Willebroeck Canal

Willebroeck Canal
   Belgium's oldest canal, the Willebroeck Canal gave Brussels secure access to the sea. The Senne River, the city's sole navigable artery, proved impracticable because of fluctuating water levels and progressive silting up. In 1534, Duke Philip the Good granted the city the right to canalize the Senne, and, in 1477, Mary of Burgundy authorized the building of a canal. Construction was mandated by an imperial decree of 7 November 1531. The project involved numerous technical difficulties entailing extensive excavations and construction of innovative locks to accommodate drops in elevation.
   The canal followed a course from Brussels to Vilvoorde and proceeded to Willebroeck where it joined the Rupel River opposite the town of Boom. From its inception, the project was opposed by Mechelen, which saw its ancient privilege of levying duties on goods transported on the Senne endangered. A decree issued by Mary of Hungary on 30 May 1530, prior to the project's final approval, removed this impediment.
   Ground was broken on 16 June 1550. Work progressed rapidly until construction approached Vilvoorde, where officials raised objections to the canal in claiming the waters in the man-made artery would divert flows from the Senne and render the latter unsuitable for navigation. Work was halted until another decree of Mary of Hungary on 10 October 1555 rejected Vilvoorde's assertion. The canal was inaugurated on 12 October 1561 with much pageantry.
   The old port on the right bank of the Senne was now replaced by canal basins and docks for loading and unloading merchandise. In 1560-1561, two basins were dug in the city, the Bassin des Barques and the Bassin des Marchands. The Bassin de Sainte-Catherine was added in 1565 and the Bassin de l'Entrepôt and the Bassin de la Ferme des Boues followed. Traffic on the canal was administered by a special authority—the Schipvaert.
   The city instituted boat service for travelers between Brussels and Antwerp via the canal and the Rupel River. In the years after the canal's opening the district around the waterway became one of the city's most fashionable areas.
   Between 1829 and 1836 and 1900 and 1922 the Willebroeck Canal was enlarged. Plans were drafted in 1902 for the construction of a sea canal. World War I delayed construction but a widened canal was opened in 1922, which made it possible for oceangoing vessels to reach Brussels. The 31.9 km (19.8 mi.) canal today accommodates vessels of 2,000 gross tons.
   See also Port of Brussels; Sainte-Catherine, Place.

Historical Dictionary of Brussels. .

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