Between 1885 and 1917, four iron tours de force of hydraulic genius were erected on the Canal du Centre in the Walloon province of Hainaut, to open up Belgium’s coal and steel-making area while also forming the missing link in the Belgium’s network of inland waterways. In 1998, UNESCO declared these works of art to be Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Some geographical knowledge of the area is required to understand this properly. In 1832, shortly after Belgian independence, the Brussels-Charleroi Canal was inaugurated. This waterway made the supply of coal from the Hainaut mining region to the cities larger, faster and cheaper. Via the Sambre, the Brussels-Charleroi Canal joins the River Meuse basin in the east. In the west, the Nimy-Blaton-Péronnes Canal near Tournai feeds into the River Scheldt basin. In the 1880s, engineers saw a prime opportunity: a quick 20 km shortcut between both river basins, known as the Canal du Centre.
This short distance caused no problems, although the differing water levels did. Between the Thieu and Houdeng-Goegnies sections, only a little over 7 km apart, this amounted to no less than 66 metres. Sluices proved to be too expensive and time-consuming as a solution for spanning this height, and would waste too much energy. The decision was made to use a boat lift, as had existed in England since 1875. In 1888, King Leopold II opened a copy of that hydraulic masterwork built by John Cockerill (boat lift no 1), with a drop of 15.4 metres, in Houdeng-Goegnies. The three following lifts, in Houdeng-Aimeries (no 2), Bracquegnies (no 3) and Thieu (no 4) respectively, each had a drop of 16.93 metres. Each one had a load capacity of 300 tonnes. Nevertheless, it was not until 1917 that the new waterway was ready.
Since 2002, these works of art have only been used for pleasure cruises. This is because goods transport has since been redirected via the concrete boat lift at Strépy-Thieu with its 117 metre height and 130 m length and with a load capacity of 1,350 tonnes, on the new Canal du Centre, as it is known. This lift spans the drop at one stroke.