Transforming Rivers into Streets: How the Nineteenth Century Scheme to Improve Shipping on the Vitava, Elbe and Danube Failed

by Stephan Brabec
Arcadia, 2011, no. 7
Arcadia Collection:
Water Histories

In the second half of the nineteenth century, projects aimed at improving ship-based commerce by connecting various rivers boomed. One such project was the establishment of an Elbe-Vltava-Danube canal, which, however, was never completed.

Poster with the construction plans of the dam near Klecan (Paris International Exposition 1900)

A connection to the Danube was a fanciful dream beyond the capacities of engineers at the time. Only a canal suitable for shipping between the Vltava and Elbe was built between Prague and Usti nad Labem.

Map of the area between Vienna and Budweis with three canalisation-projects

The construction project was approved in 1895, and work began in 1897. A commission for the channeling of the Vltava and Elbe River in Bohemia was created, which dutifully reported on problems and successes from 1897 to 1912. Economic interests were the main driving force for this comprehensive transformation of river landscapes into an “Organic Machine” (White 1995); flood protection played no role. Low water tables had been a hindrance for ship and raft transportation alike; the canal promised reliable water levels throughout the year. Sluices and dams were built in Prague, Troja, Klecan, Libschitz, Miřowitz, and Wraňan/Hořin on the Vltava River, and on the Elbe in Beřkowic, Wegstädtl, Raudnitz, Leitmeritz, and Lobositz.

Detailed plan of the barrage near Troja

The canal was never an economic success. Shipping statistics between 1882 and 1916 show that, from the beginning of the twentieth century, the number of transport vessels actually sank. Rafts had to be towed as the flow of the water had been diminished. The construction never fulfilled the hopes placed upon it. World War I meant the end of the project, which, however, had a lasting effect on river ecosystems. Most of the buildings are still in place; only locks and sluices were modernized. After World War II, the integration of water power plants or kayak courses added new forms of use.

Comparison of the raft sluice in Raudnitz 1912 (left photo) and the situation in 2009 (right photo)

How to cite

Brabec, Stephan. “Transforming Rivers into Streets: How the Nineteenth Century Scheme to Improve Shipping on the Vitava, Elbe and Danube Failed.” Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia (2011), no. 7. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.

ISSN 2199-3408
Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia

Further readings: 
  • Brabec, Stephan. Die Kanalisierung von Moldau und Elbe: Die Umgestaltung von Fließgewässern aus umwelthistorischer Sicht. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag, 2011.
  • White, Richard. The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.