History and Geography

Until the invention of the steam railroad in the 1830's, water was by far the most efficient and fastest means for moving goods (and in most cases people). It is still the cheapest way to move goods. Humanity long ago began improving on the nature's waterways - the earliest known navigation canal was dug in Egypt 6,000 years ago. The first recorded Roman canal was dug in 103 BC, and they may have built some in the Netherlands.

Belgium is blessed with a natural network of navigable waterways. In the Middle Ages, the Schelde/Escaut was navigable from Antwerp across what is now Belgium to and past Condé in France. Branches allowed the small boats of the day to reach Brussels, Leuven, Aarschot, Diest and Ath. Further south and east, the Maas/Meuse and Sambre system also reached into France. The Haine connected Mons with Condé, and Brugge was actually a seaport on the Zwin - a branch of the North Sea. By 1270 AD the Lieve canal had been built between Gent and Damme.

Until then, canals were either built between bodies of water with about the same level, or had weirs (low dams) to control the water in various sections. Boats were moved between sections on ramps. Then the flash lock was developed, apparently in the Netherlands in 1065. It had a single gate that was opened briefly to let boats going downstream to float through. The first lock as we now know it, with double gates, was built in 1396 at Sluis as part of an early project to maintain Brugge as a port as the Zwin silted up. (The town was named after the lock - from "sluiten" - to close - rather than the reverse.) At the time, Sluis was on an inlet from the North Sea. (Other first locks are reported at Spaarndam, Netherlands, in 1285 and near Padua in 1481. Some Belgian sources consider the Willebroek canal (opened 1561) to have had the first modern gated lock.)

In the 16th century, canal building began in earnest. One major factor for the new activity was the closure of the Schelde downstream from Antwerp during the religious wars and after Netherlands independence. Ways had to be developed to move goods in and out of the Spanish Netherlands without going through the independent United Provinces. And growing population created pressure to make new land by draining polders - for which canals were also necessary. Major early projects were the Willebroek-Brussels canal, the Brugge-Oostende canal (replacing the Zwin, which was silting up in any case), a coastal canal to Berques in France, and a new canal between Gent and Brugge.

Les décharseurs de Charbon
Claude Monet, 1875, displayed in the Orsay Museum Paris

Until the 20th century, loading and unloading barges was very labor intensive. A 300 ton coal barge might take one week to unload.
Inland waterways received another major boost as a result of Napoleon. Britain blockaded the ports along the Channel and North Sea. After Waterloo, the king of the new United Netherlands, Willem I, vowed to build an inland transportation network (i.e., canals) that would allow trade to continue even if the ports were closed. And the Industrial Revolution with its ever increasing demand for coal meant that the Walloon coal belt (Liège - Namur - Charleroi - Mons) would be a major focus for canal construction even though the highlands between the Schelde/Escaut and Maas/Meuse basins presented considerable obstacles. After Belgian independence, work on the canal network continued - and in fact the 1839 independence treaty included an easement across Nederlands Limburg for a canal intended to connect the port of Antwerp with the Rhine. (It is now proposed to use that easement for a rail line.) The canal network, in terms of major places served, was essentially finished by 1888.

The 20th century has seen no reduction in canal work, although the emphasis has changed from serving new areas to increasing capacity. The Albert canal, replacing a narrow and circuitous connection between Antwerp and the Meuse north of Liège, was the most ambitious new project. Recently opened (November 1997) is an extension of the Willebroek canal, carrying the canal to the Schelde River. Projects currently underway or proposed are a new section of the Canal du Centre (east of Mons, original target 2000 for completion but delayed due to lack of funding), and the widening of the canal from Zeebrugge to Gent. Belgian projects are now part of an EU scheme, initiated in 1957, to provide inland waterway connections with a minimum capacity of 1,350 tonnes among most member nations. (In comparison, road vehicles are usually limited by law to 40 tonnes, and freight [goods] trains in Europe rarely carry 1,000 tonnes except for certain special lines that may achieve 5,200 tonnes for mineral traffic.)

In addition to widening and deepening, improvement projects usually reduce the number of locks. The original hand-operated lock gate could provide a maximum change in height of a little over 2 m. Modern powered lift or slide gates allow lifts of 10 m and more, and special devices such as the incline several times that. Reducing the number of locks speeds up transit times considerably.

Another major activity has been the raising of the dykes on the tidal rivers, after the massive flooding in 1953. Unusually high tides in February that year flooded large sections of the Netherlands, Belgium and East Anglia (England).

Today, the Belgian navigable waterway network is said to total 2,043 km, of which 1,528 km are in regular commercial use.

While you will not see all that many barges on the canals (and none moving on Sundays on many waterways, when most locks and lift bridges are closed), they remain a very important transportation mode. For example, recent statistics show that 46% of goods arriving at or leaving the port of Antwerp by ship moved by waterway on the inland side. And the use of barges is increasing, in part because of road and railroad congestion. For example, in early 2000 Electrabel (the Belgian electricity generating company) announced that the movement of coal from the port of Antwerp to power plants at Boom, Engis, Amercoeur and Péronnes would be switched from rail to barge. (Today´s Railways, April 2000.)

In 1998 the waterway transport industry was deregulated. Previously the "schippersbeurs" guaranteed work for every barge operator who put his name on the list at the local office. As loads became available they were offered to the highest name on the list who had the right kind of barge. Independent barge operators now deal directly with the shippers. This has led to a rapid decline in the number of small, family-operated barges. (The tower at the Ronquières Incline has an excellent museum on that way of life, and its decline.) At the same time the total capacity of the fleet as increased as new barges replace the old. And some of the new are specialized in new ways - for containers, and soon (understruction in 2003) for new automobiles.

Over time, various canals and canalized rivers have been decommissioned. These old sections, where nature is again allowed to be a primary player, offer some of the best cycling.

Last updated 21 February 2004

Copyright Dan Gamber, 1998 - 2004
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