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Building the Suez Canal - 1859-1869

The Suez Canal is usually considered the most important example of ship canals, though the number of vessels passing through it annually does not equal that passing through the canals connecting Lake Superior with the chain of great lakes at the south. In length, however, it exceeds any of the other great ship canals, its total length being ninety miles, of which about two-thirds is through shallow lakes.

The pilot study estimated that a total of 2,613 million cubic feet of earth would have to be moved, including 600 million on land, and another 2,013 million dredged from water. The total original cost estimate was 200 million francs. The material excavated was usually sand, though in some cases strata of solid rock, from two to three feet in thickness, were encountered. The total excavation was about 80,000,000 cubic yards [2,160 million cubic feet] under the original plan, which gave a depth of twenty-five feet.

When at first the company ran into financial problems, it was Pasha Said who purchased 44 percent of the company to keep it in operation. However, the British and Turks were concerned with the venture and managed to have work suspended for a short time, until the intervention of Napoleon III. Excavation of the canal actually began on April 25th, 1859, and between then and 1862, the first part of the canal was completed. By 1861 the Lesseps Company had been ostensibly at work for nearly ten years at a canal that was to be a hundred feet wide and thirty feet deep from sea to sea, with ports for sea-going ships on the Mediterranean and Eed Sea ends; and yet up to that moment, though a very large part of their nominal capital had been spent, not one single spadeful had been turned up for the construction of this canal. Lesseps had begun what he calls his 'rigole,' a boat canal twelve feet wide and four feet deep, of which one-third, beginning from the north, had been finished; a second third completed in the spring or early summer of 1862, and the remaining third would be more easily finished by letting the water of the Bed Sea into a salt marsh some way to the north of Suez. Lesseps was eager about this, because he thought his shares would rise in the market at Paris if he could show that he had actually floated a boat from sea to sea.

But he was reluctant to tell his shareholders what is nevertheless the fact, that this boat canal, or 'rigole,' is not to form any part whatever of the ship canal; the ship canal is to be dug in a line parallel to this boat canal, and the boat canal is only to be used like a railway, for the easier conveyance of workmen, provisions, and materials as the great work goes on. There was scarcely one among the French engineers employed who would not, if he told the truth, acknowledge that the ship canal could not be made without an amount of money and a period of time far exceeding all the calculations hitherto made.

However, after Ismail succeeded Pasha Said in 1863, the work was again suspended. After Ferdinand De Lesseps again appealed to Napoleon III, an international commission was formed in March of 1864. The commission resolved the problems and within three years, the canal was completed.

The dredges used in the construction of the canal were of a new description. They were wonderful mechanical contrivances, and but for them the canal would not have been finished. They were not the contrivance of M. Lesseps, but of one of the contractors, a distinguished engineer, who received his technical education in France but his practical experience in England.

The use of the dredging machines w as prepared for by digging out a rough trough by spade work, and as soon as it had been dug to the depth of from six feet to twelve feet, the water was let in. After the water had been let in, the steam dredges were floated down the stream, moored along the bank, and set to work. The dredges were of two kinds.

The great couloirs consisted of a long, broad, flat bottomed barge, on which stood a huge framework of wood, supporting an endless chain of heavy iron buckets. The chain was turned by steam, and the height of the axle was shifted from time to time, so that the empty buckets, as they revolved round and round, should always strike the bottom of the canal at a fixed angle. As they were dragged over the soil they scooped up a quantity of mud and sand and water, and as each bucket reached its highest point in the round, it discharged its contents into a long iron pipe which ran out at right angles to the barge. The further extremity of this pipe stretched for some yards beyond the bank of the canal, and therefore, when the dredging was going on, there was a constant stream of liquid mud pouring from the pipe's mouth upon the shore, and thus raising the height of the embankment. When the hollow scooped out by the buckets had reached the required depth, the dredge was moved to another place, and the same process was repeated over and over again.

These stationary dredges, however, though very effective, required much time in moving, and the lighter work of the canal was chiefly effected by movable dredges of a smaller size. These machines were of the same construction as those described; the only difference was that the mud raised by their agency was not poured directly on shore by pipes attached to the dredges, but was emptied in the first instance into large barges moored alongside the dredge. These barges were divided into compartments, each of which contained a railway truck, and when the barge was filled it steered away to the bank, where an elevator was fixed. The trucks, filled with mud were raised by a crane worked by steam power, and placed upon inclined rails, attached to the elevator, which sloped upwards at an angle of 45 degrees towards the bank. They were then drawn up the rails by an endless rope, and as each truck reached the end of the rails its side fell open, the mud was shot out upon the bank, and the empty truck returned by another set of rails to the platform on which the elevator was placed, and was thence lowered into the barge to which it belonged. As the elevator could un-load and re-load a barge much faster than the dredges could fill it with mud, each elevator was fed by half a dozen dredges, and thus the mud raised from the canal by several dredges was carted away without difficulty at one and the same time.

As these floating dredges were much easier to shift than those encumbered by the long couloir pipes, the work of excavating the bed went on much more rapidly. But in places where there was any great mass of earth or sand to be removed, the large couloirs could scoop out a given volume in a shorter time.

The Fresh Water or Isma'iliyeh Canal, constructed in 1858-63 to supply the towns on the Suez Canal with drinking-water and enlarged in 1876, was in great part a restoration of an earlier canal, dating from the Middle Empire. This ancient canal, which began at the Nile, watered the land of Goshen with its branches, and entering the Bitter Lakes, changed their character, according to Strabo, and connected them with the Red Sea. The cbannel of the old canal, which was re-discovered by the French expedition of 1798, is still traceable at places, and its direction has frequently been followed by the engineers of M. de Lesseps. The remains of scarps of masonry show it to have been about 60 yds. in width, and 16-17 1/2 ft. in depth. According to Herodotus the canal was four days' journey, and according to Pliny 62 Roman miles, in length.

In ancient times the canal was primarily constructed for purposes of navigation, and it is still used by numerous small barges; but it is now chiefly important as a channel for conducting fresh water to the towns on its banks, particularly Isma'iliya and Suez, and as a means of irrigating and fertilizing the country through which it passes. Near Cairo the canal diverges from the Nile to the N. of the Kasr en-Nil, and thence traces to the N.E. the boundary between the Arabian plateau (on the N.) and the land of Goshen (on the S.). To the E. of Abu Hammad it Intersects the ancient fresh-water canal coming from Zakazik, and then runs to the E., parallel with this, through the Wadi Tamitdi, which is over 30 M. in length. At Neftsheh the canal forks; the S. arm leads to Suez, while the N. arm leads to Port Sa'id.

On November 17, 1869 the barrage of the Suez plains reservoir was breached and waters of the Mediterranean flowed into the Red Sea and the canal was opened for international navigation. The completion of the Suez Canal was a cause for considerable celebration. In Port Said, the extravaganza began with fireworks and a ball attended by six thousand people. They included many heads of state, including the Empress Eugenie, the Emperor of Austria, the Prince of Wales, the Prince of Prussia and the Prince of the Netherlands. Two convoys of ships entered the canal from its southern and northern points and met at Ismailia. Parties continued for weeks, and the celebration also marked the opening of Ismail's old Opera House in Cairo, which is now gone.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:38:53 ZULU