Waterways between East and West Europe: A History to 1930

For centuries, inland waterway routes between east and west Europe have been under-developed and under-used. The author looks at some of the geographical and political reasons for this, and gives an overview of some of the projects, both planned and completed, for inland waterways in the area. First the geographical problems are considered, with a brief look at the development of the technology for inland waterways. The construction of inland waterways in the Russian and Polish regions is then reviewed, together the effect of political problems on the creation of a through route between east and west Europe on this northern line. The author then looks at the Danube Basin and the problems in improving the navigation associated with the river. Historically, the lower Danube provides water transport for industry and agriculture in south western Europe, an area which has never been unified. Poor transport facilities have resulted. There were many schemes to improve facilities, but it was only when construction of the RMD started in the 1920s that a waterway link between the countries along the Danube and the commercial and industrial heartlands of Europe began to become reality.

To understand the development of the inland waterways which cross Europe, it is necessary first to understand the geography of the region. The principal rivers in Europe, from the Ems in the west, run north to south. Gentle slopes rise from the banks of rivers in the west, which then fall as steep escarpments into the next river to the east. These steep escarpments have, to some extent, created barriers to water transport; the boatlifts at Niederfinow and Rothensee were built to overcome such difficulties. The slopes become less within Russia, and there are comparatively flat water sheds between those rivers to the west of the Urals. The second important European feature is the plateau, with the Alps to the south, which forms the water shed of the Rhine and Danube. As the rivers descend from this plateau, they pass through steep gorges, where they become fast flowing and difficult to navigate, on their way to their coastal plains. The Danube also crosses a second, lower, plateau between Vienna and Belgrade before passing through the Iron Gates. To the south west of the Danube, the Julian Alps and the Dalmatian Mountains form an effective barrier to water transport, though the valleys behind Trieste and Rijeka have attracted some interest as routes between the Sava and the Adriatic. Because most rivers European run north-south, the Baltic in the north, and the Black Sea and Mediterranean in the south, became important east-west water routes, with trade developing on the rivers running north or south into them. Only the Danube runs east west, and this was a major reason for its development as a transport route.

Excavations of Roman riverside remains below Djerdap II.

The Romans made extensive use of the Danube for transport, perhaps best illustrated by TraganŐs tow path through the Iron Gates and the port excavated during the recent construction of the locks at Djerdap. The Romans also had extensive plans for inland waterways further west. They certainly used the Rhine and the Rhone, and had plans for creating a network of navigable channels linking rivers in the area. However, with the decline of the Roman Empire, their plans and achievements were forgotten, and inland waterway development had to wait until Charlemagne proposed waterway links from the Danube to the Main and Elbe to create pan-European routes for his army and for trade. He certainly built a canal, the Fossa Carolina, linking the head waters of the Danube with those of the Main, which opened in 793. The excavation work necessary was quite extensive, but there were no locks, boats moving between different water levels by haulage over muddy slopes.

The Fossa Carolina, built in 793 by Charlemagne to link the Danube and Main.

To overcome the barrier created by the high ground of water sheds between rivers with ease, water transport had to wait for hydro-technical developments: the flash locks of the Stecknitz Canal, the chamber lock in Italy, the water supply and other improvements on French waterways, particularly on the Canal du Midi, and finally boat lifts. One area where technical improvements developed was tidal and flood water control and land drainage. The Low Countries were particularly important for the early adoption of such systems, but they can be found across Europe, from the ÔmaraisŐ of France, to the sixteenth century water control system built by monks on Great Solovki, a Russian island in the White Sea and home to the worldŐs most northerly canal system.

The first sections of the canal system on Great Solovki were constructed in the sixteenth century. This section was built a couple of centuries later, and was restored about twenty years ago.

Military engineers also improved hydraulic engineering with their designs for water fortifications. Several designed by Vauban, who was also closely involved with early canals in France, can be found close to the Danube, though similar water fortifications can be found across Europe. Such developments were also linked directly to political influence and divisions, with several European rulers building waterways to help the control and economic improvement of their newly-conquered or distant lands.

Peter the Great wanted to ÔwesternizeŐ Russia, and this was one reason for his desire to develop inland waterways. The Volga had always been used for transport between north and south, and Peter proposed new waterways to improve transport between east and west. His first scheme, of around 1700, was to link the Volga and Don. A German engineer, Hennin, was brought in, but he had many problems and was replaced by the Englishman, Captain Perry. He continued to develop the scheme, but he also had difficulties organizing local labour as he was too far from the stabilizing influence of Peter the Great and the centre of power. Peter abandoned the project and brought Perry north to construct the link between the Volga and Msta rivers at Vishny Volochek to create a route from Moscow and the important market at Nishny Novgorod to his new capital, St Petersburg. This created the first European inland waterway route between east and west independent of the Danube. Later, the Tikhvinsk and Mariinsky canals improved this link. Three more early canals were built in Russia; to link the Dvina and Volga, the Ob and Yenisei, and the Kama and Vychegda, but none were particularly successful. Perhaps the distances were too great, and the extremes of weather would have caused problems. Also the technology was old-fashioned; even at the end of the nineteenth century, water transport in northern Russia sometimes relied upon small rivers, connected by voloks or muddy slipways between their head waters. Because of the flat landscape, rivers navigable by small boats could be just a few kilometres apart across a level water shed. Boats were dragged along the slipways between the rivers, just as they had been on the Fossa Carolina in 793.

The junction between the Msta and the canal to the Volga at Vishny Volochek, built shortly after 1700.

Perhaps the main problems in the Baltic area for the creation of inland waterways links between the east and west of Europe were the continual political difficulties of PolandŐs relationships with its surrounding countries. This effectively put a stop to the creation of an east-west inland waterway on the only possible waterway route north of the Danube. The problem became greater with the partition of Poland by Russia, Prussian and Austria, at a time when interest was developing in an improved European transport infrastructure. In Poland, all inland waterways were built to address local needs. After Partition, the Bydgszcz (Bromberg) Canal was built to link the new Prussian border area with Berlin, and create a route through to Gdansk (Danzig). Not only did it create a way to transport troops and their supplies to a border area, but it would also help to develop the estates of the Prussians who came to occupy the area. Later, the Elblanski (Oberland) Canal was built to help the economic development of that area of East Prussia, followed by the uncompleted Masurian Canal, which was to link the Masurian lakes to the Baltic. On the Russian side of the border, the Augustowski, Oginski and Berezina systems were built to create waterways between the Ukraine, the Polish Kingdom and the Baltic, free from Prussian taxes and interference.

One of the early Bromberg Canal locks has been conserved in a Bydgoszcz park. New locks were built in the 1930s slightly to the north of the original line.

All of these waterways were essentially local in character, and not part of a through route from east to west. The only waterway which had greater aspirations was the Dnepr-Bug system, linking to Vistula with the Pripet. However, Prussian control of the lower Vistula and the Bydgszcz (Bromberg) Canal meant that such a link was to remain relatively unimportant. It was not just waterways which saw the Vistula as a barrier to through traffic, the Polish railway system still suffers, to some extent, from a lack of good east-west links, the result of the countryŐs divided nature prior to the First World War. On the river, some improvements to the Vistula were begun in the 1930s, but the effect of communist rule post the Second World War was just to maintain existing routes, with little thought to developing better waterway links between Germany, Poland, Belorussia and Ukraine.

The Masurian Canal was never completed. Originally proposed around 1900, the surviving incomplete structures date from the 1930s, construction ceasing during the Second World War.

Just as the political situation to the north presented an effective barrier to trade between east and west, in the south the conflict between the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires prevented the development of the Danube and its associated waterways into an important east-west link. The main geographic challenge, the riverŐs descent through the Iron Gates, was close to the Turkish border, and there was little encouragement for them to improve the channel, as any benefits would mainly be for Austrian or Bavarian shipping coming downstream.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire had more interest in inland waterways, and they looked at the way English waterways had been created as a guide. One of the more important factors in the development of EnglandŐs industries and waterways was that they were undertaken by an increasingly important merchant class. Elsewhere in Europe, new canals and waterways were built by the state, but in Austro-Hungary they used an approach similar that of England, with private companies set up to build and operate canals. Some of the earliest were for the waterways of the Voyvodina, such as the Francis Canal, linking the Danube to the Tisa in the 1790s. (Later, when the canal was improved in the mid-nineteenth century, there was considerable English investment in the company.) This was a time when France and England were vying for influence along the Danube, and several important transport projects were financed by one or other of those countries. Certainly English engineers were responsible for some of the earliest steam boats operating on the Danube, and the introduction of steam power certainly began to overcome the problems of the fast flowing river as it descended the Iron Gates.

The lock at Bezdan, on the Francis Canal, was the first to be constructed from mass concrete.

There were problems in looking to England as a model for transport development. To some extent, English eighteenth century waterways were only successful because England was a small country. The technology available at the time was sufficient for their, essentially, local canals, and financing them was just within the possibilities for a merchant class whose main economic investment was in the industries which needed the new canals for transport. Because of the distances involved and the crossing of state boundaries, the problems of financing and organizing waterway construction elsewhere in Europe were very different, and could probably only be overcome successfully by state intervention and funding. By following the English example for waterway development, the Austro-Hungarian government would restrict the development of the Danube region for many years.

The Austro-Hungarians were interested in developing new waterways, with the Belgian J. F. Le Maire publishing proposals for a waterway network in 1786. He proposed putting Vienna at the centre of a canal network, including a link to Trieste on the Adriatic. When they began to put this into practice, they followed the English pattern. Not only was the Wiener-Neustadt Canal a replica of an English narrow canal, with boats just over 2 metres wide and 22 metres long, but it was built by a private company as part of the development of the areas mining industry. There were suggestions that it should cross the mountains to the Adriatic, but it was realized that this was impossible with the finance and technology of the time. The route was eventually completed by the Semmering Railway. A similar sized navigation to the Wiener-Neustadt Canal was built on the Naab, near Regensburg, in Bavaria. Perhaps here we can see the influence of Fulton and his book on small canals which had been published in both English and French. There was certainly much discussion in France regarding the size of boat for which canals should be built, though they built few as small as those in England. However, both the Austro-Hungarian and the Bavarian courts were open to influences from France, such as the proposal for small canals.

One of the locks on the Wiener-Neustadt Canal, built in the early nineteenth century to dimensions similar to the small canals of the English Midlands.

All of these waterways were small and essentially local in character, but the same could not be said of the Danube itself. Not only is it a large and swift-flowing river, but the historical diversity of the countries along its banks created major problems for trade. Compared to the Rhine, which still creates an important link between the urban areas along its banks, and between them and the sea, the Danube has always been more divided by political and economic forces. Goods transported on its upper stretches were more likely to be for carriage into western Europe, while those carried in the delta tended to be for export via the Black Sea. Trade in the riverŐs central sections, meanwhile, could sometimes be part of a more north-south route, avoiding exorbitant cross-border taxes.

The Schwartzenburger Schwemkanal was used for floating timber in the region between the headwaters of the Moldau and the Danube.

Following the Napoleonic wars, in 1815, the Congress of Vienna opened up free passage on the Rhine to all riparian states, the 1868 Convention of Mannheim extending this to all navigable rivers in the Germanic area. Because of the regionŐs more difficult politics, the Danube had to wait until 1856 and the Treaty of Paris for a European Commission of the Danube to be formed. Further Treaties followed in 1871, 1878, and 1883, and then in 1920 the International Danube Commission was established, including several non-riparian countries. This was changed in 1948 at the Danube Conference, when the Commission was limited to riparian states only.

In the nineteenth century, English involvement with the river was considerable. The DDSG was set up in 1829 by John Andrews and Joseph Pritchard, forming the DanubeŐs first steam boat company, though John Allen of Trieste had been given the privilege in 1817. The DDSG was soon working over the whole length of the river. Then, after the formation of the Danube Commission, Charles Augustus Hartley became their Engineer. He was responsible for the improvement of the Delta, the improvements he made to channels and piers for the first time allowing large ships to enter the river with safety. The English were not so interested in conditions higher up the river, and it was not until the 1878 Treaty that Hungary was made responsible for improving the passage through the Iron Gates. They built the Sip Canal, opened in 1898, using locomotives and paddle tugs to tow boats upstream.

But what about links between the Danube and other rivers? Charlemagne was the first to see the possibilities with his Fossa Carolina of 793. He may have considered a waterway from the Danube to the Moldau as well. Such a link was certainly proposed in the 14th century by Charles IV, though the technology needed was probably too advanced for the time; a hundred years were to pass before the first chamber lock was built in Italy. Then, in 1668, Johann Jakob Becher suggested a Danube-Rhine link via the Wernitz and Tauber, with the possibility of a waterway to the Adriatic via the Inn. At the same time Leopold I was considering the possibility of a Danube-Oder waterway. The ideas reappeared in 1786 with MaireŐs scheme to link the Danube with the Adriatic, Main, Moldau, Oder, Vistula, Dnjestr and Aluta. Fifteen years later there was a project to make the Drau navigable to Klagenfurt, with canals to the the Wšrthersee. Could this have been for the salt trade, as this cargo was behind a plan by Josef Walcher around 1820 for a waterway, with an estimated 275 locks, between Linz and the Moldau.

Ludwig's Canal had a long summit level, with several large embankments. Orchards were planted on their banks to help stabilize the earth works.

The Ludwig Canal, opened in 1845, was the first to create a link between the Danube watershed and that of another river. Unfortunately, by the time it was completed, railways were being opened and the canal was never particularly successful. Its comparatively small size, boats carried around 100 tons, also made it relatively uneconomic. Fifty years were to pass before larger waterways were proposed, beginning with the Elbe-Moldau-Danube scheme of 1894. Then, in 1901, four projects were sanctioned by Kaiser Franz-Joseph; a Danube-Oder Canal, a Danube-Moldau Canal with river improvement to Prague, a branch from the Danube-Oder Canal to the Elbe, and a connection between the Vistula and the Dnjestr. They remained just plans, with no work completed. The same thing happened in 1916 at a joint German-Austrian conference in Budapest, where a Rhine-Danube Canal was suggested, together with a proposal for a Constanta Canal, and finally a link from the Danube to the Adriatic. The same year, a conference in Munich suggested three links to the Adriatic, a Danube-Sava Canal, a Kupa Canal to Fiume(Rijeka), and a canal from Smederevo, through the Morava Valley, to Salonica. No work was undertaken, and it was not until 1921, when the RMD-AG was set up, that practical work began on linking the Danube to waterways in western Europe. It was to take some seventy years to complete.

The Vah was developed for hydro-power in the 1930s, with locks being built alongside the power stations. The navigation could have become part of a link between the Danube and the Oder and Vistula.

Political divisions were, perhaps, the main reason behind this failure to develop a waterway network around the Danube. In the west, the Germanic states were vying with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while in the east there was the continual antagonism between the riparian states around the Delta. Then there were the internal conflicts within the Austro-Hungarian Empire which ensured that any improvements to the river were essentially local in character. There were larger schemes in this area, such as the improvement of the Sava to create a route to the Adriatic and those to link Vienna to the Adriatic and to the Elbe, but political stability was needed for these to be successful. Even though the Austro-Hungarian Empire really needed north-south transport, to its port of Trieste and north to the Elbe and Hamburg, to develop its economy, the internal political divisions effectively put a stop to such projects.

Mike Clarke, 2009.

Over the last fifteen years, many people around Europe have helped me with my research into the history of European Inland Waterways. In particular, with regard to this paper, I would like to mention Prof. Stanislaw Januszewski and Artur Zbiegieni(Poland), Vadim Mikehev, Dr Alexi Postnikov and the staff at the Solovki Museum (Russia), Andris Biedrins (Latvia), Prof Dr Dragutin Muskatirovic (Serbia), Martin Turcan (Slovakia), Ing Jaroslav Kubec (Czech Republic), GŸnter Dinhobl (Austria), and Dipl-Ing Hans-Joachim Uhlemann (Germany).


Two books give an overview of the development of inland waterways:

Hadfield, Charles, World Canals; Inland Navigation Past and Present, David & Charles, 1986, ISBN 0715385550

Kubec, Jaroslav and Podzmek, Josef, Vodni cesty sveta, Adventium, 1996, ISBN 80-7151-840-9


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last revised: 26 March 2014