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Sailing by Ship—On Water and Land!

Sailing by Ship—On Water and Land!

 Sailing by Ship​—On Water and Land!


What would you think if a ship’s captain invited you to go on a cruise​—not only over waves but also over waving grass?

SHIPPING has a long history in the Iława lakeland of northern Poland. As far back as ten centuries ago, local produce, timber, and wood products were shipped along an old, well-known route​—southward down the Drwęca River to the Vistula River and then northward to the Baltic Sea. (See map.) From there the goods were transported to Western Europe.

In the 13th century, after the Teutonic Knights conquered much of the region, this route gained even more importance. * Still later, from the 16th century on, the demand for this area’s timber grew rapidly, with merchants from Gdańsk as well as shipbuilders from France and Denmark buying it up.

Why was there such an interest in this timber? One reason was that the slender, knot-free pines in these forests, which grow to 160 feet [50 m] in height, made excellent masts for sailing ships. However, getting timber by means of the roundabout Drwęca-Vistula river route took some six to eight months.

 Looking for a Shorter Route

In their search for a solution to this problem, shippers contemplated the six long lakes that lie between Ostróda and Elbląg, close to the Vistula Lagoon. If they could somehow be linked together, the route from the Drwęca River to the Baltic would become five times shorter! Thus was conceived the idea of digging a canal to connect the lakes. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the challenges of construction put the project beyond the reach of the technology of the day. How, for example, could the builders deal with the 340-foot [104 m] difference in water level that exists within a distance of just six miles [10 km]?

Despite such difficulties, local merchants, landowners, and manufacturers desired to sell their goods quickly and profitably, so they continued to press the then ruling Prussian authorities to connect the lakes. Ultimately, in 1825 the authorities decided to construct a canal joining the towns of Ostróda and Elbląg with each other and with the sea. The route of the waterway was marked out, and the design was entrusted to a secret construction adviser. But when this adviser discovered that the task was beyond his ability, he simply stashed his unworkable drawings in a drawer.

A Brilliant Engineer Takes Up the Idea

About the same time, Georg Jakob Steenke graduated from an academy in Berlin as a master of construction, with a specialty in hydroengineering. This able young man soon proved his skills in practice, and in 1836 he was appointed to the prestigious position of dike and embankment inspector in Elbląg. In this role Steenke analyzed the idea of constructing the Oberland Canal, as it was then called. *

By 1837, Steenke had worked out a new route for the canal and had developed a detailed plan that would allow cargo ships to use the watercourse. During this time he also closely followed innovations in hydroengineering technology. Finally, in 1844 work began on the canal. Channels were dug between the lakes along the upper part of the route,  which caused the water level in some of the lakes to drop by as much as 15 feet [5 m]. Steenke planned to deal with the remaining 325-foot [100 m] difference in water level by building 25 locks.

However, after the first five locks were constructed, Steenke realized that they would actually be bottlenecks in the system and would slow down traffic. Undaunted, he traveled to the United States to study how similar problems had been resolved in the construction of the Morris Canal, which crossed the state of New Jersey. Steenke found the locks in the Morris Canal to be equally uneconomical, but one feature he saw there excited him​—inclined ramps, sloping stretches of track running overland, with rolling platforms designed to ferry ships cross-country between sections of the canal. Returning home, Steenke and two other skilled engineers adapted and improved on this idea. He abandoned the building of any more locks in favor of a unique system of four ramps. Imagine Steenke’s joy when in 1860, following successful tests, the first section of the Oberland Canal was opened.

A Monument to Canal Building

Of course, a fully operational canal consists not only of channels and ramps but also of dams, gates, cable-pulling mechanisms, engine rooms, and other equipment​—all of which suffer constant wear and tear. Thus, 20 years after the canal opened, a new ramp was added to replace the five worn-out original wooden locks. The main section between Elbląg and Ostróda is some 50 miles [82 km] long. The total length of the route with all its arms extends 130 miles [212 km].

The Oberland Canal, now called the Elbląg-Ostróda Canal, has been praised as a work of technology unique in the world and one of exceptional historical value. Today, the canal’s value as a commercial shipping lane has diminished, and mainly motorboats, sailboats, yachts, and tour ships ply its course. Yet, even after so many years, explains Dariusz Barton in his guidebook Kanał Elbląsko-Ostródzki (The Elbląg-Ostróda Canal), “those well-worn hydroengineering devices and buildings operate as smoothly as if the passage of time did not affect them at all. This is because they were constructed with exquisite precision, with a perfection that amazes the experts.”

Come Along on an Unusual Cruise

Would you like to accompany us on a cruise along this unusual route? We start out in the morning from Ostróda. Passing through two locks, we are now sailing at an altitude of 325 feet [100 m] above sea level. As we peacefully glide along the water, we admire the extensive forests of birch, elm, pine, and fir, as well as reedy marshes highlighted with water lilies in bloom. Some parts of this area are now designated as nature preserves, in which it is not unusual to catch sight of gray herons and grebes in the rushes or storks carefully stepping through the meadows and shallow waters.

Suddenly, at the 32-mile [51 km] point, the canal seems to come to a dead end! But there we see two stone pillars bearing huge wheels with a thick cable wound around them. The captain announces that we have reached the first ramp and now, with passengers on deck, our ship comes to rest on a submerged platform.​—See ship and platform on page 12.

Soon water from a special tank floods onto a 26-foot- [8 m]wide waterwheel. The massive water-driven mechanism springs to life, reeling in the line, the platform, the ship, and us. As we are drawn forward,  the iron rails on which the platform is now riding lead us from the water, out of the canal, over the ridge at the top of the ramp, and then gently downward for another 1,800 feet [550 m]. We are really “sailing” on dry land! Then, the rails run back under the water, and the platform submerges and comes to a stop. Once again our ship floats on the water​—now 70 feet [21 m] below the previous water level—​and we continue sailing along. We will have descended five such ramps by the time we reach Lake Druzno, only one foot [30 cm] above sea level.

Lake Druzno forms part of a rich wildlife sanctuary, where over half of Poland’s 400 bird species can be found. These include cranes, cormorants, ospreys, eagles, and many other species. Along the way, it is possible to spot deer, beavers, wild boars, hares, lynx, badgers, moose, and other animals. Finally, in the late afternoon, just past the north end of the lake, we arrive at the marina in Elbląg. On the shore stand the ruins of a castle​—a silent reminder of the Teutonic Knights who once colonized these lands and established a seaport here. We have spent the whole day aboard ship and will have fond memories of our unusual cruise!


^ par. 5 The Teutonic Knights were a German military and religious order. In 1234, Pope Gregory IX accepted the order’s conquered lands as property of the papacy, while leaving the lands under the control of the order.

^ par. 11 The name of the canal came from Oberland, a former German name of the region.

[Diagram on page 12, 13]

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Cross-Section of the Elbląg-Ostróda Canal (Height shown in feet above sea level)


↓ Lake Drwęckie

312 feet [95 m]

Lock Zielona

315 feet [96 m]

2.9 miles [4.6 km]

Lock Miłomłyn

325 feet [99 m]

51 miles [82 km]

22.7 miles [36.6 km]


6 miles [9.6 km]

↓ Lake Druzno

1 foot


[Diagram on page 14]

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Engine room


Steel ropes Bottom windlass

Platform Rails



Upper canal Upper windlass Bottom canal

[Map on page 13]

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Baltic Sea


Vistula Lagoon





Short route through the canal




[Picture on page 12, 13]

Ships, riding a platform, are pulled up or down the ramp

[Credit Line]

Zdjęcia: A. Stachurski

[Picture on page 15]

Aerial view of the canal at Ramp Kąty

[Pictures on page 15]

Moose, beaver, and great-crested grebe, spotted along the way

[Picture Credit Lines on page 15]

Boat: Zdjęcia: M. Wieliczko; all other photos: Zdjęcia: A. Stachurski