Engineering wonders in Belgium

1) Ship Lifts on the Canal du Centre

One of the great engineering projects of the 19th century is hidden away in the rust belt of Wallonia. The four ship lifts on the Canal du Centre were built in the 1880s to connect the Meuse and Scheldt rivers. Napoleon had already tried to build a canal to link northern France with the Ruhr region, but his engineers were defeated by a 70-metre ridge calling for 33 separate locks. The problem was finally solved by building four hydraulic canal lifts. These astonishing wrought iron structures employ the laws of fluid mechanics to lift barges floating in huge watertight troughs. As the upper trough descends with a barge floating inside, the lower one is pushed up by water pressure. Designed by a British engineer, the lifts were opened by King Léopold II in 1888. They could raise a 300-tonne barge 17 metres in just a few minutes, using nothing more than water pressure. For more than a century, these lifts were a vital part of Europe’s inland waterways, carrying barges laden with coal and gravel. They are now too small for huge modern barges, but have been preserved in working order by local enthusiasts, who run boat tours in the summer. One of the old engine houses on the canal waterfront has been turned into a museum filled with scale models, plans and photographs. You can also look inside simple wooden huts where Italian mineworkers lived and visit a restored wooden barge. There is a cafe, but it is basic. Boat trips are organised by Voies d’Eau du Hainaut.

Ship Lifts on the Canal du Centre

Rue Tout-Y-Faut 90, Houdeng-Goegnies


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