideau system delights hundreds of visitors on pleasure craft.
Beyond Lake Ontario, magnificent Niagara Falls blocked the way to the four remaining Great Lakes. In 1829, the first Welland Canal was opened, with a rise of 326 feet (99 meters) to bypass the Falls and reach Lake Erie. More than a century later, an improved Welland Canal made possible the longest artificial seaway in the world, the St. Lawrence–Great Lakes waterway.
Great Ship Canals
There are many ship canals. But suppose we consider three that are famous.
First, there is the Kiel Canal, or “Nord-Ostsee-Kanal,” across the isthmus that separates the North Sea from the Baltic Sea. There the Vikings once used horses to drag their ships across land on rollers. Germany opened the canal from sea to sea in 1895 as an important outlet for her expanding navy. The 61-mile (98-kilometer) canal soon outgrew its naval origin and now is one of the busiest in the world, handling more shipping than the two more famous canals—Suez and Panama—combined.
The Suez Canal was opened in 1869 as “a contribution to world unity.” More than 100 miles (161 kilometers) long, it is appropriately called the “Big Ditch.” Because the Mediterranean and the Red Sea are the same in elevation, the Suez Canal connecting them requires no locks. It cuts off almost 4,000 miles (6,436 kilometers) from most voyages between Europe and India.
The Suez Canal was to be open to all countries in peace and war, an agreement that warring nations often have ignored. From June 1967 until 1974, it was closed mainly because of Arab-Israeli strife. Now reopened, the “Big Ditch” will yet be enlarged to accommodate supertankers up to 250,000 tons, if Egypt’s plans are carried to completion. Although the reopened waterway is making its mark on world trade and economy, fast ships and giant tankers have reduced the Suez Canal’s former significance.
The Panama Canal also has lost importance, but it is still a sensitive political and economic issue. Opened in 1914 as a shortcut across the 50-mile-wide (80-kilometer-wide) isthmus of Panama, it cuts 7,878 miles (12,676 kilometers) off the trip from New York to San Francisco.
However, fewer ships are using the Panama Canal. More than 3,000 of the world’s merchant vessels, including the largest oil tankers, are too long or too wide for the waterway, or need deeper water when fully loaded. Also, the canal’s immediate future is clouded by political, economic and military issues.
In contrast, so far since it opened in 1959, the history of the world’s longest artificial seaway has been peaceful. Ocean vessels can enter the St. Lawrence Seaway through the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Next they can travel up the river to Lake Ontario, passing through the Welland Canal into Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan, and then through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie into Lake Superior. At this point they have climbed more than 600 feet (183 meters) since entering the Seaway, the equivalent of a 60-story building! They can then cross to Duluth at the western tip of Lake Superior, 2,342 miles (3,768 kilometers) from the Atlantic Ocean. Also, in contrast with the Panama Canal, the Seaway’s traffic has been increasing. Already there is talk of adding to its capacity before the mid-1980’s.
What Future for Canals?
Although canals and inland waterways no longer are the only important means of moving heavy goods, they continue to play a vital role in this regard. For many bulk commodities such as grain, ore, coal and timber, inland water transport still is the most economical. Since the 1960’s, North America, Europe and Asia all have seen a resurgence of inland water transport. Waterways have been modernized, and plans have been laid for new canals.
But there are concerns, some political and economic. For example, two new canals proposed for Europe would link the Rhine River with the Danube River, and then the Rhine to a system that connects with the Seine River. Some officials of the West are uneasy about opening up on the Danube a possible “invasion path” whereby Communist bloc merchant fleets can enter Western Europe’s commercial waterways.
Other concerns focus on the imbalance man-made waterways can cause in the natural creation. The Erie and Welland Canals opened the way for the sea lamprey, an eellike native of the North Atlantic, to invade the Great Lakes, where it decimated populations of commercially valuable fish. Also, the St. Lawrence Seaway has led to expanded industrial activity along the Great Lakes and this has accelerated pollution of their waters.
Yes, man-made waterways may cause imbalance and may lead to increased pollution in some regions, but the One who created ‘all the winter torrents that run to the sea’ can end pollution and maintain proper balance throughout creation. (Eccl. 1:7) Also, it should be acknowledged that, however ingenious canal systems may be, their features can never match the wisdom displayed in earth’s natural waterways. Man can build only supplements to, not substitutes for, the oceans, lakes and rivers of our globe.
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GRAND CANAL, CHINA
ERIE CANAL, NEW YORK
KIEL CANAL, GERMANY