A brief history of the inland waterways.

Going back to the 1800s there were three types of moving roads in Western Europe:

  • Large rivers with a powerful current, such as the Rhine and the Rhne.
  • Rivers with a lazy current such as the Sane, the Seine or the lower Rhine/Maas in the Netherlands.
  • Canals, which were man-made waterways.
  • The arrival of the steam engine (1820) allowed man to progress from the use of animal traction for towing the barges on heavy rivers.

    The towboat replaced the horses, pulling itself and a line of barges along the river by means of a chain which lay on the riverbed.

    This was followed by the invention of the paddle wheel ship, (pict: paddlewheel) which enabled large vessels, tugs and cargo-carriers, to travel upstream, fully loaded, at a fairly good speed. These vessels had very pointed bows, were 300ft long and wide enough to be able to carry a good tonnage, as well as passengers, in shallow waters.

    1860: On quiet rivers and canals and until the propeller became really efficient a few years later, the only form of traction possible was by man or animal. (pict:canal horse)

    1879: In France, Mr. De Freycinet standardized the canal network by building the same type of locks, all of which were the same size, about 40m x 5.20m. As a result of this standardization, the barges had to be re-designed in order to fit into the locks. These new wooden barges were, for the most part, built to a new standard of 38.5m x 5.05m and were towed along the canal by horse, men, women and children alike.

    1890: At this time, engineers and shipyards designed a hull shape with a sharp bow that would cut through the water. The stern, was counter shaped in order for good water arrival at the propeller. The tugs were legion, equipped with steam engines that provided a more efficient way of towing the barges on lazy rivers. They were able to tow four to six loaded barges at a time, (Freycinet standard), depending on their engine power. (pict: steam tugboat)

    (In Holland, due to the flat terrain, there were virtually no locks and so the tugs were also used to tow along the canals.)

    At the same time, the authorities were improving the system by building large locks and weirs that would give better draught; more draught would allow for higher tonnage.

    At this time, tugs were thriving in the estuaries in Belgium and in the Netherlands. Many boats were still working under sails, Klippers-Tjalks, (one of the oldest hull shapes), and were delivering goods to many places such as England, Brittany etc.. . In addition, the first steel hulls were shaped like the wooden ones.

    1910: The arrival of the diesel engine, which certainly gave ships more independence. At first, the engines were not very powerful and the motorships had to have pointed bows, thus giving birth to Spits and Luxe-Motors (pict: luxe motor). It appears that the Luxe-Motor took its shape directly from the tug as they have the same hull shape characteristics. The accommodations behind the wheelhouse were very luxurious and had a proper kitchen and a toilet

    At this time most houses did not have running water nor indoor toilets. That type of vessel became immediately very popular, particularly in Belgium and the Netherlands.

    1920 - 1930: This period saw the boom of the Luxe-Motor construction and cargo-carriers such as P�iches, first built in Belgium and northern France, according to the Freycinet standard. Diesel engines were now more powerful and reliable. The hulls were now built of steel in the shape of the previous wooden ones, protected from possible sharp blows when entering locks by having rubbing plates and a strong bow. These boats had a certain charm, with some shipyards from the north designing beautiful hulls, (Plaquet-Tamise-De-Waechter), with astonishingly beautiful living quarters.

    1930 1940: Some steam tugs were still going on the rivers but the new generation equipped with powerful, diesel engines was taking over, as they were able to tow more weight, faster. The p�iches could do long-distance deliveries, (thanks to Freycinet), from the north of Holland and Germany to the south of France. The shipyards were frantically building new barges; this period probably represented the zenith of barge building in France-Belgium and Netherlands. The northern canals in France are, for most of them, equipped with tractors to tow the non-motorized barges. These tractors are either electric or Diesel powered (pict: tractor). The towboats (pict: tow boat) with the chain lying on the riverbed are still running to take the barges through several tunnels on the canals.

    1950-1970: On large rivers, a new generation of ships, the pushboats, replaced gradually the tugs, they were able to push much more tonnage in an easier way. The cargo carriers on big rivers have now powerful engines and can carry 1200 up to 3000 tons The Freycinet barges plough the canals and rivers all over the western European waterways. On a few canals, such as the Centre in France (Burgundy area), a bit of manual-animal traction is still going on.

    In the late sixties, in the Netherlands, the old working sailboats being not competitive enough, were abandoned.

    Fortunately, alternative lifestyle minded people took the opportunity to restore them and ran them as charter vessels

    for students.

    Actually they saved a fair number of them. (picture sail tjalks)

    In France, in Paris the same alternative people started to use the barges as houses. Freycinet barges, Luxe-Motors,

    small Tjalks and Klippers.

    1970-2000: In France, the decline of water transport has begun. The old canals, due to a lack of maintenance, are


    The trucks and railroads are taking over, being faster and cheap. The Freycinet barges are being scrapped by the hundred.

    Luckily, this period saw the advent of tourism on the Eurowaterways and particularly on the ancient French canals.

    The early seventies gave birth to the Hotel-barging; at first a few P�iches were successfully transformed into cruising hotels. That form of tourism kept on increasing and nowadays a fair number of Hotel-barges are working, cruising through the best regions of the French canal network .

    To be continued

    Return to previous page
    Home | Contact | For sale | FAQ | About

    copyright 2000-2006 Jean-Luc Broudic, France