The Elblag Canal, also called the Elblag-Ostroda Canal, is a 150-years-old canal in Poland that runs from Elblag to Ostroda. At over 80 km in length, it is the longest navigable canal still in use in Poland. It is also one of the most interesting canals in Europe. Elblag Canal’s uniqueness arises from its peculiar choice of engineering to tackle a particularly difficult section of the route where the water level rises by 100 meters. This particular section is located between Druzno Lake and Piniewo Lake, a distance of about 10 km. Because the difference in height was too large, it was impractical to build traditional locks. Instead, an ingenious system of inclined planes was employed where the boats are lifted out of the water and placed into tracks and dragged across dry lands.
The inclines consist of a trolley on two parallel rail tracks. A boat would navigate itself onto the trolley, which sits under water, and then would get pulled up or down over the grass to the other level. At the other end, the trolleys would once again go under the water until the vessel can float out freely. The entire system is operated by water power. A second carriage weighted down by water is lowered down the incline to counterbalance and pull the upward moving carriage. There were originally four inclined planes with a fifth added later, replacing five wooden locks.
Elblag Canal’s brilliant solution to the problem has been hailed as one of the most significant hydro-engineering achievement of the country. A Polish newspaper named it one of the Seven Wonders of Poland, and the UNESCO has the canal listed as a memorial to world culture inheritances.
Poland deserves all the accolades for Elblag Canal, but the idea of using inclined planes to get the boats up was neither new nor unique. The Morris Canal, in northern New Jersey in the United States, was the first to implement the inclined-plane concept – an idea devised by a professor of Columbia University. The canal was built 13 years before construction of the Elblag Canal even commenced. The Big Chute Marine Railway in Ontario, Canada, is another inclined plane boat lift that is still in use. Although Elblag Canal is also in operation, today it’s only used for the entertainment of tourists.
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