Chapter 24 - Waterways and Railways

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ALTHOUGH canals in Belgium are not so obtrusive as they are in Holland, yet they are far more important and numerous than the visitor to the country might imagine. The question of the internal waterways, which may be subdivided into rivers, canalized rivers, and canals, of the country has always been of national import. The guilds of the watermen (bateliers) were, in the days of the communes, among the most important at Ypres, Bruges, and Ghent; it was on a matter of rivalry between their boatmen that Ghent fell upon Ypres and shattered its power in 1383. At the present time, despite the advent of railways, communication by water is of the greatest value to the economic system of Belgium, and a new policy has been inaugurated of constructing new shipcanals or enlarging old ones for the passage of ocean steamers into the heart of the country.

The rivers used as waterways for commerce are the Meuse, the Scheldt, the Lys, the Dendre, and the Dyle. The importance of the Scheldt may be judged from the fact that three great cities, Antwerp, Ghent, and Tournai, are situated upon it, and that boats paid toll on it at Tournai in the tenth century. The Meuse, the Lys, and the Dendre have been canalized in different parts of their courses, and the question of the more effective control of the Meuse below Maestricht is one in which the Belgian public apparently takes more interest than the Dutch. Further reference will be made to this matter.

In the official list kept in the office of the "Ponts et Chaussees" fifty-two separate canal systems are recognized among the national waterways. They have a total length of 1,637 kilometres, or a little over 1,020 miles. The total tonnage of goods carried by ordinary boats on these waterways in 1908 reached the enormous total of 1,111,773,961 tons. Of this only a small part related to foreign countries. The imports into Belgium by water in the same year amounted to 6,228,815 tons and the exports to 7,128,390.

In addition to the fifty-two canals, etc., enumerated there are five ship-canals, viz. :

Length in Kilometers Tonnage

Brussels to the Rupel 27.3 4,807,029

Ghent, Bruges, Ostend 23.3 267,723

Ghent to Terneuzen 17.5 22,898,308

Louvain to the Dyle 30.6 8,280

Bruges to Zeebrugge 16 475,810

114.7 28,457,150

These figures establish the importance to Belgium of her canals and riverways. Canal life in Holland is a more picturesque affair than in Belgium, but it may be questioned whether the amount of traffic is as great in the Northern Netherlands as it has become in the Southern. The following are the details of the goods conveyed by the internal canals:

Combustibles 319,656,095 tons

Minerals, etc 108,881,739 "

Building Materials and Metals 211,016,193 "

China and Glass 88,066,579 "

Wood 36,191,028 "

Agricultural Produce 165,146,470 "

Industrial Produce 52,004,753 "

Merchandise 130,811,104 "

Total 1,111,773,961 "

In a recent year the ordinary expenses on canals and waterways amounted to $477,234.40, and the receipts from tolls to $419,519.60. But in 1907 and 1908 a capital expenditure of nearly $10,000,000 on the improvement of canals and rivers as waterways was sanctioned. This shows the importance attached to their development.

It was Drusus, it will be recollected, who first introduced a system of canalization into the Netherlands by giving a new arm to the Rhine, and there is evidence that the canals from Ostend to Bruges, with a prolongation towards Ghent, and from Brussels to the Rupel and the Scheldt, existed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. When Charles of Lorrain completed the Bruges-Ghent canal 150 years ago, it was especially recorded that it had been commenced in 1379. When the Willebroek canal was enlarged in the sixteenth century, it enabled William the Silent to perform the whole journey by water from Antwerp to Brussels. In mediaeval Flanders the Lys provided Ghent with a natural water route to Courtrai and, incidentally, to Ypres as well, and the Scheldt one to Audenarde and Tournai. Further east the Dender connected Termonde with Alost and Grammont, while the Ruppel and the Senne linked Brussels with the Scheldt.

In many respects the Meuse, which is partly a French and partly a Dutch river, is the most important of all Belgian waterways. In its upper course it is linked with some of the most important French canals (the canal des Ardennes among others), giving access to the heart of the old provinces of Champagne, Lorraine, and Burgundy. The wine of these provinces is imported by water the whole way to Dinant, Namur, and Liege, and this mode of conveyance explains why the wines of Burgundy have always been especially excellent in Belgium. There is another reason for the superexcellence of Burgundy in the Meuse valley. The cellars are cut in the rock, and at certain seasons of the year when the river is in flood the water is admitted, and when the tide falls it leaves the bottles clothed in mud which is said to invest them with a special and stimulating protection. In old days wine and wood were the principal articles conveyed on the Meuse, but since 1880 the most important import has been iron from the famous iron-field of the Vosges. This is sent direct to Liege, or branches off at Namur to proceed up the Sambre to Charleroi. Thanks to this cheap water conveyance, French iron competes successfully with that from Germany or the Grand Duchy, which can only reach the Liege market after a more or less costly railway journey. Since the exhaustion of the home iron mines between the Sambre and Meuse, Belgium has been entirely dependent on the supply from foreign sources, and cheap transport necessarily forms an important point in the degree of profit with which this mineral can be ultilized.

The most important question relating to the Meuse is as to the possibility of establishing communication for ocean steamers to as high up as Liege. This is rather a Belgian grievance, as the Dutch authorities have been accused of apathy and indifference. The matter requires a little careful consideration.

When it became clear, after the Belgian Revolution, that Dutch rule was ended in what used to be called the Spanish Netherlands, the Dutch clung to the possession of the town of Maestricht for sentimental reasons as the scene of the heroism of their race, and the indulgent Powers accepted and supported the claim. Maestricht is, however, of not the slightest practical value to Holland. At the same time that Maestricht was left to the Dutch the part of Limburg lying on the right bank of the Meuse was ceded to Holland as compensation for what it lost in Luxemburg. This, roughly speaking, consists of the cantons of Sittard and Ruremonde. While these cessions of territory were made for the benefit of Holland, it was expressly laid down that the use of all canals was to be free and common for both countries. It may be useful to quote the precise stipulations of the treaty, for this question of the Middle Meuse is very likely to become important if only for the interesting and difficult engineering problems connected with it. The following is the text of the special Articles relating to the matter:

"Art. 10. - The use of the canals which traverse simultaneously both countries shall continue to be free and common to their inhabitants. It is understood that the enjoyment thereof shall be reciprocal, and on the same conditions, and that on both sides there will be on the canals only moderate navigation dues. Art. II. - Commercial communications by way of the town of Maestricht and that of Sittard shall remain entirely free and shall not be impeded on any pretext whatsoever."

The importance of this strip of Dutch territory to Belgium is that it intercepts Belgian communications with Germany, while Holland is bound not to impose more than moderate tolls on goods passing to and from Germany by either road or canal. The most important canal in the region is the South William Canal which connects Maestricht with Bois le Due, passing through a certain portion of Belgian territory. This canal is used chiefly because it saves the wide bend of the Meuse by Venlo, but if the Meuse itself were canalized below Vise, there is no doubt that Belgian traffic would favor the main river.

At the present time Venlo marks the limit of upstream navigation for steamers. There is a regular daily packet from Rotterdam to this place, but the Dutch have made no attempt to improve the river above that town for the reason, as they admit, that it would benefit Liege. In anticipation of something being done by the Dutch the Belgians have canalized the Meuse below Liege to the frontier at Vise, and expend a certain sum annually in its up-keep by dredging. But the state of the river below Vise has rendered this a useless expense. Small pleasure steamers ply in the summer between Liege and Maestricht as they do above Namur to Dinant and Waulsort, but these have no commercial value.

Belgium's possession of the left bank of the Meuse, interrupted by the enclave of Maestricht, continues below the circumference of that town to a point almost equidistant between Masseyck and Ruremonde. The whole of this strip of the Meuse of which Holland holds the right bank, is uncanalized and of no use to commerce beyond what may be conveyed in barges. Moreover, the river in flood is dangerous for navigation even by them, and between Ruremonde and Venlo, where Holland holds both banks, the floods are aggravated by the addition of the equally uncontrolled waters of the river Roer, which flows into the Meuse at Ruremonde. Both the Belgians and the Dutch citizens of Limburg consider it a grievance that nothing has been done in this matter, and lay the chief blame at the door of the Hague Government. The people of Ruremonde in particular grumble a good deal because it is impossible for excursion steamers to come as high as that place. It would be different, they have been heard to say, if we belonged to Belgium.

A Dutch-Belgian commission has, however, been considering the question of late, and something may soon be done. The Belgian Government is quite prepared to undertake its share of the work and the expenditure, and that of Holland without committing itself has recently displayed more interest than it has ever done on any former occasion. The canalization of the Meuse between Vise and Venlo would no doubt be a costly affair, but the reclamation of the land now subject to inundation would go far towards meeting the whole expenditure.

Another great question with regard to the improvement of Belgian waterways is that of rectifying the course of the Scheldt just below Antwerp. The river here takes a wide sweep to the westward, and it has been proposed to obviate this by cutting a new bed for the river across the neck of the promontory. This scheme is known as "la grancie coupure" and has had as many opponents as supporters. But there seems no reason for doubting that it is practically decided on, and that as soon as the removal of the enceinte, now in progress, has been effected, this task will be taken in hand. No other hypothesis will explain the postponement of work on the two forts intended to defend the river approach to the great city.

The adoption of the "grande coupure" will not merely give a direct entrance to the existing quays (thus saving a curve of at least six miles), but it will also allow of their extension northward for a distance of two miles. It must also be remembered that the lower Scheldt is in a special degree liable to visitations of fog, and the straighter the river course becomes the more is the risk of accident diminished. For the moment the weak point in the defenses of Antwerp is to be found on the side of approach from the sea owing to the deferred settlement of the "grande coupure' problem.

The reported intention of the Dutch Government to fortify the mouth of the Scheldt at Flushing has raised considerable discussion in Belgium, where the Scheldt is regarded as essentially a Belgian river. In 1831-39 Europe very foolishly gave Holland both banks of the Scheldt from a short distance below Lillo, but at the same time it established the common rights (that is to say joint and equal) of Belgium and Holland in the navigation of the river. A Dutch fortress at the mouth of the river might seriously interfere with and, indeed, close the access to Antwerp from the sea. Under certain contingencies this might mean all the difference between national salvation and perdition. It is not surprising then if Belgian opinion is seriously disturbed at the outlook.

Belgium was the first Continental State to take up a system of railway construction under the auspices of the Government. Immediately upon his arrival in the country King Leopold I ordered the appointment of a commission to prepare a plan, and two competent engineers, Messrs. Simons and De Ridder, were entrusted with the task of surveying the country with special reference to such a design. The hostilities with the Dutch and the uncertainty as to Belgium's own future no doubt explained how it was that the elaboration of the plan required three years. The report recommended that Malines should be selected as the central point, and that through it should pass a line north and south from Antwerp to Brussels and Namur, and east and west from Ostend to Bruges, Ghent, Louvain and Liege. The report was adopted, and in May, 1835, the first train ran from Malines to Brussels. In the following year communication was established with Ghent and Liege. M. Charles Rogier was the minister who carried out the King's wishes, and the seventeen speeches he delivered on the subject in a single season contained a remarkable prognostication as to the influence railways would exercise on the development of the country.

Encouraged by the success of the Government main lines, a large number of public companies were formed for the purpose of constructing special local lines that seemed to be needed, and at one time these represented a greater mileage than the State-owned lines, but these, as was always the intention, have, with very few exceptions, been bought up. At the end of 1908 the distribution of the different lines of railway is shown in the following table, the mileage being approximate :


Railways built by the State 637

Railways built for the State and taken over by it 443

Railways built by Private Companies and bought up by

the State 1,430

Railways worked by the State in conjunction with the

Companies 150

Total mileage under State control 2660

There are also seven small private railway companies with a total mileage of 250 miles, but portions of these lines are on Dutch and French territory.

The total cost of constructing the State-controlled lines is given at a little over five hundred million dollars, or at the rate of $200,000 per mile. The number of persons employed on these railways was in the year named 70,500, and there were 1,557 stations and minor halts. These are all included in an official guide called the Indicateur Beige, or Guide Official, published three times a year at the price of threepence. Fares are based on a fixed charge per kilometre, and season tickets are issued for short or long periods available over the whole of Belgium. The season tickets bear a photograph of identity and require a deposit of five francs, returnable at the close of the period for which the ticket is taken. The short-term tickets - five or fifteen days - are especia 1 ly suitable and convenient for tourists. The total number of travelers on all Belgian railways in 1908 was nearly 177 millions.

As the state is responsible for accidents and has to indemnify for death or injury, the following statistics are interesting. Out of the 177 million passengers in 1908, forty-seven were killed and 1,015 injured. Out of the 70,500 employees fifty-one were killed and 549 injured. In addition to these, seventy-eight persons described as neither traveling at the time of the accident nor employed on the railways were killed and seventy-four wounded. Included in this total were suicides and persons killed -at level crossings.

In addition to her heavy railways Belgium is endowed with an extensive system of light railways which have been immensely developed and extended within the last twenty years. In 1890 there were only 705 kilometres constructed, but in 1908 the total had risen to 3,260 kilometres, or nearly 2,040 miles, and each year witnesses the construction of some more of these useful feeders. These light railways have proved very profitable.

Statistics are not available as to the total number of passengers on light railways, but the return of accidents shows among passengers nine killed and seventy-two injured, among employees two killed and ten injured, and among other persons forty-two killed and forty injured. The high number of accidents to outsiders will not be surprising to those who know that these railways are quite unprotected, and that the track passes through woods where it is often difficult to see the train's approach. The trains on these lines are restricted to a speed of sixteen miles an hour. The carriages are small, and each is divided by a glass door into two compartments, one for smokers and the other for non-smokers. The platform at each extremity is available for passengers, and is specially coveted when the route happens to pass through pretty scenery, as is the case between Paliseul and Bouillon. The season tickets mentioned above are available also on the majority of the light railways.

Source: Boulger, Demetrius C. Belgium. Detroit: Published for the Bay View Reading Club, 1913. Print.

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