The Noordzeekanaal

History of the North Sea canal.

Until far into the 19th century Amsterdam was only accessible from the oceans by way of the Waddensea and the Zuidersea (now called IJsselmeer, after the construction of the Afsluitdijk dam in 1932). This was quite a problem, as there is a big mud bank (Pampus) just outside the city making it very difficult for the bigger ships to reach the harbour. This problem was partially solved by employing so called "ship's camels", hollow caissons that were attached to the ships and then pumped dry, giving the ships some extra floating power and rising them just high enough to be able to pass Pampus.
Unloading coal
The harbour: unloading coal for the power station

In 1819, on instigation of our then King William the 1st, the North Holland canal (finished 1824) was designed but it wasn't the best solution for the problems of the time. It was way too long and too tortuous for the big, seagoing vessels and in winter it froze over very easily. In 1861 a new plan was devised; a canal through the "small of Holland". A year later the plan was accepted and, after having had some difficulties with financing the whole thing, the first spade went in the ground in 1865.

Transporting the big grip
Transporting the big grip. Note the size of the man on the front.

The project attracted a huge amount of labourers from near and far, but their living conditions were quite primitive. Housing was inadequate (turf huts) or non-existent and, the sanitary  system left to your own imagination, a year after the start of the construction, work was seriously delayed after the outbreak of a cholera epidemic in which 32 people died. Between 1867 and '68 work was halted altogether due to an argument between Amsterdam and the Dutch government about the construction and finance, causing a lot of workers to leave because they didn't get any wages (december '67 only 182 men were at work with regard to 5000 labourers when work was at it's height).

The floating crane
The bigger ships sometimes get unloaded with a mobile
floating crane that loads stuff straight into smaller vessels.
Finally, on November 1st 1876 -a hundred years and two months before we opened the hotel-, King Willem the 3rd, the man whose cigars are still available in the shops today, had 101 blanks fired in his honour blah blah blah blah... and the North Sea canal was a fact.
It didn't take long before the Zuider locks became too small as the sea ships were getting bigger and bigger and so, in '89, the construction of the Nieuwe (New) lock was started, finishing 20 years after the canal was opened. In 1919 the whole process repeated itself until, in 1930, the biggest ships could make it to the port of Amsterdam and we'd set the world record of lock size, making us break out into the Jaques Brel song "Dans le port d'Amsterdam". Last year (2000) the lock people saw 19.383 ships pass through the doors carrying 145 million tons of stuff, making Amsterdam the 5th biggest harbour in the world.
Nowadays there's voices that want even bigger locks still.

Lock Measurements

Length Width Depth
Northern Lock 400 meters
50 meters
15 meters
Middle Lock 225 meters
25 meters
10 meters
Southern Lock 105 meters
18 meters
8 meters
Small Lock 111 meters
11 meters
4 meters

In 1987 the governement started with thoroughly renovating the whole complex. One part of the Northern Lock is being covered with a roof to provide a workshop for the maintenance of the lock doors. These huge doors (52.50 meters long, 20 meters high and 7.30 meters thick and weighing in at 1.4 million kilos each) have to be available at all times, just in case of calamity, hence the on-site maintenance. The Northern Lock itself gets a whole new door system as well as new doors able to withstand water at 5.85 meters above sea level, a new rail track and carts on the bottom, stronger boulders for the ships to moore, renovation of the lock walls and top, a fresh coat of paint and a bunch of flowers for the lockmaster's wife.
The new Ceres multiple crane terminal
This is the new Ceres multiple crane terminal that can
unload ships quicker than you can blink an eye.
The Small lock has been extended by 47 meters to provide more space for recreational ships, and it's walls fortified somewhat as they were aging a bit. New hydrolic steel doors have replaced the old, cast iron ones and again a bunch of flowers was offered. This is Holland, after all.
The southern lock was given a whole new electrical installation and a new operator's building. The old harbour office, from 1903, was carefully demolished and rebuilt on the same spot after protests from the people of IJmuiden and has now been awarded monumental status. Time for flowers of course... 
The beginning of 2003 was a good moment to start with the extension of the pumping station. This station keeps 4000 square kilometres of our land dry by pumping 3 billion cubic metres of water into the sea yearly. No wonder the sea never dries up.

Food for thought:

The hydrofoil trying to ram the patrolling police boat on the canal
The hydrofoil, trying to ram the patrolling police boat on the canal.

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