Category Archives: Canals

France’s Longest Canal–Canal du Midi at Languedoc

The longest canal in France is the Canal du Midi. Here at Languedoc. Note the three canal boats on the left bank.  All three are lined up with their bows pointing in the same direction. In the distance, an arch bridge for vehicles of all types.  The sidewalk on the right could have been a towpath in the past when horses drew narrowboats or packet boat along canals all over the French country side.

Author leads tour on the Intracoastal (without leaving the hotel)

Last year, I led my first tour on the Intracoastal Waterway about this time of year while aboard the ubiquitous WaterTaxi in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The participants were Road Scholars, a program devised by the Cambridge, Mass., non-profit organization that launched ElderHostel some years ago, today a worldwide lifetime learning program.A Road Scholar trip on the Intracoastal

Participants ranged in age from 50 to 75 who want something out of travel ,than just travel, a destination, and maybe the city bus tour with some history but mostly humor and tales my grandmother would never tell me.  The groups are comprised of highly intelligent former or current teachers, engineers, doctors and other professionals. The Road Scholar people think of everything to make the trip comfortable, interesting, and educational.  On the Intracoastal Waterway boat tour last year, I had a headphone and each Scholar had his or her own set of wireless, adjustable, channelized ear buds that masked out undesirable waterway noise, so that each Scholar could hear me–or not.

This year we were without our WaterTaxi, but we decided to use the ear buds anyway for comfort.  I gave a seventy-five minute talk on the history of the Intracoastal using PowerPoint slides that tell the story of how Florida got its section of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, a privately owned tollway before the Army Corps of Engineers assumed control and removed the six toll chains in 1929.  No one went to sleep during my talk.  Not one.  The venue for my lecture, The Riverside Hotel, could not have been more accommodating.  I’ll give four more lectures there in the coming weeks to more Road Scholars spending a week here.

The rest of the lineup is spectacular.  Patsy West, a leading expert on the Seminoles, will lecture on our Native American history and provide lunch in her charming turn-of-the-last-century Dade County pine, vernacular-style home on the New River.  Elliot Kleinberg, writer for the Palm Beach Post and author of numerous books on Florida history, including his award-winning book on the 1928 hurricane that devastated Palm Beach County and the Everglades, will also lecture in his energetic, humorous style. The Road Scholar people definitely have their act together.  Their online brochure even identifies activities by physical exertion level so you know ahead of time whether a particular tour is something within your capabilities.  If you’re looking for entertaining and educational travel plans, this program is for you. Look at their website near the time you’d like to travel. They have hundreds of listings throughout the country and the world.  Listings are subject to cancellation depending upon interest.

Website: http://www.roadscholar.org. The author has no financial interest in these travel programs. The author is paid an honorarium for each lecture just as he has been paid by other organizations for lectures at other times and places.

Before eminent domain: the writ of ad quod damnum

Dr. John D. Westcott (1807-1889), Surveyor General of Florida (1855) Pres. Florida canal company (1881-1889). Courtesy, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Va. (Carte d' visite).

Dr. John D. Westcott (1807-1889), Surveyor General of Florida (1855) Pres. Florida canal company (1881-1889). Courtesy, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Va. (Carte d’ visite).

Florida did not become a state until 1845. In the Treaty with Spain in 1819, the East and West Floridas would become the Territory of Florida under federal jurisdiction in 1821 until the “territory” became a “state” under the United States Constitution. Most of the meager population inhabited the extreme northern portion of the territory. The Everglades would not even be surveyed by the federal government until 1910.

It was still the Wild West in the Sunshine State. After the Civil War, there were still few settlers in south Florida because there was no means of transportation. Nevertheless, as early as 1838, entrepreneurs applied to the governor and the territorial council for charters to construct and operate railroads and inland waterways as private corporations. After 1845, the procedure changed little.

Applications were made to the new State Legislature. Until the Legislature passed a general corporation act permitting persons to apply for and receive charters pro forma if certain requirements were met, applying for and receiving charters to conduct business as corporations remained a cumbersome and political procedure.

Before and after statehood but before the passage of eminent domain law permitting certain public bodies given such power to take property under judicial supervision, railroad and canal companies enjoyed the special privilege of the ancient writ of ad quod damnum. Upon unilaterally deciding that it was necessary for one or both of these two types of transportation companies to extend a railroad or canal through private property, in the absence of mutual agreement on the price of the taking, a railroad or canal company could apply for a writ to the local county judge, who, in turn would empanel twelve residents to determine the value of the taking.

As soon as the company paid the sum determined, the proceedings ended and the company could extend its railroad or canal work on private property, without the usual delays, convoluted legal procedures, and payment of exorbitant attorney’s fees. In 1881, a financially destitute State of Florida agreed to incorporate four St. Augustine entrepreneurs to dredge what would become the Florida portion of the Intracoastal Waterway for a million acres of east coast state land and the right to collect tolls upon the waterway’s completion in 1912.

Commercial Acetylene Gas Generator, ca. 1905

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In the short period of time between kerosene or oil lamps and electricity, many cities, towns, and villages, hotels and  businesses throughout America relied upon the often dangerous acetylene gas generator.  Such also was the case for canal dredges and excavators running day and night, twenty-four hours a day.  The generators mixed calcium carbide and water, generating acetylene gas for lighting dredging work at night.

The several agreements between the State Legislature and the canal company set out strict completion dates. In the last agreement calling for completion by 1912, dredges worked night and day in various places throughout the length of the Florida peninsula, including the incorrigible Matanzas-Halifax river cut, now in its 30th year of dredging in hard rock. In November 1912, the state trustees delivered to the Florida canal company the 12th and last deed to public land, totaling over one million acres for dredging 268 miles of inland waterway, later to comprise the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.

The Falkirk Wheel of Central Scotland: reconnecting Glasgow and Edinburgh

Designed by Scottish architect Tony Kettle, the Falkirkwheel is one of the most unusually designed rotating boat lifts and systems in the world. Employing Archimedes principle and a 22-horsepower motor, the wheel lifts narrow or canal boats a distance of 79 feet from the Forth and Clyde Canal to the Union Canal. Opening in 2002,the project reconnected Glasgow with Edinburgh for the first time since the 1930s. In the 1930s, the two canals were connected by 11 locks.

It is the only rotating boat lift of its kind in the world. Design of the wheel began in 1999; construction ended in 2002–two years after the Millennium Commission had set its goal for completion of the project.

President Theodore Roosevelt operating a Dredge in the Culebra Cut of the Panama Canal

Pres. Theodore Roosevelt operating what appears to be a dipper elevator dredge in the Culebra Cut in 1906,

Pres. Theodore Roosevelt operating what appears to be an elevator dredge in the Culebra Cut in 1906.

The Culebra Cut was the most difficult of all the dredging operations in the digging of the Panama Canal.  Capt. David Gaillard, of French Hugenot ancestry, was chief of dredging operations at the Cut and a cousin of Henry Gaillard.  Henry had been one of the four original incorporators of the Florida canal company, the longest serving director, and a St. Augustine state senator.  Henry’s political importance in securing the million acres of state land promised for dredging what would become the Intracoastal Waterway cannot be overstated.  Without Henry’s political clout after the death of Dr. John Westcott, it is doubtful the company would have been successful.

The Culebra Cut was essentially a cut through a solid mountain.  So arduous was the work, including dynamiting and the building of a railway to remove the rock and debris, it left David a broken man.  David was hospitalized for the balance of the Panama Canal work.  He died before the opening ceremonies. Here, Roosevelt operates an elevator dredge, which required level ground and the laying of railway steel and wooden ties.  The Florida canal company used elevator dredges in the northern extension of the Florida waterway from St. Augustine to Jacksonville.  Courtesy, Library of Congress, American Memory.