On June 15, 1823, General – and then still a lieutenant colonel – Ignacy Prądzyński appeared in Augustów. This day is considered a symbolic date of commencement of the construction of the Augustów Canal, a water construction monument unique in Europe, which has survived to our times and has been a Monument of History since 2007. The facility, which today has primarily a tourist function, was built as part of a larger artery that was to connect the Vistula with the Baltic Sea through the port in today’s Latvia.
The year 2023 is the year of the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the historic Augustów Canal. The artery is 101 km long, of which 80 km is in Poland and the rest in Poland Belarus. The canal connects rivers through 12 Augustów lakes. It has 18 locks, of which 14 are in Poland.
– The genesis of the construction of the Augustów Canal is related to the fact that after the first partition of Poland, Prussia occupied the lower part of the Vistula, thanks to which it gained the ability to block the transport of Polish agricultural products to the port of Gdańsk. The situation was so tense that in 1823 – and the first symptoms appeared two years earlier – a customs war broke out between the Kingdom of Poland and the Kingdom of Prussia, says Łukasz Faszcza, a historian working at the Pilecki Institute in Augustów, in an interview with tvn24.pl.
An alternative route to bypass the troublesome middleman
As transport – and it was mainly grain – generated huge costs, the idea arose to skip the cumbersome intermediary and build an alternative route. The idea was to connect the Vistula with the Nemunas via the Augustów Canal, and then build the Windaw Canal, which would connect the Nemunas with the port of Windawa on the territory of today’s Latvia. The lakes and rivers in the area were to be used for the construction of the canal.
– Although the first earthworks began in the autumn of 1824, and the investment started in full swing only in the spring of 1825 – the symbolic date of commencement of the construction of the Augustów Canal is June 15, 1823. On that day, general – and then still lieutenant colonel – Ignacy Prądzyński appeared in Augustów. General Maurycy Hauke entrusted the later commander-in-chief of the November Uprising (Prądzyński was the commander-in-chief for several days, from August 16 to 19, 1831 – editorial note). The latter, in turn, was responsible to Grand Duke Konstanty, commander-in-chief of the army of the Kingdom of Poland, explains the historian.
Grand Duke Konstanty wanted the investment to be supervised by the military
When asked why supervision over the construction of the canal was entrusted to the military and not to the civil administration, he replies that the head of the treasury of the Kingdom of Poland, Franciszek Ksawery Drucki Lubecki, wanted the corps of road and bridge engineers to take care of it, but the aforementioned Grand Duke Konstanty did not agree. who wanted the military to take over.
There are various hypotheses as to why this happened. Certainly, the prince, as the commander-in-chief of the army of the Kingdom of Poland, had a guaranteed direct influence on the investment and could receive honors related to the commissioning of individual sections. There were also rumors that the prince did not shy away from accepting bribes, and receiving a contract for the supply of materials to the construction site of the canal meant fabulous income – says Faszcza.
The tariff war ended, but work continued
Although Ignacy Prądzyński had not worked on water projects before, he had some engineering experience. He started by touring the areas where the canal was to be built and creating the project. This one was made in the spring of 1824. From then on, it was possible to move on with earthworks. The construction director was General Jean-Baptiste Mallet, a Frenchman who was the commander of the engineer corps of the army of the Kingdom of Poland. He was responsible, among others, for for the construction of individual engineering structures – dams or sluices.
The works were carried out, although the reason for their undertaking – that is, the customs war with Prussia – expired quite quickly.
– The war ended in 1825, because it turned out to be extremely costly, especially for Prussia. All thanks to the aforementioned Franciszek Ksawery Drucki Lubecki, who imposed duties on Prussian products flowing to Russia. And since the Kingdom of Poland was in a customs union with Russia, in order for Prussian products to reach the absorptive Russian market, they had to be transported through the Kingdom of Poland. The Prussians decided that the tariff war was not profitable for them, so in 1825 they withdrew from it. Why, therefore, the work on the construction of the canal has not been stopped? Perhaps it was stated that you never know what the future will bring and it is always better to become independent of a troublesome neighbor – our interlocutor points out.
The work was interrupted by the outbreak of the uprising
In 1826, Ignacy Prądzyński was arrested for earlier activity in pro-independence unions. He was in captivity until 1829. In 1826, Colonel Henryk Wilhelm Rossmann, an engineer who had previously been a consultant to Prądzyński, took the position of the canal construction manager. The works were interrupted by the outbreak of the November Uprising. The canal was already 90 percent ready by then. Work resumed in 1833.
– As the army of the Kingdom of Poland was liquidated after the fall of the uprising, the construction of the canal was undertaken by Bank Polski, which in turn entrusted the supervision of the investment to engineer Teodor Urbański, who headed the Land and Water Communications Board of the Kingdom of Poland. Although in 1839 the last minor works were carried out on it, the canal was put into use already in 1838. Its construction was the largest investment carried out at that time by the Kingdom of Poland. It incurred huge costs. Not only residents of the immediate vicinity worked on it, but also workers brought from Prussia or Russia – says the historian.
The Russians did not finish the Vents Canal
Although the construction of the Augustów Canal was successful, after the outbreak of the November Uprising, the Russians did not continue the construction of the Windaw Canal.
– And it was already about 80-90 percent ready. Therefore, the concept of creating an alternative connection between the Vistula and the Baltic Sea through the port of Ventspils has not been implemented. The new window on the world, which was to be opened to the Kingdom of Poland, remained closed. However, this does not change the fact that the Augustów Canal, built on this occasion, began to play an important role in the local dimension. It was primarily used to transport wood, Faszcza points out.
Fighting took place here during both World War I and World War II
He adds that the canal had and still has military functions.
– Controlling the locks gives the possibility of creating very large pools here, which can be an obstacle for enemy troops. During World War I, the fighting took place here from autumn 1914 to February 1915. Even the bridges over the locks suffered then. Later Germany they repaired the damage and floated the wood cut in the Augustów Forest through the canal. The canal was also repaired in the interwar period, says Łukasz Faszcza.
He points out that during the September Campaign of 1939, the Polish Army wanted to use the canal to defend the Augustów section, but there was no fighting here at that time.
– However, during the German occupation, the locks were immobilized by Polish partisans who wanted to prevent the Germans from floating wood in this way. At the turn of the spring and summer of 1944, the Red Army began to approach the canal. The Germans, preparing for defence, blew up the locks in Sosnów, Borki and Augustów. The front stood here until January 1945. After World War II, these locks were rebuilt, and as modern materials were used, they are different from other locks on the canal. It is also worth mentioning the Białobrzegi sluice, which, although not destroyed during the war, was dismantled and rebuilt at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently, military issues had an influence on this – says the historian.
Record interest in canoeing
In addition to its military function, the canal is also a major tourist attraction. Interest began in the interwar period and continues to this day.
– The Augustów Canal is a pearl among Europe’s waterways, which is why investments on it are a priority for Polish Waters. Especially that year by year it is becoming more and more popular among tourists, as well as motor boaters and kayakers – says Joanna Szerenos-Pawilcz, spokeswoman for the Regional Water Management Authority in Białystok, State Water Holding Polish Waters in an interview with the Polish Press Agency.
He adds that in 2022 and 2021, about 30,000 people passed through the locks of the canal. vessels, and in 2020 it was a record 46,000. He also points out that in order for the canal to be operational and safe to use, as well as to be preserved for future generations, it is necessary to modernize and repair this facility.
They renovate locks and watchtower buildings
– In recent years, both locks and water watchtower buildings at the locks have been renovated on the Augustów Canal – emphasizes Szerenos-Pawilcz.
In 2023, over PLN 1.5 million will be allocated for the maintenance of the shipping route of the canal and the replacement of navigation markings. The renovation of the weir on the Augustów barrage is to cost nearly PLN 4.6 million.
In 2022, the renovation of the so-called lower gates of the Mikaszówka sluice (cost over PLN 485,000), repair of breaches in the left and right escarpment of the canal (in total, the works cost over PLN 300,000). Almost 520,000 PLN also cost the emergency repair of the lower gate of the Dębowo lock. In 2021, the Gorczyca lock and the Paniwo lock were modernized and the weir in Gorczyca was secured. In total, these works cost over PLN 1.3 million.
The idea of applying for the entry of the canal on the UNESCO list
Podlaskie Voivodship Conservator of Monuments prof. In 2022, Małgorzata Dajnowicz issued 11 permits for works on various elements of the infrastructure of the Augustów Canal. They also concerned the renovation of farm buildings at the water watchtower in Dębowo and the Sosnowo lock, buildings at the water watchtower in Przewięź, weirs: Spichlerzysko, Sosnowo and Gorczyca, repairs of the Mikaszówka, Dębowo, Przewięź and Kudrynki locks.
In 2007, the President of the Republic of Poland awarded the channel the title of Monument of History. In recent years, there was also an idea to make efforts to include it on the UNESCO list.
Dajnowicz informs that the efforts have been suspended because it is not possible – due to the current political situation – to enter a joint entry with Belarus. However, she adds that she is in favor of limiting this entry to the Polish side only because there is information that the channel is “strongly transformed” on the Belarusian side.
– Therefore, I think that with the emphasis on natural values, such an entry on UNESCO could be successful. At the moment, the matter is suspended, but I am an ardent supporter of returning to it – says the conservator.
The celebration of the 200th anniversary is coming
The main celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Augustów Canal, organized by Polish Waters, is planned for April 28. They will also be attended by the conservator of monuments and representatives of the surrounding communes. Then a conference will be held: “The past, present and future of the Augustów Canal”.
– During the meeting, we will find out what were the reasons for the creation of the Augustów Canal, what was its original function and why it is still such a valuable object on the map of north-eastern Poland. We will also talk about the development prospects and the importance of the canal for the surrounding communes, informs Szerenos-Pawilcz.
Whereas prof. Dajnowicz adds that an exhibition of archival photos of the channel by Władysław Paszkowski is planned in Białystok in a few months.
Main photo source: Regional Water Management Authority in Białystok