Not to brag, but Belgium has the biggest boat lift in the world. The colossus of Strépy-Thieu is just outside Mons in Wallonia and lets boats cross a height difference of 73 m. Nearby the old hydraulic boat lifts still do their thing on the Canal du Centre. This, by the way, earned them the status of Unesco-protected heritage site.
It’s safe to say that Belgium’s industrial heritage can be quite surprising, looking at the impressive, 150 m high funicular lift. This concrete and steel monster looks like it has been accidentally forgotten by the directors of a sci-fi movie. Our children, usually babbling away, are completely starstruck. The fact that this building is able to hold a ship, suddenly seems entirely realistic. The suspension of disbelief is happening in front of our eyes.
Canal du centre
The sloping lock of Ronquières, part of the same well known engineering works of Belgium, does something similar: it lets boats cross a height difference of 68 meter on the canal Brussels-Charleroi. For that it was applauded by countless children in the seventies, who visited the site with their school. Beautiful memories!
The colossus is awesome, but we’re even more interested in the old boat lifts. A tiny train brings us to lift number 3 alongside the idyllic Canal du Centre. We have a look at the engine room, built in the 19th century, which powers both lifts 2 and 3.
It’s a gorgeous, well preserved building without any electricity: the water pumps can handle the job on their own. ‘Is there really no power outlet?’, Felix asks in disbelief. Nope. Not one. The lifts are powered by ingenious mechanisms from a century ago, using no other energy than the water around them. How cool is that?
We board a barge named Scaldis, with captain Francis at the steering wheel, and take a trip along the historical canal. The interior of the Scaldis fits perfectly with the seventies school trip atmosphere, with lots of brownish furniture and a jolly bartender humming old songs while serving bitter filter coffee. The audience is a mix of Japanese tourists, locals on a trip and families with enthusiastic children.
As the coal industry developed in the region, the problem of transporting all of the merchandise reared its head. The height differences between the canals were too great to be crossed by a traditional system of locks. Of the eight boat lifts built at the beginning of the 20th century, the four on the Canal du Centre are the only lifts in the world which are still operated using their original mechanisms. Reason enough for Unesco to protect them.
From the deck of our barge, the kids have a wonderful view of what is happening. They can already see the automatic lift and jump with excitement. That lift will move us to the 17 m lower part of the canal, boat included.
Our guide warns us: if we still need our head, we’d better duck. It turns out the metal construction is commonly known as ‘the guillotine’. Felix, Lucy and Mirtha decide against losing their head: they still need it. We agree.
Boat lift in motion
It’s quite spectacular to watch the boat lift in motion, especially while you’re in it. The suction pump and the weight of the water allow us to be transported to the lower part of the canal, all while keeping our heads. What a marvelous trip! We wouldn’t mind staying a little longer in the 19the century.