An Eighteenth Century Boat Lift in Germany

The maps are from Boatlifts and Inclines of the World by H-J Uhlemann, and translated by Mike Clarke.

It is a commonly held misconception that canals were 'discovered' in 18th century England, despite the fact that they had already been used successfully for centuries both in this country and elsewhere. Because of this, we in Britain have often ignored improvements and developments which took place outside of this country. The remains of one innovation which will be of particular interest to those interested in boatlifts can still be seen close to Dresden. It can be found in the south-east corner of Germany in the Erzebirge Mountains.

The Erzgebirge region of Germany, which lies to the south-west of Dresden, has been an important mining area for centuries. A mountainous area with abundant rivers and streams, it is hardly surprising that local miners used water power for draining their mines and winding ore to the surface. A more revolutionary use of water occurred in the late eighteenth century when they built a canal for the transport of the ore. Boats were able to pass from one section of the canal to another by means of locks and boat lifts. These were probably the first successful boat lifts in the world.

At the time, one of the most successful of the mines was the 'Churprinz Friedrich August Erbstollen', known in short as 'Churprinz'. It stood on the left bank of the river Freiberger Mulde at Grossschirma, to the north of the town of Freiburg. Ore from the mine was sent for smelting to a furnace at Halsbruecke, about three miles further up the valley. Horse drawn carts and packhorses were use to carry the ore and, as in Britain, they were found to be an expensive method of transport for such heavy and bulky goods.

Despite the poor transport, production expanded. However, the miners found that they were short of water for driving their waterwheels which were used for pumping water and lifting the ore out of the mines. To overcome this problem a local millwright, Johann Friedrich Mende, built a water channel from the Churprinz mine to near the junction of the rivers Muenzbach and Freiberger Mulde. He made the channel deep and wide, ensuring a low water velocity and thus also enabling it to be used for the transport of ore by boats. There were several locks to overcome the rise in ground level up the valley. To reach the furnace at Halsbruecke he had to extend the system , and to make construction easier, he built a short length of canal on the opposite side of the river to just above an existing weir. Here, boats crossed the river and entered a boat lifting house where they were raised about twenty feet so that they could use the next section of canal. They were then refloated and could continue their journey along the canal to the Halsbruecke furnace where they were unloaded.

In 1791, construction began on an extension of the system down the valley to mines at Grossvoigtsberg. Much of the water for these new lengths of canal was to be supplied by water from the mines, raised the 33 metres into the canal by a waterwheel driven pump. Two more boat lifts were planned on this section. One boat lift, near to the 'Christbesucherung' mine at Grossvoigtsberg, was built. Its remains can still be seen, but this part of the system was never made fully operational.

Map of the Halsbruecke canal system

1 Halsbruecke furnace

2 Rothenfurth lift and Isaac ore washer

3 Weir from 1822/3, with new canal shown as dotted line

4 Weir for the ore washer at the Anna mine

5 Lock below the mine

6 Weir for the Grossschirmaer mill

7 Mine, stamping mill, warehouse and possible lock at the Churprinz mine

8 Schuman lock

9 Christbescherung ore washer, boat lift and weir for the Hohentanner mill

10 Lift and weir at the Alte Hoffnung Gottes mine

11 Ore washer and double lock at the Alte Hoffnung Gottes mine

12 Weir at the Gesegnete Bermanns Hoffnung mine

13 Ore washer at the Gesegnete Bermanns Hoffnung mine

14 Obergrunaer Forge

The whole system was improved by Mendes successor, Christian Friedrich Brendel, in 1822. He built a new canal at a higher level which included several tunnels, called 'Roesche'. It also needed fewer locks. This made operation easier, reducing the time taken to traverse the system by about one third.

Cross-section of the Halsbruecke canal

1-7 Churprinz mine canal; 7-9 Christbescherung mine canal; 9-13 uncompleted mine canal.

The barges used on the canal were about 25 feet long, 4 feet wide and 2 feet deep, and were capable of carrying about 2.5 tons of dressed ore. After being loaded at the Churprinz mine they were towed by two men along the one and a half mile length of canal to its junction with the river Freiberger Mulde. A third man helped by steering and punting the barge. On this section the boats had to pass through the two tunnels which were fitted with long ropes. With all three men on the barge, they were able to pull it through the tunnels.

At the end of this section the canal entered the river. A footbridge was provided so that the barge could be towed across the river and into the half mile length of canal on the opposite bank. After passing through the canal, the barge re-entered the river for the short journey across to the opposite side. Just downstream was a weir which reduced the flow of water and made it easier to control the boat as it crossed the river.

A model of the boatlift

The next section of canal was twenty feet above the level of the river and it was here that the boat lift was built, virtually on the river bank. In operation, this boat lift was like a wooden overhead travelling crane installed in a stone building. The barge floated under the crane and ropes were attached. It was then lifted over twenty feet by a five purchase block and tackle worked by six men. The crane was then moved so that the boat was over the upper canal level and it then lowered the boat back into the water. The whole operation took about one hour. The barge then continued on to Halsbruecke where its cargo was unloaded close to the furnace. The whole journey took about three hours.

The system continued in use until 1868 but eventually had to close down because of lack of water. In 1844 the miners had begun to construct a new water system 600 feet underneath Freiburg to supply new mines. Water was needed to drive the additional water-powered machinery used in this expanding underground network. One of the eight shafts used to construct this tunnel was close to the boat lift at Halsbruecke. A large part of the waters of the river Freiberger Mulde were diverted down this shaft to drive the machinery and this left insufficient to supply the canal. So, after 80 years of successful operation, the system was closed.

The boatlift today

Today it is still possible to see the remains of the canal system. The channel of the canal is obvious as it winds along the valley, slightly above the river. The boat lift at Grossvoigtsberg is now a farm outbuilding, but is only around 100 feet from a road from which it can easily be seen. The boat lift at Halsbruecke was restored by the FDJ Brigade in 1986 (one has visions of a German WRG!) and can be inspected at close quarters. The museum in Freiberg has an excellent model of the lift, built from working drawings, which shows how it operated.

Canal page

December 2008

Mike Clarke
Milepost Research
8 Green Bank
BB18 6HX
tel: +44 (0)1282 850430

Fax: 0870 134 5609


last revised: 10 November 2008