Canal du Centre
The Canal du Centre is located in the heart of Hainaut, which stretches across the plateau between the rivers Meuse and Scheldt. Provision of low-cost transport for this province, rich in mineral resources but deprived of natural waterways, was a long task, conceived under Napoleon but not completed until towards the end of the First World War.
The Charleroi-Brussels Canal connects the Sambre (a tributary of the Meuse) to Brussels (North-South axis), while the Canal du Centre, extended by the Mons-Condé and Antoing-Pommeroeul canals, connects with the Scheldt (Escaut) to the west.
A unique case in the VEV network, these canals, twice rebuilt to larger dimensions, are “living waterways” both for inland shipping in the 21st century and as valuable industrial heritage, recognised as such by UNESCO in 1998. Their interest is closely bound up in their history (see inset).
Thanks to the efforts of the Walloon partners, led by an association chaired by Jean-Pierre Gailliez, the Canal du Centre with its four hydraulic lifts (1888-1917) has become one of major tourist attractions of the Walloon Region. Its interest for visitors is reinforced by the fascinating contrast with the modern works built for high-capacity barges, integrated in the “Regional Canals Park ” of Hainaut province: the Ronquières inclined plane, opened in 1968, and the giant funicular barge lift of Strépy-Thieu, which should open to traffic in 2000 or early 2001. Without this canal system and its structures, offering a remarkable digest of the history of hydraulic techniques, this run-down region with its high unemployment rate could not have hoped to acquire the status of tourist destination in its own right. This result has been attained, and thanks to VEV the Canal du Centre is also now becoming a permanent exhibition for all European canals. The impact on regional identity and all sectors of the regional economy is considerable.
The first link to be built was the Canal from Charleroi to Brussels, the advantages of which were impressed upon Napoleon during a visit to Brussels. The studies were thus initiated in 1803, but work did not start until 1815, under the Dutch regime. Engineer Jean-Baptiste Vifquain designed the canal for a new type of barge, the Charleroi “baquet”, with a capacity of 70 tons. The canal was opened in 1832. It soon became obvious that this capacity was totally inadequate, and less than 10 years after inauguration, Vifquain was commissioned to study the enlargement of the canal. The standard then being applied for French waterways (300 ton barge, 38 m by 5 m) was adopted. Work started in 1851, but the second tunnel on the summit level at Godarville was not completed until 1885. In fact, through navigation of 300-ton barges to Brussels wa snot possible until much later, when the last of the small “baquet” locks was removed, in 1936.
Un des quatre ascenseurs hydrauliques du Canal du Centre
On the Scheldt side, the Mons-Condé Canal, started under Napoleon, was completed in 1818 after some wrangling between France and the United Provinces. To free itself from the exorbitant tolls levied by French customs, king Willem I decided to build the Antoing-Pommeroeul Canal, which opened in 1826. Between Mons and the Charleroi-Brussels route, it remained to build the missing 20 km link, but the difference in level of more than 70 m in 7 km was considered to be unfeasible for a flight of traditional locks, if only for water supply reasons.
It is easy to understand how the Belgian engineers were attracted by the principle of the hydraulic lift implemented by the British engineer Edwin Clark at Anderton in 1875. Clark was thus invited to design a similar structure at La Louvière. The construction contract was awarded to the private company Cockerill et Seraing, and the first boat lift on the European continent was inaugurated in 1888. It remained to build three more! Budget constraints and the First World War delayed work, and it was not until 1917, under German occupation, that the Canal du Centre was finally opened to 300-ton barges.