For as long as one can remember, the people of Belgium wanted to have an inland waterway that connected the Meuse river with the Scheldt river. With the start of the industrial age, a navigable waterway proved essential for the transport of coal and, in general, for the economic development of the province of Hainaut. Finally in 1879, it was decided that a canal would be built, but there were some technical challenges that needed to be overcome first. The major problem was the height difference between the rivers, which at 96 meters would require as many as 32 locks, which was prohibitively expensive and therefore not feasible. So the Ministry of Public works summoned an experienced English hydraulic engineer named Edwin Clark who proposed boat lifts instead of locks. Under his supervision, four boat lifts were constructed and Canal du Centre opened in 1917.
Photo credit: Yann Arthus-Bertrand
The original canal could accommodate boats of up to 350 tons only. By the 1960s, this was no longer adequate for the new European standard of 1350 tons for barge traffic, and a replacement was sought. Instead of enlarging the old canal along the full extent of its existing length, a bypass was created. A defining feature of the new canal is the enormous Strépy-Thieu boat lift which replaced the four smaller boat lifts as well as one or two locks on the former canal.
The Strépy-Thieu boat lift lies in the municipality of Le Rœulx, Hainaut, Belgium. With a height difference of 73.15 meters between the upstream and downstream reaches, it is the tallest boat lift in the world. Construction of the lift commenced in 1982 and was not completed until 2002 at an estimated cost of €160 million. The lift increased river traffic from 256 kilo ton in 2001 to 2,295 kilo ton in 2006.
The boat lift is promoted as a tourist attraction in its own right. Visitors to the Strépy-Thieu Boat Lift are shown the impressive machine room, the panorama over the whole of the site and over the beautiful surrounding area together with educational films and the exhibition of fossils discovered on the construction sites during excavation works.
The four older lifts on the Canal du Centre, which are bypassed by the Strépy-Thieu Boat Lift, were designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site because of their architectural and historical value.