Water conveyors and waterways in Lombardy

A sense of urgency permeates the air in Lombardy as well as in neighbouring Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Veneto regions, regarding Italy’s network of navigable canals and rivers. What reality will be revealed to the world of inland waterway specialists and advocates, meeting in Milan on September 1st for the 27th World Canals Conference? It is a reality of water conveyors and waterways, in places going their separate ways, but often combined within the same bed. Waterway cross-roads, intakes, siphons, spillways, aqueducts are the nodes of an intricate network spun across the Lombardy plain, and nothing is simple. Even Italy’s second biggest Alpine lake, Lago Maggiore, is used as a reservoir and drawn down by as much as 1.50m to secure irrigation water supplies during a dry summer.

Article in La Stampa

The ambitious project to restore navigation between Lago Maggiore (Locarno) and the river Po is regularly covered by the regional and national Press. This article focuses on work to start soon on a new lock at Porto della Torre, on the Piedmont bank of the Ticino

It is nearly 20 years since IWI’s founders attended a conference in Milan on the ‘civilisation of water and waterways’ and the heritage left by Leonardo da Vinci and other great Italian engineers. At that time a grouping of Rotary clubs in the Adda valley was actively promoting restoration of the locks on the Adda as well as the Naviglio di Paderno (followed by the Martesana towards Milan). The campaign sadly lost momentum after the president Mario Roveda died of a heart attack in 1997, but IWI, represented in Italy by industrial archeology expert Edo Bricchetti, has constantly been supporting the regional initiatives in favour of a navigable system serving ‘slow’ tourism and appreciation of the extraordinary heritage and environment of the canal corridors.

Navigli Lombardi was founded to drive these efforts, but does not manage the canals themselves; that is the prerogative of the Consorzio Villoresi, which has the concession from the Region to manage the water resource and supply the many needs of agriculture, industry and the population. This means that the ‘water conveyor’ function has priority here, in the same way as it has priority on another famous southern European canal, the Canal de Castilla in Spain.

Despite this priority, politicians in Milan and across the plain, including the neighbouring regions, are massively in favour of restoring and adapting the 1000-year legacy of canals and controlled rivers, to make navigation once again a regular form of mobility in both urban and rural areas.

Turbigo spillway

This spillway in Turbigo is only one part of a complex junction between the ‘industrial canal’ and the Naviglio Grande

Achieving this goal means compromises and concessions. As climate change increases the pressure on water resources, it is likely to become increasingly difficult to obtain management of water channels that is compatible with navigability, even by professional helmsmen. Another difficulty faced by all players in Lombardy is a certain degree of confusion in the minds of Milanese citizens, possibly even some planners and architects, between water conveyors and waterways. This is only the briefest of introductions to a fascinating story that will be told here in the coming days and weeks… background notes for the discussions during the World Canals Conference and the pre- and post-conference tours. (to be continued)
David Edwards-May

Canada’s canals escape cuts

Good news for Canada’s Historic Canals! The length of the navigation season and the hours of operation of Parks Canada’s historic canals will see little changes in the 2013 season. The length of season will remain the same, with some operational adjustments in the shoulder season. This is very good news for the communities, businesses, and users of the waterways under Parks Canada’s jurisdiction. The announcement by the Minister of the Environment is reproduced below.
Our congratulations to the Minister and Parks Canada is recognizing the importance of these historic waterways. Hopefully this will also be recognized as they follow through on their reorganziation models, ensuring the natural and cultural heritage is protected and the importance of the water management and telling the story are also noted and taken into account.
Dave Ballinger, 23 October 2012

Minister Kent announces 2013 navigation season for historic canals and Trent-Severn Waterway
OTTAWA, Ontario, October 18, 2012 -The Honourable Peter Kent, Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, today announced the 2013 navigation season for historic canals and Trent-Severn Waterway.
“National Historic canals are a defining feature of Canada, and provide communities and regions with beauty, recreation and a unique sense of history,” said Minister Kent.  “I am pleased to announce that the 2013 navigation season will continue from Victoria Day to Thanksgiving, as in previous years.”
“Parks Canada will continue providing ‘upon arrival’ services throughout the peak summer period, and offer a modified service seven days a week through scheduled lockages in the spring and fall period. For the canals 2013 navigation season, Parks Canada will align its hours of operation and personal service offer to better reflect patterns of use, offering between 7 and 9 hours of service per day.
“With this decision, the canals and the surrounding communities will continue flourishing as a vibrant centre of our regions,” added Minister Kent. “The government appreciated the constructive feedback we received from the public, and was pleased to work with the local Members of Parliament, Mayors, business leaders, and stakeholders, to determine a workable schedule going forward that is affordable while minimizing the impact on the local economies and visitors.
“Parks Canada will continue its stewardship of cultural and environmental resources providing meaningful experiences that promote understanding and appreciation of Canada, and supporting local communities through tourism – as it has done for the last 100 years.”

‘Regatta’ promotes Serb canals

Radomir  Ječinac  reports from Belgrade, Serbia, on the ‘regatta’ (flotilla cruise) organised on the canals and waterways of Serbia in June/July 2012.

Remember IWI’s annual World Canals Conference held in Serbia, in the beautiful city of Novi Sad on the Danube, in 2009? The host, Vode Vojvodine (Vojvodina waters) is an all-important institution in our country, which was founded to manage the network of artificial canals in this relatively flat province in northern Serbia. When the Irish boat Aquarelle entered Serbia in July of that year (encouraged by WCC co-host Danube Propeller), and Mike and Rosaleen Miller asked for permission to cruise through the Vojvodina canals, this was en eye-opener for Vode Vojvodine, who were encouraged to give official status to what was previously an informal gathering of domestic boaters each year.

VV Regatta Route 2012

Itinerary for the 11-day cruise, including some of the lesser-used canals

The event has since gone from strength to strength, and I joined this year’s regatta, with a full programme to delight Serb boaters for 11 days (see map, left), from June 24 to July 4. This was the 4th to be organized by VV: 10 stages in 11 days over 300km of canals between Novi Sad and Bezdan. Ah, Bezdan! We heave a sigh at every mention of the name, because the entrance lock here from the Danube is still closed. We still had our moneys’ worth, though, since these 300 km represent half of the Vojvoodina network.

Warned that the number of boats had to be limited, the skippers of some 90 motor cruisers and dayboats of all possible types and sizes, 250 people in all, sent their booking forms as soon as the event was announced! Mothers and fathers of families, to say nothing of the Dog‘, as Jerome K. Jerome remarked. There were couples with children who had barely started walking.

Regatta enters the main canal at Novi Sad

Nearly 90 boats enter the main canal at Novi Sad, approaching the first lock on the cruise

Nearly half the  boats came from afar, boat harbours on the Danube or Tisa, for example: from Belgrade, Zemun, Pancevo, Smederevo, Novi Bečej on the Tisa, not afraid of all the extra kilometres and the strong current of the Danube to reach the starting point at Novi Sad. One sizeable boat came from Vukovar, Croatia, thus giving the event its international character.

The regatta’s Commodore was Mirjana Živković, hydrotechnical engineer at VV, petite, a bundle of energy with bright black eyes, tireless and ubiquitous, participating in the regatta herself with her boat and family, ‘to say nothing of the dog’ in this case also! She had to deal with a complex organization: locks, free passage for participating vessels, technical and first aid teams, municipal receptions for participants, refreshments and local cuisine, al fresco meals along the canals, folklore programs, minimum supplies by itinerant merchants, etc.). For us Serbs, with a litre of diesel costing €1.50, and average monthly wages between 300 and 400 euros, the benefits of organised navigation are obvious.

On pages 35 and 36 of the European Waterways Map and Directory (2008 edition) we read of the attraction of this annual regatta for Serbian boaters. IWI can therefore congratulate itself for having contributed in a way to what is now the biggest navigation event in Serbia.

Backi Monostor floating bridge

Backi Monostor floating bridge on one of the little-used canals on the VV system

VV Regatta mooring

The author beside his boat at a quiet mooring in Bezdan

Lot restoration progress in 2012


In the earlier post on the river Lot we mentioned the elimination of Escambous lock in the navigable length centred on Puy-l’Évêque. This means dredging and rock-blasting to eliminate the weir beside this lock, to provide a navigable channel. The département Lot is now carrying out these works under a four-month contract, at a cost of €750 000. Dredging is also needed in the Floiras and Castelfranc reaches. In all, 5000 m3 of rock and sediment will be cleared to make the channel. Another €1.8m contract for restoration of the 17th century Floiras Lock is nearing completion. The lock-gates are being installed and the lock will be operational this autumn. These works will add about 10km to this navigable secion of the Lot, to make a total of 40 km. Complementary dredging in the Orgueil reach will be undertaken in 2013 to ensure navigability through to Fumel dam.

Lock Model Lost in China?

Canal historian William E. Trout III* will attend the World Canals Conference in Yangzhou, China, this September with an agenda. He hopes to find out what happened to the Emperor’s lock model, taken from England to China in the late 18th century. This mystery is tied up in the broader history of technological development of hydraulics and engineering related to locks and inclined planes for inland navigation.

Professor Needham presented convincing evidence that the Chinese were the first to invent the pound lock – with a lock chamber – and that many locks were in use while large government boats plied the canals 1000 years ago. However, by the time European travellers began to rediscover China, the large boats were no longer used, and locks had been abandoned in favour of flood-gates with inclined planes or slipways, which were found to be better suited for the comparatively small boats then in use. In forming their impressions, they did not have the benefit of, Hu Su’s vivid description in 1027, quoted by Needham: ‘The lock basin is deep as the home of a sleeping black dragon, and like a dragon, the water rises in the pool, so that the ships come and go continually,  borne on waves like the tide flowing and ebbing. When the great gates are closed the water forms a whirlpool as the lock fills, and the white foam washes sides that never dry.’

Inclined plane in China

Inclined plane for small craft in China, similar to the 'overdracht' in Flanders

In the late 18th century, when the canal era in Great Britain was just beginning, the western world not only thought that the Chinese were ignorant of locks, and lacking in inventiveness; but were so bold as to present a lock model to the Emperor of China, as a technological present from western civilizationl This model is mentioned in a handwritten comment which Bill Trout discovered in a William Chapman’s Observations on the Various Systems of Canal Navigation, published in England in 1797 (he saw the copy in the library of The University of California at Berkeley). This book, dedicated to the Duke of Bridgewater, England’s ‘Canal Duke’, is subtitled ‘with inferences practical and mathematical, in which Mr. Fulton’s plan of wheel-boats, and the utility of subterraneous and of small canals are particularly investigated, including an account of the canals and inclined planes of China‘.

William Chapman (1749-1832) was consulting engineer on the Grand Canal of Ireland. In the middle of his fascinating discussion of inclined planes, boat lifts, and other inventions, he observes:

It is an argument against the inventive powers of the Chinese, that they have not hitherto constructed Locks, as a great part of invention lies in the conception of the possibility of the event; and the Chinese have been informed, for upwards of a century, of its absolute possibility; as the Jesuit Missionaries sent to China by Louis XIV, in 1635, acquainted them with the principles of a Lock, with which they appeared astonished. The Fathers also thought that anyone who would carry to China the model of a Lock would be well received; and cause as much admiration as the first watches that the Missionaries presented to the Emperor.

This suggestion by the Jesuit Missionaries seems to have been taken up, because at the end of this paragraph a cross in the margin points to a handwritten note at the bottom of the page: ‘Dec. 1797. I gave one to S. G. Staunton before he set out, and he and it has as yet never been heard of – R. Mylne

Because the title page of this copy of the book is inscribed, ‘Robert Mylne Esq. from the Author‘, we know that this marginal note was by Robert Mylne (1733-1811), architect and engineer, involved in the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal and the Worcester Canal, and described by a cartoonist as the ‘firey comet‘. Sir George Leonard Staunton (1737-1801), to whom Mylne gave the lock model, was a born diplomat, a friend of Dr. Samuel Johnson, and Minister Plenipotentiary of Britain’s first ‘embassy’ or delegation to China, under Lord Macartney, in 1792, five years before the date of Mylne’s marginal note.

The obvious inference is that Mylne’s lock went to China with Sir George. But what happened to it?

Sir George Staunton was ill when he returned from China in 1794, so that may be why he never got in touch with Mylne. He had in fact planned to remain in Peking as the British Minister but his health prevented this – as well, no doubt, as a rule of the Emperor that any ambassador desiring to reside in Peking had to stay there for lifel As it was, the delegation was hustled out of China after a stay of only 47 days. Critics at the time charged that this was because Lord Macartney refused to kowtow before Emperor Ch’ien-lung. However, a table was drawn up showing that all embassies to China had been eased out in a short time so prostrating oneself made no difference.

Sir George probably entrusted the lock model to the delegation’s scientist or ‘machinist’, Dr James Dinwiddie (1746-1815), who had been giving public lectures on science throughout the British Isles, complete with ‘philosophical fireworks’ and balloon ascensions, so was the ideal person to demonstrate western science to the Chinese Emperor. Dinwiddie described his duties as ‘the erecting and regulating the planetarium; the constructing, filling and ascending in the balloon; descending in the diving bell; together with experiments on air, electricity, mechanics, and other branches of experimental philosophy; astronomical and other calculations‘, and presumably the demonstration of Mylne’s lock model. Unfortunately for canal historians and the Emperor’s court, this series of spectacles never took place, because Emperor Ch’ien-lung was not at all interested in foreign science and technology. Dr. Dinwiddie heard him say, when inspecting an air pump, ‘These things are good enough to amuse children‘, but otherwise were of no interest to the Emperor and his court. Perhaps one reason for this indifference was that the great Lord Macartney, representative of His Majesty’s government, and his entourage, were considered mere merchants or traders by the Chinese and therefore of extremely low rank. No self-respecting Chinese scholar who knew English dared stoop to serve as translator, and by decree, foreigners were not allowed to learn Chinese, and any Chinese caught teaching them had to be punished. Macartney’s translator was a Chinese who knew Italian. So although the lock model may have been demonstrated to the Emperor (as the air-pump was) it obviously made little impact on Chinese science, despite the prediction of the Jesuits 100 years before. Also, the language barrier made it impossible to delve deeply into Chinese culture. Dr. Dinwiddie did, however, get a good look at the canals and made the following significant observation:

The flood-gates in the canals of China are preferable to English locks in every situation where the canal is nearly level, and are constructed at a quarter of the expense. The inclined plane down which the boats are launched and up which they are drawn is a mode superior to our practice, for besides their being cheaper they are much more expeditious. The power employed consists of two windlasses. placed opposite to each other on the banks or abutments of the canals, the axis perpendicular, the gudgeons of the lower end supported on a stone and the upper end turning between two stones, sustained in an horizontal position on four upright stones. Each windlass has four bars which are manned with twelve to sixteen persons. The time employed in one instance observed was two minutes and a half, and in another about three.

But we are still left with the question, what happened to John Mylne’s lock model? Curiously, Chapman’s 1797 book, in which Mylne made his notation, has material on China obtained by the delegation, and actually quotes passages from Staunton’s account. If Chapman had known about the lock model, he would surely have mentioned it. Perhaps because the scientific programme of the delegation was something of a fiasco, it was not widely publicised in England. But there may be another reason why Chapman and Mylne were not informed about the lock model. When the delegation returned to England in 1794, Dr. Dinwiddie stayed behind, taking a closer look at the canals, and then sailed to India with the scientific apparatus – which the Chinese had ignored – presumably including the lock model. He stayed in India until 1805, lecturing on science and on China, and for five years was Professor of Fort William College in Calcutta. This raises the interesting speculation that Dr. Dinwiddie may have introduced canal locks to Indial Has anyone worked out the history of canals in India? In any event, it is possible that he did not take the model back to England with him in 1805, but left it with Fort William College, or with the East India Company’s Botanical Garden in Calcutta where he delivered some of the material collected by the delegation; but inquiries in India have not yet turned it up. There is still hope that Dr. Dinwiddie himself can tell us more about the Emperor’s lock model, in his journal, if it can be located. (Extracts were published by his grandson. W.J. Proudfoot, in 1868.)

What, indeed, did you do with the Emperor’s lock model, Dr. Dinwiddie?

* This article is based on Bill Trout’s research published in American Canals, No. 40, February 1982, inspired by the works of Professor Needham: Science and Civilisation in China, and a detailed article in the Transactions of the Newcomen Society

Filling gaps on the river Lot

Impressive progress is being made on the most ambitious waterway restoration project in France, the 270km long river Lot. Although massive hurdles remain to be overcome at the large hydroelectric dams – Fumel, Luzech and Cajarc – the project conceived in 1973 by Christian Bernad, president of the Association Aménagement Vallée du Lot, is moving slowly but surely towards eventual completion.
The above map shows the downstream section of the river, from the confluence with the Garonne through to the département Lot and its chief town Cahors. This highlights the relatively short missing links. Within the département Lot et Garonne two locks need to be built, one at Saint-Vite and the 8m deep lock beside the dam at Fumel. Above Fumel is the boundary with the département Lot, which was initially content with its 64km navigable section opened in 1991. Under pressure from local authorities, however, this département committed to opening further lengths of the river, hence the 12km extension upstream (not on this map) and especially the series of 9 locks over a length of nearly 40km between Fumel and Albas.
One of our members has just sent this view of works in progress at one of these locks, Floiras, number 18 on the above map*. As at many locations on the river Lot, the head is exploited by a small hydropower plant, so that the lock is located at some distance from the river bank.

Floiras lock

Restoration work in progress at Floiras lock (by KBW)

When this lock is opened later in 2012, the missing link to the middle section of the Lot at Luzech will be only 7km long, including the large-scale works at Luzech itself (probably requiring a new tunnel) and the 3.70m deep lock at Albas.
For details of French waterways and projects throughout the network, see my guide Inland Waterways of France, published by Imray.

Let us know what you think about the River Lot Restoration project!

* The idea of numbering the locks, from 1 (Nicole) to 57 (Marcenac) was put forward in a planning study completed by the author in 1992, to give a sense of unity among the projects implemented piecemeal along the different sections of the river. This idea has not been taken up to date, one reason being that the projects for the missing links remain to be confirmed in terms of technical, financial and economic feasibility.

The featured image (click on title of post if necessary, to see it) has been amended to take into account the elimination of Escambous lock; the hypothetical total is therefore 57 and not 58 locks as originally posted. Click on the image below for an overview of the upstream section.

Navigable river Lot upstream

Status of navigable river Lot - upstream section - from Cahors to Port d'Agrès