Europe: Charlemagne's Dream

An enormous canal, perhaps the largest public-works project in history, is scheduled to link the Rhine and Danube rivers, and thirteen European nations, next year

IN THE GERMAN village of Graben is a long, narrow pond covered with green algae, its steep banks defended by thick brambles. The high sides of the pond rise several feet above the surrounding countryside. Unremarkable though they look, they attest to a deadly struggle that went on there in the fall of A.D. 793. Many men lost their lives in unequal combat, not with an army but with the implacable earth. The pond is one of the few remnants of the first attempt to link the two greatest river systems in Europe.

This is where Charlemagne determined that he would build a canal to link the Main, a tributary of the Rhine, the foremost river of his western domain, with the Danube, the road to the realms he was pacifying to the east. Each of these two majestic waterways had various feeder streams that were navigable by small boats. Charlemagne chose the Altmühl and the Swabian Rezat, only 2,200 yards apart, as the two tributaries that he would try to connect.

This canal, whose melancholy remains lie in Bavaria, would, Charlemagne thought, allow him to consolidate his empire. Alas, the Emperor could send forth armies, but he could not command the rains to cease or the earth to be stable. The more his workers dug, the more the mud sloughed back down upon them. After about two months Charlemagne could bear the frustration no longer, and he ordered the project abandoned.

Charlemagne’s choice of a place to cross the European water divide had merit: his engineers, with a knowledge of topography and hydrology that would be considered rudimentary today, chose a route very near ones that would be selected eleven and twelve centuries later. The second major canal-building enterprise—that of King Ludwig I of Bavaria—was conducted just a few miles to the east. The result, completed in 1845, was the DanubeMain Canal, which remained in use until late in the Second World War.

I have seen an antique map of the region which shows no towns, hills, or place-names but only a dense system of rivers. It looks like a nest of snakes cast onto glass. The Rhine and the Danube themselves are only about twenty miles apart at a place just north and west of Lake Constance. The site must have tempted early surveyors. But linking the two rivers there would have done little good. The Danube was crossed by shoals at that elevation; even small boats had to be dragged from time to time. As for the Rhine, just downstream, at Schaffhausen, it plunged over the Rhine Falls, which are impassable to this day.

Ludwig’s canal, with its wooden lock gates and towpaths for horses, was in use for more than a century but showed a profit for only twelve of those years; its best year was 1850. The large number and small size of the canal’s locks were always a drawback, but it was the opening of Bavaria’s first railroad that sent the canal into a decline. Allied bombs finished it off.

NOW CHARLEMAGNE’S dream is about to be realized in a big way. The Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, one of the greatest public-works projects in history, is nearing completion. The new canal runs southward and ever higher from the Main at Bamberg, through Nuremberg, to Hilpoltstein and Bachhausen—the highest locks—and then downward to Kelheim and the Danube. When Berching Lock and the final, ten-mile link are completed, large ships will be able to cruise more than 2,000 miles right across Central Europe, from Rotterdam, on the North Sea, to three small ports on the Danube Delta, where the river flows into the Black Sea.

The new waterway will greatly increase the importance of the Rhine River, which already carries more cargo than all the sea-lanes between the United States and Europe. Although the canal itself is located entirely in Germany and is financed by German public funds, it will directly serve twelve other countries: the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Soviet Union. The highest of the canal’s fifty-nine locks are 1,332 feet above sea level. Ships coming up from Mainz will be raised 1,066 feet before they start their descent toward the Danube. This means lifting huge vessels to twice the height of the Washington Monument—over a course of only 305 miles.

Much of the canal already carries shipping. Even in the short stretch still under construction most of the ponds are ready, awaiting only the completion of Berching Lock next spring. The entire canal is scheduled to open in the fall of next year.

I have seen the huge locks—forty feet wide, 625 feet long, and nearly a hundred feet deep—at several stages of construction. Each lock requires the effort that would go into the building of a small city, and takes about five years to complete. Some 200 skilled workers toil at each site, aided by gigantic machines. The appearance of a completed lock provides little hint of what an enormous and complicated structure it is. Under construction it is laid open to the sky, while an octet of huge cranes swings steel ganglia across its cavernous midsection. When the lock is completed, workers bulldoze dirt up around its immense flanks and plant grass, covering everything but the gates, the lock, and the lockmaster’s control cabin.

The unique Sparschleusen, or “thrift locks,” make the construction site even bigger. These large, elongated ponds rise in three tiers from one side of the main lock. They save 60 percent of the water from each emptying of the lock and reuse it the next time a ship passes through. Most impressive of all, they accomplish the feat without pumps, harnessing the most basic form of energy in the universe: gravity.

The organization charged with directing the gigantic canal project is Rhein-Main-Donau AG, founded in 1921, when Ludwig’s canal was still in use. Rhein-Main-Donau’s charter provides for a unique financing concept, one that public-works proponents in other countries, bombarded by charges of squandered tax money, might do well to adopt.

The governments of Bavaria and the Federal Republic of Germany lend money, interest-free, to the company as needed. In the meantime, RMD generates considerable revenue by selling hydroelectricity. As work progresses, and more power stations are added to the fifty-four already in operation, the company sells enough electricity to finance further construction, while rapidly repaying the government loans. The total cost of the canal is expected to be about 3.7 billion marks ($2.1 billion), a debt the company expects to pay off by the year 2050, whereupon the company will dissolve and the power plants will become the property of Germany and Bavaria. The canal is turned over to the federal government as each section is completed.

Even though each mile of the canal is costing more than 43 million marks ($25 million), that is only two thirds the cost of a mile of new track for the Bundesbahn, the German federal railway. A government grant the size of the Bundesbahn’s monthly subsidy would be enough to complete the canal. What’s more, transporting goods by rail is about three times as expensive as it is by inland ship; trucking is six times as expensive. Ships move more slowly, but it matters little how long bulk materials take to get to their destination if the buyer plans ahead.

Transportation routes and electrical power are not all that the Rhine-MainDanube project will provide. The canal will become a tremendous conduit for transferring water from southern to northern Bavaria. Geological conditions in the Regnitz and Main valleys give them little storage capacity. Although rainfall is plentiful, it runs off quickly. To the south, in contrast, the German Alps and foothills have plentiful rainfall and also forests and subsoil that can hold great volumes of water. When the canal is completed, water from the Altmühl and the Danube will be pumped from reach to reach up to the summit level of the canal. From there it will be used not only to supply locks and turbines but also to help the cities and farms of the water-poor area. And the system will become an important element in flood control.

On the stretch from Kelheim to Dietfurt, the canal looks far more like a lazy, winding river than like a ship channel. The banks are thick with natural vegetation, and swans nudge easily among the reeds. Families harvest hay in the middle distance; farther away, jutting limestone cliffs prop up old stone castles. Hang gliders with rainbow wings step forth from crags and plummet, catch currents of air, and speed down the valley.

At Dietfurt Lock the canal starts the serious business of climbing toward the continental divide. The high ground between the locks at Bachhausen and Hilpoltstein, the summit of the canal, is the highest point of all the commercial water networks of Europe. Here the waterway is not only at its highest but also at its deepest. Instead of going up hill and down, with yet more expensive and time-consuming locks, Rhein-Main-Donau decided to sever the very backbone of the Franconian Uplands. I saw the cutting of an immense trough ninety feet deep and ten miles long. Fleets of green Mercedes trucks moved in an endless shuttle all day long, hauling out the laminated black earth.

JUST AS, IN the nineteenth century, construction of locks and deep channels on the Main made Frankfurt a major riverport, the canal has brought boom days to Nuremberg and other cities. Already Nuremberg has built an 820-acre inland harbor, with nearly three miles of piers that groan with the cargoes of distant lands— even though the city is more than 500 miles from the North Sea.

On a tour of the harbor I saw coal from South Africa, building stones from Spain, and soybean groats from the United States. Bulk goods are the mainstay of waterway shipping, and fertilizer, barley, crude oil, pig iron, wheat, corn, and kaolin are always coming and going on ships. Already, more than a million metric tons of freight a year pass through Nuremberg, enough to have created 4,000 new jobs in the vicinity of the harbor.

The Austrians seem almost more enthusiastic about the canal than the Germans. Two thirds of Austria’s labor force works within thirty-five miles of the Danube. Linz, with its iron-andcoal-dependent heavy industry, is the city expected to benefit most from the cheaper movement of bulk goods which the canal will permit.

The developing, newly capitalist cities farther down the Danube have been getting ready for the canal since long before the Iron Curtain fell. One learns something in every one of them. In the port of Bratislava, for example, I saw big, rusty, twenty-ton blocks of pig iron that had come up from Bulgaria. At most only two of them, the deputy harbor master told me, can go onto a railroad car, one over each axle. A big barge can carry several hundred. A barge can carry about fifty heavy trailers, taking that many dangerous trucks off the highway, saving fuel, avoiding repetitive customs formalities, and assuring that the cargo won’t have been bounced around on rough roads for hundreds of miles.

In Strasbourg, Mannheim, Wiesbaden, Mainz, Bonn, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Duisburg (the largest inland port in the world), Emmerich, Nijmegan, Arnhem, and Rotterdam, people hardly glanced at the parade of ships on the river. But in Bratislava and, as I was to learn, Budapest, Baja, Novi Sad, Belgrade, Ruse, Tulcea, and on down the mighty current to Sulina, the passing of a big vessel is something to note.

Until now the volume of shipping on the Danube has been modest compared with that on the Rhine. Although the Rhine has only a third the navigable length of the Danube, it moves 225 million metric tons of freight annually, compared with 86 million tons on the Danube. The potential for increase is immense, and the opening of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal will most certainly lead to dramatic changes.

One day, standing on a barge on a working stretch of the canal north of Nuremberg, I realized that we were high above the cornfields on both sides. The Rednitz River, a busy highway, and red-tile rooftops were also far below us.

Instead of laboring down one side of the valley and back up the other side with locks, the canal had leaped a thousand feet from one hillside to the next. We were on an overpass. A bridge that can carry huge trucks is impressive enough. I was even more impressed with this overpass and the weight it was carrying: more than 70,000 tons, or 2.5 million cubic feet of water, supporting whatever ships happened to be chugging across it.

The journey was a pleasant one, past willows along the banks, in the soft sunshine of early autumn. Soon I began to notice that people were building new houses oriented toward the canal. It had become a positive attraction. People wanted to live near it, facing it. Cyclists rolled along paths on both sides, mothers pushed baby carriages, and fishermen came down to the water’s edge to drop their hooks.

The look of the canal owes much to the sensitivity and talent of Professor Reinhard Grebe, a forceful landscape architect with a great marigold mane and beard.

“In 1972,” he told me, “RheinMain-Donau AG asked me to propose how they should handle ecological concerns about the Altmühl Valley. I brought in a climatologist, a botanist, a zoologist, and a town planner. The more we studied the company’s plans, the more firmly we decided: We must change these plans or they will totally destroy the landscape. They’d planned to straighten the Altmühl! They were going to fill in all the backwaters, so fish would have had no refuge from barge waves. They were going to build a road along each side of the canal.

“We brought in experts from fifteen disciplines—ichthyologists and ornithologists and even experts on amphibians and butterflies. We met with the mayors of all the towns along the Altmühl and asked them about their fears and wishes. We drew up a new plan, and the Ministry of the Environment declared that the company would have to follow it.”

And so it did. Rhein-Main-Donau officials are happier for having done so. The Altmühl River will flow on, not as serenely as before but with most of its natural beauty preserved.

Moving cargo from Rotterdam to the Black Sea will no longer require a big arc around the continent. Charlemagne’s dream of a Europe unified by force of arms has been replaced by another, apparently achievable, goal: unity in trade. No doubt the Emperor would look upon that as progress.

—Kenneth C. Danforth