Types of artificial waterways
Canals are created in one of three ways, or a combination of the three, depending on available water and available path:
Smaller transportation canals can carry barges or narrowboats, while ship canals allow seagoing ships to travel to an inland port (e.g.: Manchester Ship Canal), or from one sea or ocean to another (e.g.: Caledonian Canal, Panama Canal).
At their simplest, canals consist of a trench (= a long narrow hole that is dug in the ground for water to flow along) filled with water. Depending on the stratum the canal passes through, it may be necessary to line the cut with some form of watertight material such as clay or concrete. When this is done with clay this is known as puddling.
Canals need to be level, and while small irregularities in the lie of the land can be dealt with through cuttings and embankments, for larger deviations, other approaches have been adopted. The most common is the pound lock which consists of a chamber within which the water level can be raised or lowered connecting either two pieces of canal at a different level or the canal with a river or the sea. When there is a hill to be climbed, flights of many locks in short succession may be used.
Prior to the development of the pound lock in 984AD in China by Chhaio Wei-Yo and later in Europe in the 15th century, either flash locks consisting of a single gate were used or ramps, sometimes equipped with rollers, were used to change level. Flash locks were only practical where there was plenty of water available.
Locks use a lot of water, so builders have adopted other approaches. These include boat lifts, such as the Falkirk wheel, which use a caisson of water in which boats float while being moved between two levels; and inclined planes where a caisson is hauled up a steep railway.
To cross a stream or road, the solution is usually to bridge with an aqueduct. To cross a wide valley (where the journey delay caused by a flight of locks at either side would be unacceptable) the centre of the valley can be spanned by an aqueduct - a famous example in Wales is the Pontcysyllte aqueduct across the valley of the River Dee.
Another option for dealing with hills is to tunnel through them. An example of this approach is the Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent and Mersey Canal. Tunnels are only practical for smaller canals.
Some canals attempted to keep changes in level down to a minimum. These canals known as contour canals would take longer winding routes, along which the land was a uniform altitude. Other generally later canals took more direct routes requiring the use of various methods to deal with the change in level.
Canals have various features to tackle the problem of water supply. In some cases such as the Suez Canal the canal is simply open to the sea. Where the canal is not at sea level a number of approaches have been adopted. Taking water from existing rivers or springs was an option in some cases, sometimes supplemented by other methods to deal with seasonal variations in flow. Where such sources were unavailable, reservoirs, either separate from the canal, or built into its course, and back pumping was used to provide the required water. In other cases water pumped from mines was used to feed the canal.
Where large amounts of goods are loaded or unloaded such as at the end of a canal a canal basin may be built. This would normally be a section of water wider than the general canal. In some cases the canal basins contain wharfs and cranes to assist with movement of goods.
When a section of the canal needs to be sealed off so it can be drained for maintenance stop planks are frequently used. These consist of planks of wood placed across the canal to form a dam. They are generally placed in pre existing grooves in the canal bank.
The oldest known canals were irrigation canals, built in Mesopotamia circa 4000 BC, in what is now modern day Iraq and Syria. The Indus Valley Civilization in Pakistan and North India (circa 2600 BC) had sophisticated irrigation and storage systems developed, including the reservoirs built at Girnar in 3000 BC. In Egypt, canals date back at least to the time of Pepi I Meryre (reigned 2332–2283 BC), who ordered a canal built to bypass the cataract on the Nile near Aswan.
In ancient China, large canals for river transport were established as far back as the Warring States (481-221 BC), the longest one of that period being the Hong Gou (Canal of the Wild Geese), which according to the ancient historian Sima Qian connected the old states of Song, Zhang, Chen, Cai, Cao, and Wei. By far the longest canal was the Grand Canal of China, still the longest canal in the world today. It is 1,794 kilometres (1,115 mi) long and was built to carry the Emperor Yang Guang between Beijing and Hangzhou. The project began in 605 and was completed in 609, although much of the work combined older canals, the oldest section of the canal existing since at least 486 BC. Even in its narrowest urban sections it is rarely less than 30 metres (98 ft) wide.
In the Middle Ages, water transport was cheaper and faster than transport overland. This was because roads were unpaved and in poor condition and greater amounts could be transported by ship. The first artificial canal in Christian Europe was the Fossa Carolina built at the end of the 8th Century under personal supervision of Charlemagne. More lasting and of more economic impact were canals like the Naviglio Grande built between 1127 and 1257, the most important of the lombard “navigli”, Later, canals were built in the Netherlands and Flanders to drain the polders and assist the transportation of goods.
Canal building was revived in this age because of commercial expansion from the 12th century AD. River navigations were improved progressively by the use of single, or flash locks. Taking boats through these used large amounts of water leading to conflicts with watermill owners and to correct this, the pound or chamber lock first appeared, in 10th century AD in China and in Europe in 1373 in Vreeswijk, Netherlands. Another important development was the mitre gate which was probably introduced in Italy by Bertola da Novate in the sixteenth century. This allowed wider gates and also removed the height restriction of guillotine locks.
To break out of the limitations caused by river valleys, the first summit level canals were developed with the Grand Canal of China in 581-617 AD whilst in Europe the first, also using single locks, was the Stecknitz Canal in Germany in 1398. The first to use pound locks was the Briare Canal connecting the Loire and Seine (1642), followed by the more ambitious Canal du Midi (1683) connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. This included a staircase of 8 locks at Béziers, a 157 metres (515 ft) tunnel and three major aqueducts.
Canal building progressed steadily in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries with three great rivers, the Elbe, Oder and Weser being linked by canals. In post-Roman Britain, the first canal built appears to have been the Exeter Canal, which opened in 1563. The oldest canal built for industrial purposes in North America is Mother Brook in Dedham, MA. It was constructed in 1639 to provide water power for mills. In Russia, the Volga-Baltic Waterway, a nationwide canal system connecting the Baltic and Caspian seas via the Neva and Volga rivers, was opened in 1718.
Large scale ship canals such as the Panama Canal and Suez Canal continue to operate for cargo transportation; as do European barge canals. Due to globalization, they are becoming increasingly important, resulting in expansion projects such as the Panama Canal expansion project.
The narrow early industrial canals however have ceased to carry significant amounts of trade and many have been abandoned to navigation, but may still be used as a system for transportation of untreated water. In some cases railways have been built along the canal route, an example being the Croydon Canal.
A movement that began in Britain and France to use the early industrial canals for pleasure boats, such as hotel barges, has spurred rehabilitation of stretches of historic canals. In some cases abandoned canals such as the Kennet and Avon Canal have been restored and are now used by pleasure boaters. In Britain canalside housing has also proven popular in recent years.
The Seine-Nord Europe Canal is being developed into a major transportation waterway, linking France with Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
Canals have found another use in the 21st century, as wayleaves along the towing paths for fibre optic telecommunications networks.
Canals are still used to provide water for agriculture. An extensive canal system exists within the Imperial Valley in the Southern California desert to provide irrigation to agriculture within the area.
Cities on water
Canals are so deeply identified with Venice that many canal cities have been nicknamed "the Venice of..." The city is built on marshy islands, with wooden piles supporting the buildings, so that the land is man-made rather than the waterways. The islands have a long history of settlement; by the 12th century, Venice was a powerful city state.
Amsterdam was built in a similar way, with buildings on wooden piles. It became a city around 1300.
Other cities with extensive canal networks include: Delft, Haarlem and Leiden in the Netherlands, Brugge in Flanders, Birmingham in England which has 35 miles of canals to Venice's 26 miles, Saint Petersburg in Russia, Hamburg in Germany, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Cape Coral, Florida in the United States.
Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site near the centre of Liverpool, England, where a system of intertwining waterways and docks now being developed for mainly residential and leisure use.
Canal estates are a form of subdivision popular in cities like Miami, Florida and the Gold Coast, Queensland; the Gold Coast has over 700 km of residential canals. Wetlands are difficult areas upon which to build housing estates, so dredging part of the wetland down to a navigable channel provides fill to build up another part of the wetland above the flood level for houses. Land is built up in a finger pattern that provides a suburban street layout of waterfront housing blocks.
Inland canals have often had boats specifically built for them. An example of this is the British narrowboat, which is up to 72 feet (21.95 m) long and 7 feet (2.13 m) wide and was primarily built for British Midland canals. In this case the limiting factor was the size of the locks. This is also the limiting factor on the Panama canal where Panamax ships are limited to a length of 294.1 m (965 ft) and a width of 32.3 m (106 ft). For the lockless Suez Canal the limiting factor for Suezmax ships is generally draft, which is limited to 16 m (52.5 ft). At the other end of the scale, tub-boat canals such as the Bude Canal were limited to boats of under 10 tons for much of their length due to the capacity of their inclined planes or boat lifts. Most canals have a limit on height imposed either by bridges or tunnels.
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