Canadian Consulting Engineer

Ship Railways

August 1, 2003
By Alistair MacKenzie, P.Eng.

One of the most interesting experiences for boaters on the Trent-Severn Waterway is to have their vessels transported by the Big Chute Marine Railway when entering or leaving at the Georgian Bay End. ...

One of the most interesting experiences for boaters on the Trent-Severn Waterway is to have their vessels transported by the Big Chute Marine Railway when entering or leaving at the Georgian Bay End. The railway provides a simple and effective method for pleasure craft to overcome the 17.7 metre difference between Georgian Bay and the waterway. Big Chute is also a famous tourist attraction — the most photographed site in Ontario aside from Niagara Falls.

To imagine that large ocean-going ships could be transported in a similar manner to the boats at Big Chute would seem to most people today to be a ridiculous idea. Yet in the mid 1800s, marine or ship railways to transport ocean-going vessels over land were being championed by some of the most prominent engineers as cheaper and more practical alternatives to canals.

The idea of transporting ships overland far pre-dates the 1800s. The earliest example of a “commercial” ship railway is the “Diolkos,” which was built across the narrow Corinthian Isthmus in Greece in the 6th century B.C. Ships were transported over its five miles using wheeled “cradles” running on a stone “trackway,” remnants of which are still visible today.

By the mid 1800s an increase in world trade and developments in shipping had focused engineering interest on Suez and Panama, the two land bottlenecks which prevented worldwide east-west water communication. In 1859, Sir James Brunlees, an eminent British engineer, developed a proposal to construct a ship railway across the Suez isthmus. Vessels would be raised on a “cradle” from a harbour at one end, transported overland on a five-track railway and refloated at a similar harbour at the other end. This ship railway would, he said, be cheaper to construct and maintain than the canal being proposed by Ferdinand de Lesseps. However, the canal advocates won the day and the railway project was abandoned.

The isthmus of Panama presented a different challenge altogether. Unlike the flat terrain of Suez, a mountainous core had to be crossed and a dangerous river controlled. Because of these problems, alternatives to a canal were sought; the distinguished American engineer James Buchanan Eads proposed a ship railway to cross Central America by the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico. But like the Suez railway proposal, Eads’ scheme did not get beyond the design stage.

It was a Canadian engineer, Henry Ketchum, who took the first and, in the end, the only practical steps to build a ship railway. Ketchum’s project was designed to cross the isthmus of Chignecto in Nova Scotia.

As a passageway across the Chignecto isthmus would shorten the maritime travel distance between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy by 500 miles, several proposals had been made to construct a canal. However, all were too costly so Ketchum began to work on a ship railway as an alternative solution. It would, he promised, be less expensive than a canal and would provide a more rapid transit time.

Henry Ketchum was the first graduate of the first university civil engineering program in Canada — at Kings College, now the University of New Brunswick. After graduating, Ketchum worked initially in the Crown Land Office, then on railway construction projects in New Brunswick and Sao Paulo, Brazil. He then moved to London, England, where he became acquainted with many of the prominent civil engineers of the day.

He submitted his formal proposal to the Canadian Government in 1881. This was accepted and Chignecto Marine Transport Railway was duly incorporated. There followed many delays due to financial and organizational problems, but construction finally commenced on the first modern ship railway in October 1888.

The railway itself was twin standard gauge railtracks spaced at 18 feet between centres. It was 17 miles long and ran in a straight line across the isthmus. Vessels of up to 2,000 tons displacement were to be accommodated. At the northern (Baie Verte) end, an approach basin was dredged and two breakwaters were extended into the bay. At the southern end, a lock was required to cope with the range of the Bay of Fundy tides.

Lifting docks at each end contained a steel grid 235 feet by 60 feet connected to 20 hydraulic “jacks” to lift ships up to the railway level. The grids supported a wheeled “cradle” which carried the vessel. The cradle was pulled from the lifting basin by hydraulic power and connected to two locomotives. These towed the loaded cradle to the other end of the isthmus, where the vessel was lowered into the water until it was able to float free.

In spite of continual financial and political problems, work proceeded well. The technical feasibility of the project was never in doubt, and engineers around the world greeted progress enthusiastically. If this project was successful, the way was clear for the construction of ship railways at locations across the world.

But it was not to be. A depression affecting the financial markets had become so severe by 1890 that it was no longer possible to finance the project. Government support, too, had been withdrawn. In August of 1891 operations ceased.

Today, the few remnants still visible of the only ship railway project to ever reach the construction stage are the basins, the pumphouse foundations and the line of the railbed.

The demise of the Chignecto project ended the hopes and aspirations of engineers for ship railways. They had made plans for ship railways across the Florida peninsula from south of Jacksonville on the Atlantic coast to the Gulf of Mexico, from Michigan City on Lake Huron to Toledo on Lake Erie, and from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay. None of these projects left the drawing board.

Had Chignecto been completed and proved successful, it is very possible that the other ship railways would have been constructed and the world transportation map of the early 20th century would have looked very different. Would we have become accustomed to the sight of huge ships being transported effortlessly overland? Should we be relooking at this type of technology to solve some of today’s transportation problems?

Unfortunately, it does not seem so. It is unlikely that ship railways would ever have achieved lasting success. The increase in the size of ships in the 20th century would have quickly made the technology obsolete. It now seems that as a major transportation technique, ship railways were a technological “cul de sac.”

Alistair MacKenzie, P.Eng., FCSCE, is an associate professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and chair of the National History Committee of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering.


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