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Canals are useful mainly for the bulk transport of goods, usually dry goods such as coal or cereal crops, but have also been used for alcohol and various other commodities. In Britain and Ireland, the canals had a very short lifespan: for them to be economically viable, you need enough industrialization for bulk transport to be wanted, but not enough that it will soon be supplanted by railways.

My vision is of a large, politically stable, mainly flat country with substantial coastline. Trading on ships up & down the coast and on boats along rivers will, of course, be well established very early. However, canals require a fair bit of engineering knowledge and a lot of labour, so they will not be built until there is enough industrialization to support them.

The thing is, I want to see a canal being built (mainly because I have a vision of a large landowner having to negotiate with the entrepreneur/builder about the route it takes across the estate), but I want the technology level at the time to be well before the age of steam.

I can imagine that innovations in food production (a new cereal crop which grows best at one end of the country?) or something similar might cause a need for bulk transport on canal.

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    $\begingroup$ Look into the history of the Netherlands. It's full of canals, which are still in use today, even with railways existing. $\endgroup$ – Erik May 21 '15 at 11:09
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    $\begingroup$ First parts of the Grand Canal in China were built around 400 BCE, the Kanhave canal in the 8. century, and there are much more ancient examples. $\endgroup$ – his May 21 '15 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ I think your question should be why did canals exist long before railways? $\endgroup$ – Michael McGriff May 21 '15 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ Labor is far easier to come across than steam engines. $\endgroup$ – ckersch May 21 '15 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps this question is asked from a more parochial perspective than I thought. I am familiar with the idea that canals had a pretty short heyday, but I'm being told that this is not necessarily true outside Britain & Ireland. $\endgroup$ – TRiG May 21 '15 at 15:49

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I will merely report on similar points as the comments, but I think that your question is based on a mis-conception. We can see two ways: canals pre-dates train (and by much!) and trains did not close all canals.

  • Canals before trains

Long ago, canals were built for irrigation. Already in Mesopotamia, in Egypt or in ancient India. That already lead to some discussions about the land being used. As @his mentioned, the Grand Canal of China was built centuries before Christ. And it allowed already for some exchange in goods. The Greeks made the first Suez Canal to link the Nile to the Red Sea.

And to come to more recent constructions, you can think of the Canal du Midi in France, which was finished in 1680s. No trains by then.

  • Rails did not kill canals

... at least not completely. You can see that some canals are still fully used now, when we have trains, planes, cars, trucks, etc. To name most famous to westerners: the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal still see a heavy traffic. Why? Because it is cheaper and can transport huge amount of merchandise. Also there are more water ways between countries than train could cover: how do you go by train from Continental Europe to Maghreb? Yes Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt... not what I'd recommend, these days.

Now that we cleared that up, we can see a few more points.

Why were the canals short-lived in the British Isles?

Actually they weren't really. Some irrigation canals were built by the Romans already. Further development occured in the middle ages. But it is true that the major development of canals in the UK took place starting from mid-18th Century and was almost abandonned by the turn of the 20th. However it seems that it was since improved and a few canals are still in use today.

But why aren't there large canals like in some other countries? Well essentially because they are islands. You can already get fairly close to your intended destination by sea fares. And there were not much traffic around the British Isles. Even for Germans/Russian, they could simply sail through the channel. The economy was essentially in limited areas (Dublin/Cork in Ireland, North-West/South in England..), all directly connected to the sea. I would think that together with the trains, it is the advance on sea-shipping that limited the development of canals in the UK.

Canals should help you gain time: Suez Canal avoids rounding Africa, Panama the same for South-America, and to follow the example above, the Canal du Midi helps to avoid the Spanish Peninsula (and as described in the Wikipedia article, to block an economic resource for Spain).

Why to build a canal and what to transport through it?

As I already wrote, you build a canal to gain time: is it faster to go through some place than around it. But that is only interesting if there is enough traffic. A canal between two villages is mostly useless: it costs a lot (money+people) but does not bring too much. Now if you have large cities and/or commercial roads on each side, and you divide by 10 the transport time between those. It does make sense. If you don't have the technology, you don't have to think about how to compete with trains, just that there should be enough goods to trade. But nowadays, coal, or oil, or even containers are goods that are often shipped through canals.

If your country/continent contains an isthmus of a few tens/hundreds/thousands (it's all relative) of kilometers, and that on both sides, you have very important commercial hubs, each with heavy traffic to both seas. And that going round was a huge trip and/or dangerous (weather, pirates, etc.). Then you could build a canal in between. And have your foreseen discussion.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wikipedia lists British canals going back to Roman times - so why are they described as short-lived? $\endgroup$ – teambob May 22 '15 at 2:22
  • $\begingroup$ @teambob you are right, of course. I just didn't check the OP assertion. But to be fair, the real commercial interest of the Brittish for canals starting from mid-18th Century (after seeing the Canal du Midi), and lasted 150 years. So the OP isn't completely wrong saying that it is short-lived. I edited my answer to include your remark, though. $\endgroup$ – bilbo_pingouin May 22 '15 at 6:59
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Your title Question is "Why would canals exist long before railways?"

The simple answer is 'Irrigation'

The Egyptians had irrigation all the way back to 1800BCE. This would mean to move water they needed simple irrigation ruts to move water to more arid lands. As crops got further and further away from water sources these irrigation ruts became canals and the canals got larger and larger in order to move greater quantities of water. With the width of the irrigation canals expanding it became clear that you could also float rafts down these irrigation canals and move & traffic with them. As the expansion and width grew so the ability to move larger shipping vessels.

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The early 19th century canal rush was spurred by the development of steam-powered excavation equipment, which is very similar to railroad technology. For a greater separation between the canal era and railroad era in your world, you could:

  • Dig canals without steam power. Earlier invention of dynamite and convenient access to saltpeter/guano
  • Make canals easier to dig. Karst topography or Listric faults
  • Make iron or coal or fresh water scarce. Railroads need all three.
  • Make canals a repurposing or expansion of existing construction. Irrigation projects or long, narrow strip mines following surface veins.
  • Make canals have a secondary use that subsidized their construction. National defense, perhaps.
  • Make the terrain unsuitable for railroads. The Great Dismal Swamp reverted back to canals for transport after building a railroad
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Method 1: Change the development order
One very simple way to ensure a canal has a very long lifespan is to change the order of development so that railways aren't developed until long after canals. This does, after all, make sense: it is easy to see how the sea could be 'extended' to form a canal, but railways are far more complex. In our world, canals did actually come first - there are some examples in the comments - but railways (at least in this country) were popularised not long after canals were.

Method 2: Make it hard for railways
The other way to do this is just to make it hard or not economically viable to build a railway. If, for example, the nearest railway is 150 miles away and the nearest canal is just 10, it's pretty obvious which you're going to build - especially if the costs of a railway are higher.

This is not to say that railways wouldn't make it to that area eventually, but it would be a much longer time and canals would have been around much longer.

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  • $\begingroup$ Actually, in the real world there is a "stagnation period" in which investment in previous-generation technology is not undertaken due to awaiting next-generation technology. Thus it wouldn't matter how far away the nearest railway is, as long as it is expected that rail will soon take over, nobody will invest in a canal. $\endgroup$ – Atsby May 22 '15 at 3:05
  • $\begingroup$ “railways (at least in this country) were popularised not long after canals”: not sure which country you're talking about, but navigation canals date back to more than two millenniums before railways in China and Europe. $\endgroup$ – Gilles May 22 '15 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Gilles the boom in canals in the UK was not long before the boom in railways - we're talking 100-150 years. There were canals before that, but they weren't widespread. $\endgroup$ – ArtOfCode May 22 '15 at 10:49
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As an economic question, the answer as always lies in the cost. Transporting goods via water is easily an order of magnitude cheaper than other means. How much so depends on the technology involved (in the modern U.S., shipping via water is from 10-30 times cheaper compared to shipping over land). Economically, canals make sense, and the only real issue is finding an entity with the resources to make the investment.

Construction of a canal in a relatively flat country is mostly a matter of cheap labor, and can be funded by either entrepreneurs or by the government. The main competition that may make it less likely is the extensive coastline, as that offers a similarly inexpensive means of transport. Thus, the geography should provide reasons to offset this (e.g. food production being concentrated in the interior).

Security will also be a key requirement; the society should be sufficiently prosperous and secure (both economically and militarily) for such a project to be worth undertaking. Otherwise, the funding would likely be unavailable due to military spending or shorter-term (for less risk) investments.

Finally, industrialization is not necessary for bulk transport to be needed. Many pre-industrial civilizations (Rome, China, the Incas) had massive resource needs. Cities like Tenochtitlan with 200,000 - 300,000 people would have required massive amounts of food delivered each day, not to mention textiles or other goods for trade.

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I am not sure that it is about innovations in food production, really.

Basically, the canals allow the transport of bulk goods such as food without a convenient natural body of water. This enables some useful things.

If there is a famine food can be transported from elsewhere, that means that people who can afford to buy imported food do not starve. And improves the odds that the peasants can keep enough of the food they can produce not to starve. This in turn reduce rebellions and drops in tax revenue caused by famine.

You can use the canals to supply logistics for your armies. This makes moving your army much faster and cheaper. And less destructive to your peasants.

Even goods that can be profitably moved using roads are cheaper and more profitable to move along water.

The Great Canal of China was actually built despite an alternative natural waterway route existing to connect the north and south. This is because it supplied a secure route less vulnerable to storms or pirates entirely within the territory of the empire. So sometimes large canals are about connecting parts securely.

So for your scenario, the country might simply consider building a canal to be cheaper than building and maintaining a navy strong enough to secure the coastal routes. There must be threat such as pirates.

Or there could be a stormy season or frozen season that blocks the coastal route for some periods of time.

Or the rivers might not be large enough to support ships capable of traversing the coastal waters. So the canals would save the expense of moving the cargo from river barges to coastal ships.

Or there might be area between the rivers that is being held back by insufficient transportation. Both the benefit from better transport and the cost of building the canal scale with the distance between the rivers, so this should work well enough. And it seems it would fit your scenario.

The coastal route might be simply long and inconvenient, so that the canal would actually supply a faster more reliable connection. This would make the country more cohesive politically and economically.

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Because there are natural canals already existing in many landscapes, namely rivers.

So for example you would have a existing trade route that uses 2 river journeys. The next step would be to connect the 2 rivers with a canal to remove the cost of the offload, transport on land and reload on the other river.

Also important is that canals are easier to maintain, roads get muddy and develop pot holes and ruts that impede travel. While water will always provide the same travel comfort until it freezes over.

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  • $\begingroup$ Even when a canal/river freezes over it remains a transport pathway, for skates and skis. The only time water pathways are unusable is in the transition from water to ice and back - during freeze / thaw time they become dangerous, but otherwise you're good to go. $\endgroup$ – Eli Skolas May 22 '15 at 2:58
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The main reason railways supplemented canals has to do with geography: railways can go up and down hills, while canals cannot without an extensive series of locks, reservoirs etc.

If your story takes place in a flat, low lying region, then canals make perfect sense (think the Netherlands or Venice). The builders just have to dig, and no extensive engineering of locks, holding ponds for water on the higher elevations and so on is needed. Aside from periodic dredging there isn't much maintenance to do.

The downside is you probably need tow paths to pull barges up and down the canals, since there is little current, any enemy has pretty free reign to sail in from the sea and up your canalways, and water born disease is going to be a problem with lots of relatively stagnant water. Depending on the setting's era (I am assuming this is pre or early industrial age), these might become large problems for the canal nation.

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    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that in the netherlands at the very least channels for transfport and trade were build by the romans around the same time that christ walked the earth (10-40 AD). In fact as I'm typing this I can see one such channel from the window of my room. Transport was done by having a horse walk allongside the river pulling the barge. Such channels connecting two rivers don't need to be stagnant and can flow quite a bit. $\endgroup$ – Thijser May 22 '15 at 5:18
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As an addition to the other answers, I would like to comment on

you need enough industrialization for bulk transport to be wanted

Digging a canal might require some engineering knowledge and resources, but so will building a railroad. The crucial point is that vehicles for the canal can be very easily produced, and the industrialization you need for their production is at a rather low degree: In timber rafting, you use wood that you want to transport for building a raft (or rather, several rafts that are chained together to make things more efficient). Like this, the only industry that you require to bulk-produce goods are lumberjacks.

Like this, a shallow canal transport might already be helpful if only a part of your country has a rich supply of wood suitable for construction, or whatever else the wood is used for.

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I think everyone has missed the obvious answer: railways require* engines, canals don't. For much of their early history, canal boats were drawn by horses (or mules &c). See e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Towpath

Furthermore, railways require a supply of inexpensive steel for rails, while canals can be dug by hand labor.

*I suppose you could have a horse-drawn railway, but I don't think it offers much practical advantage over roads.

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    $\begingroup$ Horse-drawn railways can carry heavier loads than dirt roads. $\endgroup$ – Mark May 21 '15 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ Besides @Mark 's comment about heavier loads, horse-drawn railways offer a couple of other advantages: they don't rut and pit as other roads do, making for a MUCH more stable ride, and they are usable during weather conditions when dirt roads aren't, like during rainy (muddy) season. Railroads have been in use for THOUSANDS of years in mining areas for just those reasons. The ore cars may be pushed by humans or pulled by mules, but they're riding on rails (including on wooden rails) to keep them from bashing the mine's sides and keep from getting stuck in potholes. $\endgroup$ – Eli Skolas May 22 '15 at 2:55
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    $\begingroup$ @user6297: But are the advantages for general transportation large enough to offset the construction costs? Mining is obviously a specal case: lots of heavy traffic over short distances. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 22 '15 at 6:03
  • $\begingroup$ You don't need steel or even iron for railways - wooden rails (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…) were in use for centuries before the first iron rail was laid. $\endgroup$ – Eli Skolas Sep 16 '15 at 14:32

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