Main-Danube Canal

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Main-Danube Canal

Table of Contents

1. Facts of the Rhine-Main-Danube

2. History of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal

   2.1 First attempt: "Fossa Carolina"

         2.1.1 A dream was born

         2.1.2 Motives and reasons for the project

         2.1.3 Realisation

         2.1.4 Interesting details

   2.2 Ludwig-Danube-Main Canal

         2.2.1 Planning phase

         2.2.2 Realisation

         2.2.3 Further dimensions and interesting details

         2.2.4 Canal Locks

         2.2.5 Aqueducts

         2.2.6 The end of the project



1. Facts of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal



  • Length: 172 kilometres or 106.25 miles
  • Average width: 55 metres or 180.47 feet
  • Depth: 4.25 metres or 13.94 feet
  • Construction period: 32 years
  • Completion: 25th of September 1992
  • Construction costs: 250,000,000 €
  • Number of water-saving locks: 16
  • Lenght of canal locks: 190 metres or 623.36 feet
  • Width of canal locks: 12 metres or 39.37 feet
  • Number of bridges: 123
  • Number of pumping stations: 5

2. History of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal



2.1 First attempt: "Fossa Carolina"

2.1.1 A dream was born

Already more than 1200 years ago Charles the Great or we better know him under the name Charlemage was dreaming of connecting the Rhine, via its tributary the Main, with the Danube to realise a waterway crossing Europe from the North to the Black Sea. To connect the two greatest rivers in Europe, the Rhine river and the Danube River, only a connection between the Main and the Danube was missing. Charlemagn'es topographers found the point where the Swabian Rezat (tributary of the Main River) came closest to the Almühl (tributary of the Danube River). The distance was around 3,000 metres or 9,843 feet.

2.1.2 Motives and reasons for the project

There are various theories why Charles the Great "Charlemagne" dreamed of a successful connection of the river system of the Rhine River and the river system of the Danube River. The northern border of the Roman Empire proceeded along the rivers Rhine, Main and Danube. There was active trading and the rivers were essential trading routes. In addition these rivers presented an important supply-line from Rome to the northern outposts of the Roman Empire. For example it was a laborious affair to send goods or weapons from Rome to Cologne on the Rhine River. At the closest point of the water system of the Danube to the water system of the Main all cargo needed to be discharged and carried by the overland route before loaded onto another barge.

Charlemagne wanted a successful connection of the two river systems for two main reasons:

  1. At this time he intermitted his campaign against the Avars and planned to set out his army to the north to repulse the rebellious Saxons. To connect his lands along the Rhine River with those along the Danube River would allow him to relocate his warfleet from one end of his empire to the other in shorter time.

  2. The trading route ended at Weissenburg on the Swabian Rezat where the river systems of the Rhine and the Danube are divided by the European Watershed. A continuous waterway would considerably facilitate trade.

2.1.3 Realisation

Even before he was crowned first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles the Great "Charlemagne" (742-814) ordered the digging of a 2 metres or 6.57 feet deep ditch, cutting through the European Watershed "Continental Divide" in 793. It is believed that the canal was 3,000 metres or 9,843 feet long and 100 metres or 328 feet wide. The canal is named the "Fossa Carolina" in honour of Charlemagne.

2.1.4 Interesting details

Historians are in disagreement if the "Fossa Carolina" was ever finished. Under difficult circumstances like unfavourable soil conditions, sustained rain and in consequence slipping of the riverbanks, no water pumps and so it must have been an irrealisable project. The remains of the "Fossa Carolina" can still be seen near the village of Graben. Ponds and dams attest the skills of medieval water engineering. Since locks were not known at this time, the difference in altitude was overcome by strung together ponds. The boats were transported from pond to pond simply over chutes and rollers.

Also Napoleon Bonaparte "Napoleon I" (1769-1821) planned, on a much larger scale, to connect the rivers Main and Danube. But the defeat of Waterloo in 1815 put an end to Napoleon's ambitions. Although in the last centuries plans for a construction of a canal between the two river systems of Main and Danube were made it was until the 19th century that King Ludwig I of Bavaria (1786-1868) felt obliged to put this idea into action.


2.2 Ludwig-Danube-Main Canal

2.2.1 Planning phase

Inspired by canal constructions in France and England King Ludwig I of Bavaria (1786-1868) wanted to realise Charlemagne's idea of a continuous waterway from the North to the Black Sea. In 1825 King Ludwig I of Bavaria assigned Heinrich von Pechmann (1774-1861), who was already engaged in the project since 1818, with the planning of a navigable connection between the rivers, Main and Danube. Heinrich von Pechmann, who was also in charge of the construction management, published the plans for the Ludwig-Danube-Main Canal from Bamberg to Kelheim in 1832. For the realisation King Ludwig I of Bavaria established a law in 1834 and to assure the financing of the project a corporation was founded in 1835.

2.2.2 Realisation

The construction of the Ludwig-Danube-Main Canal finally started on 1st of July in 1836. In the first 3 years of construction everything went according to the plan but from 1839 problems arised. Litte dam failures cropped up and needed to be solved. To ensure the minimum water depth in hot summers, addtional barrages had to be integrated in the Almühl (tributary of the Danube River). In 1843 Heinrich von Pechmann was retired.

King Ludwig I of Bavaria inaugurated the canal section from Bamberg to Nuremberg on 6th of May 1834. Due to high floods and geological problems the construction works in the southern section from Nuremberg to Kelheim lasted until 1845. Within only 10 years a 177 kilometres or 110 miles long connection between the cities of Bamberg on the Main and Kelheim on the Danube was built.

On 2nd of July 1846 the canal was officially handed over to the corporation and on 15th of July 1846 the ceremonious unveiling of the canal monument, founded by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, took place at the castle hill in Erlangen, a city in the federal state of Bavaria near Nuremberg. King Ludwig I of Bavaria did not attend at the ceremony. The monument was designed by Leo von Klenze (1784-1864) and the group of figures by Ludwig Michael von Schwanthaler (1802-1848). The two figures, who shake hands, represent the unification of the Main River (lat. Moenus) and the Danube River (lat. Danubius).

2.2.3 Further dimensions and interesting details

The trapezoidal cross-section of the canal was at the water surface 15.76 metres or 49.21 feet and at the bottom 9.92 metres or 32.55 feet wide and had a depth of 1.46 metres of 3.28 feet. These dimensions were unsuitable for the wide barges used on the Rhine and Danube. Cargoes needed to be transhipped to narrower ones used on the canal.

At the beginning 3,000 and later on no less than 9,000 workers were employed to realise the idea of a continuous waterway from the North to the Black Sea. The main difficulties were felling trees to clear a path through virgin forest and moving excavated soil and unformed rock.

Canal banks were lined with stone to prevent erosions caused by passing barges and removed soil was piled on the downhill side to form the towpath. Canal boats were towed by horses walking along this towpath. For reducing seepage losses the canal bed had to be lined with loam and clay that had been worked together to form a watertight seal.

Along the entire length of the the Ludwig-Danube-Main Canal 100 bridges, around half of the bridges were stone bridges, were constructed. It was a great technical success but there was also put great emphasis on details like the creation of a hiking trail and the planting of more than 500,000 fruit trees at regular intervals.

Originally 8 million guilders were budgeted for the construction of the Ludwig-Danube-Main Canal, finally the investment amounted to 17.5 million guilders.

2.2.4 Canal Locks

To overcome the differences in altitude and the European Watershed "Continental Divide" an incredible number of 101 canal locks was constructed, what made the passage extremely costly in terms of time. The canal locks were 4.67 metres or 15.62 feet wide and 34.50 metres or 113.19 feet long. The overcoming of difference in level, between 2.30 metres or 7.55 feet and 3.20 metres or 10.50 feet, took about 15 minutes in each lock chamber. Using a lock released approximately 510,000 litres or 137,428 US gallons of water into the section below. The passage of the entire canal, including all canal locks and night's rest, required about 6 days and the way from Amsterdam to Vienna even 2 months.

Along the canal 63 identical lockkeeper's houses were built and the appropriate land was used for growing vegetables and fruit trees or keeping animals. Lockkeepers and their helpmates were in charge for controlling the locks as well for any maintenance.

2.2.5 Aqueducts

Overall 10 navigable aqueducts, also called water bridges, carried the Ludwig-Danube-Main Canal over other rivers and roads. Originally 13 water bridges were planned but for financial reasons the 3 biggest were replaced by high earth dams. Today 3 water bridges are preserved, among these the water bridge over the Schwarzach, a tributary of the Rednitz, is the most notable. The water bridge was constructed according to the style of architecture of Roman aqueducts and is considered to be the technical masterpiece of the Ludwig-Danube-Main Canal. It is situated between the locks Nr° 59 and Nr° 60 at canal kilometre 95.2. In total it measures a length of 90 metres or 295.28 feet and is 17.50 metres or 57.41 feet above the Schwarzach. The arch bridge has a span of 13.80 metres or 45.28 feet and is 11.7 metres or 36.09 wide, wheares the gutter only measures a width of 6.40 metres or 19.67 feet. This water bridge also caused a brutal cutback of the project when it was already finished in 1841. Cracks were formed in the outerwalls and after all attempts of repairing were in vain, it needed to be completely demolished in 1844 before it could it could be reconstructed.

2.2.6 The end of the project

At the beginning the Ludwig-Danube-Main Canal made profit and navigation increased. The highest volume of cargo per year, with 200,000 metric tons or 220,462 short tons, was reached in 1850 but already in 1860, when the Bavarian Maximilian Railway was completed, it became obvious that the canal will not withstand the competition of the railway network for long time. The expanded railway network was a more reasonable and faster alternative. In the following years the canal lost in importance and became entirely inefficient. Until 1912 and in the following years the volume of cargo per year was less than 60,000 metric tons or 66,139 short tons.

The Ludwig-Danube-Main Canal suffered heavy damage during WW II in 1945 and was offically shut down in 1950.