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Column: An ancient dream made real after canal connects Rhine, Danube rivers
Rudi Kiefer

Transporting goods by ship rather than on wheels has always been economical. Big rivers provide the natural waterways on which merchandise can be moved without the need to clear land and build roads first.

Europeans wondered for centuries whether it would be possible to connect the North Sea to the Black Sea. It would establish a trade route between Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and other countries with Germany, France, Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries. Dutch seaports could provide connections to America. 

1,200 years ago, before Germany resembled today’s country, King Charlemagne of the Franks had that dream. Geographers assured him that there was such a possibility. The Altmühl is one of the tributary streams feeding into the Danube, Europe’s largest river. Even though the Altmühl is relatively small, twisting and winding through the gentle terrain of Central Bavaria, it would have been suitable for ships of the 8th century. In 793, Charlemagne commissioned a trench project that would go from today’s village of Graben, elevation 1,380 feet, to the town of Weissenburg and the equally small Rezat stream at 1,373 feet above sealevel. The horizontal distance was only 6,500 feet, letting Charlemagne see enormous possibilities. An artificial waterway, just over a mile long, would connect the Rhine River and his imperial town of Aachen to the Danube and the Black Sea. Shipments of merchandise would flow, along with, oh, the occasional warships and military units as necessary. 

They almost made it. The “Fossa Carolina”, Charles’ trench, came within a few hundred feet of the Rezat River.  The soft ground kept collapsing the channel, and after much digging, the trench was abandoned. 

In 1992, a much more technology-enabled project connected the Rhine and the Danube with the 106-mile long Rhine-Main-Danube Canal (RMDC). Its 100-foot wide channel and 13-foot draft allows large barges to travel from Black Sea ports to Dutch Atlantic Ocean ports on the Rhine. “Russia’s rush to Rotterdam”, a colleague of mine called it while it was still in the planning stage. The rush comes with a world record. Near Freystadt, Germany, the highest spot of the RMDC is at 1,341 feet elevation. No commercial ship traffic rises higher from ocean level anywhere in the world. The challenge is now to keep the canal functional. Climate change alters rainfall amounts and water levels in the canal. Drought could drain the upper stretches to where they become unusable.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of physical science at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at