A summit-level canal is an artificial waterway connecting two separate river valleys. It was an essential step in developing transport systems connecting different parts of a country before the railways or modern road transport.
The first canal to connect rivers across a watershed was the Lingqu Canal ("Magic Canal") in China which connected the Xiang and Li rivers in 219 BCE for military transport; however this is not usually considered a summit level canal as the summit level was a flat cut and there were originally no locks, though lateral canals with locks were added later on the two rivers.
The honour for the first summit-level canal therefore goes to the Grand Canal of China. This was started in the 4th century BCE with major extensions in 329 CE, and used single locks until the 10th century when pound locks were introduced. But it was the rerouting of the canal in the 1280s to shorten the connection to the new capital Beijing at the start of the Yuan dynasty, crossing the Yangtse and Yellow rivers, that established it as a summit-level canal. It remained into the modern era as the longest canal in the world at 1,145 miles (1,843 km).
In Europe, the first summit-level canal was the Stecknitz Canal (1390–1398) in Germany which connected the Stecknitz river to the Delvenau, a tributary of the Elbe, as part of the Old Salt Route. It used fifteen staunches and had a 13-kilometre (8.1 mi) summit level; the millers only opened the flash locks on alternate days.
The first summit canal to use pound locks was the Briare Canal in France which was completed in 1642. This 55-kilometre (34 mi) canal connected the Loire valley to that of the Seine to carry the agricultural produce of the Loire to Paris. In many ways it is the ancestor of all modern summit-level canals being fed from its reservoir, Étang de la Gazonne.
But the greatest engineering feat of the 17th century was the Canal du Midi in Southern France opened in 1684, joining the Garonne, which drains into the Atlantic Ocean to the Étang de Thau which leads to the Mediterranean. Its 240-kilometre (150 mi) length rises 62.8 metres (206 ft) at the western end and falls 190 metres (620 ft) to the east via 103 locks, one tunnel and three major aqueducts. To solve the water supply problem, the engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet constructed a major dam in the Black Mountains and constructed a feeder canal approximately 40 kilometres (25 mi) long.
The industrial revolution brought about a huge network of canals in England and other European countries which made summit levels a commonplace. But it took until the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century before the great ship canals such as the Kiel Canal and Panama Canal joined different seas and oceans together.
List of major summit-level canals by continent
- Trent and Mersey Canal
- Leeds and Liverpool Canal
- Grand Union Canal
- Kennet and Avon Canal
- Rochdale Canal
- The International Canals Monuments List
- Rolt, L. T. C. (1973). From Sea to Sea. Ohio University Press. ISBN 9780713904710.