Shipping, Inland Waterways, Europe

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Shipping, Inland Waterways, Europe

Inland waterways have been central to transport within Europe since medieval times. Especially for products such as coal, grain, and building materials, natural and artificial waterways were the only means of transportation before the era of railways and motorized road transport.

Waterway nets, constructed in Europe beginning in the seventeenth century, connected primary-production areas and seaports with industrial areas and consumption centers. After the heydays of inland waterway shipping at the end of the nineteenth century, railroads and roads took over many transport duties, including passenger transport, and most smaller waterways lost their commercial relevance. Today inland navigation is for the most part relevant only on main waterways like the Rhine, the Danube, and canals that can accommodate ships above 500 tons cargo. Although mass products are still the main cargo on inland waterways, container transport has begun to play an increasingly important role


Although most of the trade of mass products was during medieval and early modern periods regional, some commodities such as lumber for shipbuilding or salt for food preservation were traded over long distances. Only their availability at seaports permitted the growth of international trade. Whereas lumber for shipbuilding or other purposes was simply rafted down the natural waterways, the demand for products like salt led to the construction of artificial waterways.

The best early example of a connection between international trade and inland navigation inside Europe was the Stecknitzfahrt between the river Elbe and the Baltic Sea, or in particular between the salt-producing city of Lüneburg and the Hanseatic city of Lübeck. The Hanseatic League needed salt for its fish (especially herring) trade in the Baltic. Because there was no salt production at the Baltic, the growth of this trade depended on the availability of salt, and land transport did not have the capacity to handle a reasonable supply. Therefore finally a canal, the Stecknitzfahrt, was opened in 1398, and salt production in Lüneburg fostered the fish trade of Hanseatic merchants in Lübeck and vice versa for the following centuries. The success of both businesses was only possible because of the use of inland navigation.


During early modern times, inland navigation continued as the hinterland connection of European seaports, while at the same time artificial waterways were constructed mainly for geostrategic reasons. The Canal du Midi in France, constructed at the end of the seventeenth century, connected the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the Schleswig Holsteinischer Canal or Eider-Kanal made navigation possible between the North Sea and the Baltic since 1784, the Göta-Kanal opened in 1832 allowing a passage between Gothenburg and Stockholm without using the Baltic and the Kattegat, and finally the Ludwig-Donau-Main Kanal has connected the North Sea and Black Sea since 1845. All of these projects were designed to avoid the possibility of a blockade of trade by foreign naval powers. But difficulties arose due to the great number of locks inside the canals and the necessary limitations on ship size. In addition the entrance ports and the canals themselves had not been part of the main trade-routes, so their contribution to the development of international trade remained limited.


As industrial areas developed in Europe and populations grew, trade routes that included those areas became more prominent. In addition new shipbuilding materials, such as iron and steel, and the steam engine made possible larger inland navigation vessels and faster navigation independent of such natural constraints as wind and river currents. The mining industry, especially, depended on a low-price coal and ore cargo system capable of handling huge volumes. As a result, first in Great Britain and later in Belgium, France, and Germany, systems of inland waterways were constructed that connected the major primary production areas with the centers of industrial production and consumption or with the seaports for export.

At the end of the nineteenth century nearly all major central European cities were connected to the inland waterway system, and, in addition to seaports, ports such as Duisburg and Basel became major gateways for international trade into central Europe. Especially for landlocked countries such as Switzerland, inland shipping was the only way to join world trade.

In certain areas without a suitable railway network, inland shipping was a carrier not only for mass products but also for public and general cargo transport. The main ship used in inland navigation was the steam-driven tug-boat with barges in tow; self-propelled ships were used only for special cargoes or on certain waterways, such as the Danube. Whereas the Rhine became the main axis for inland navigation in western Europe and was dominated by coal transport, the Danube connected southeast Europe with the central parts and was of special relevance for crude-oil transport. Only the oil-transport via the Danube gave the possibility for oil production in southeastern Europe to compete with the import of oil from North America to the European market.

At the end of the 1930s the network of central European waterways was nearly completed and had become a major part of the whole transport economy, while in nations such as Great Britain and Sweden the older waterways had lost their relevance because they were not large enough to permit the passage of vessels that could compete with other transport methods.


After the World War II most of the smaller waterways lost their economic relevance because railroad and road transport took over the market for transportation of smaller quantities, with a high grade of flexibility. But for traditional mass products such as oil, grain, coal, and ore, the main waterways and canal networks remained a major part of international trade. Especially after European steel production shifted to imported coal and ore while the centers of production remained unchanged, new traffic was established—no longer for the export of European products but for the hinterland transport of mass products imported from overseas. Tugboats and barges in tow were replaced by self-propelled ships or push-boats and barges.

While shipping remained a viable business only for the major waterways such as the Rhine, Danube, and Elbe, or for canals with a cargo capacity greater than 1,000 tons per ship, smaller waterways lost all their relevance for international trade and were left with some local transports or were rediscovered for leisure activities within the last few decades.

With the emerging gridlock of land-bound transportation in Europe during the last decades of the twentieth century, inland waterways were rediscovered as an alternative for transport, and not only the transport of mass products. Especially on the Rhine, container transport became a significant part of shipping. For other products, such as new cars or chemicals, specially designed ships are part of the fleet of inland navigation vessels.

Inland navigation remains a major player in international trade in Europe, and in the hinterland trade of European seaports, with a special focus on mass-products, dangerous products, and some special commodities.

The main relevance of inland navigation for international trade is of course still the same as in the medieval or early modern period: the connection between primary production areas and the seaports and distribution of imported products from the seaports into the hinterland.

SEE ALSO Agriculture; Baltic Exchange;Black Sea; Canals; Cargoes, Freight; Cargoes, Passenger; Containerization; Empire, Dutch; Empire, French; France; Germany;Shipbuilding;Shipping, Aids to;Shipping, Coastal;Shipping, Inland Waterways, North America;Shipping, Merchant;Shipping, Technological Change;Ships and Shipping;Ship Types;Russia;United Kingdom.


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Ingo Heidbrink