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Dredging Up The Past: The Suez Canal, Part 2

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Welcome back to Part 2 of “Dredging Up The Past: The Suez Canal.” If you missed part 1, you can read it here. The Suez Canal is the kind of dredging project that dredging companies dream of. It was a major endeavor that literally re-shaped the earth, and allowed for an unprecedented new way to move people, ideas, and materials across the globe. If you’re taking on a dredging project that feels like your own personal Suez Canal, work with a dredge rental company that holds environmental responsibility as a priority. See our services and dredging equipment rental options at U.S. Aqua Services!

Construction Begins

Part 1 ended with de Lessep negotiating the terms by which the canal could begin construction in 1859. With an agreement in hand, de Lesseps began mobilizing his resources and formed the Suez Canal Company. It would be sometime before the skilled engineers of France could arrive in Egypt, so de Lessep had to find other sources of workers. Initial excavation and construction of the canal likely looked reminiscent of the construction of the Great Pyramids, just a mere 100 miles away.

The work was carried out by Egyptian laborers, who chipped away at the sand and earth with axes, mattocks, and shovels. The Egyptian government had supplied these laborers, forcing them to work for little pay, and under constant threat of reprisal for their failure to work. By 1863, the Egyptian ruler, Ismail Pasha, outlawed the use of forced labor. Undeterred, de Lessep brought in French contractors, who brought with them several hundred custom-made steam-shovels, and dredgers powered by coal. These were likely bucket and ladder dredgers, which dug up great swaths of the earth and dumped them in a heap on the side of the canal.

With these new technologies at the disposal, de Lessep and the Suez Canal Company made rapid progress. The last two years of the project saw the most progress made. By some estimates, of the nearly 80 million cubic meters of sand moved for the canal, almost three-fourths of it was moved by heavy machinery like dredgers.

The Canal Opens

Finally, four years behind schedule, the canal was finished in 1869. Likely, if there hadn’t been numerous labor shortages and work stoppages, and if de Lessep had utilized dredgers earlier, the canal would have opened far sooner. On November 17, 1869, the canal was opened for ship traffic and navigation. The opening ceremony started a two-week long celebration in nearby Cairo, where international monarchs and heads of state flocked to toast the opening of the world’s first saltwater connection between the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

Unquestionably an impressive feat, the canal seems tiny in comparison to modern day canal systems. The Suez Canal at its opening was a mere 25 feet deep, 72 feet wide at the bottom of the canal, and roughly 250 feet wide at the surface. Because of its diminutive size, the canal only serviced about 500 ships in its first year of operation.

Because of this, there was almost immediate interest in expanding the new canal to allow for more, and larger ships to sail between the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Construction began on the expansion in 1876. These expansions were made possible, in part, by British investors. While the British had initially been a vocal opponent of the canal when it was first proposed, they quickly found a way to take advantage of the new infrastructure. Great Britain bought a controlling portion of the canal’s shares from Egypt’s Ottoman governor. While France still maintained a majority interest in the canal, their economic grasp on the region was quickly loosening.

In 1882, the British invaded Egypt and occupied the country for many decades. While they allowed international travel of the Suez Canal available in 1888, they still maintained a military presence along the canal’s edges.

The Work Didn’t End There

Like many of history’s greatest achievements, the work on the Suez Canal has never really stopped. In part 3, we’ll discuss how modern dredging equipment and strategies continue to make the Suez Canal one of the world’s most used and important canal networks. If you’re looking for dredge rental services in the United States, work with U.S. Aqua Services. As the premier dredging equipment rental service, we are known for our commitment to safety, innovation, efficiency, and of course, environmental stewardship. For all of your dredge rental needs, contact us today!