Column: History of world’s busiest canal


Germany’s Kiel Canal is the world’s busiest artificial waterway, accommodating more ships than the Suez and Panama Canals combined.

The waters north of Germany are divided into the North and Baltic seas by the Jutland Peninsula, jutting about 270 miles into those waters. Denmark occupies the northern three quarters of the peninsula and the German state of Schleswig-Holstein occupies the southern quarter.

In 1871, Schleswig-Holstein became part of the German Empire, ruled by Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm I. With Germany now united, it became important that German commercial and military vessels could go between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea without going around Denmark. As a result, the German government decided to construct a canal near the base of the Jutland Peninsula, running southwest from Kiel to Brunsbüttel, with locks at both ends.

Construction of the canal began in 1887, with 9,000 workers moving 100 million cubic yards of dirt. In 1895, Kaiser Wilhelm II officially opened the 61-mile-long canal, 10 miles longer than the Panama Canal, and named it the Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal in honor of his grandfather. Using the canal instead of going around the Jutland Peninsula cut the travel distance of ships going between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea by about 450 nautical miles. Between 1907 and 1914, Germany enlarged the canal to accommodate its largest battleships.

Although the Treaty of Versailles opened the canal to international shipping, Adolph Hitler closed it in 1936. The canal was reopened after World War II and renamed the Kiel Canal. The canal is spanned by 11 fixed bridges, each providing at least 138 feet of clearance. The canal can accommodate ships as long as 772 feet and as wide as 106 feet, dimensions excluding the largest container and cruise ships. Despite the limitations, up to 130 ships travel through the Kiel Canal each day.