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The Manchester Ship Canal (MSC) is a wide, 36 mile (58 km) long river navigation in north west England, opened on 21 May 1894.
The "Big Ditch" (as it is said to be known to locals) consists of the River Irwell and River Mersey made navigable to Manchester for seagoing ships leaving the Mersey Estuary at Eastham Locks on the south east side of the Wirral Peninsula.
It turned Manchester from a landlocked city into a major sea port. The canal was built as a way to reverse the economic decline that Manchester suffered during the late 19th century, by ensuring the city had direct access to the sea to export its manufactured goods, and so would not have to rely for sea access on the nearby Port of Liverpool.
It was championed by Manchester manufacturer Daniel Adamson. He arranged a meeting at his home (The Towers, in Didsbury) on 27 June 1882, inviting representatives of several Lancashire towns, Manchester businessmen, local politicians and two civil engineers, Hamilton Fulton and Sir Edward Leader-Williams (not a Sir at the time). Both engineers were invited to submit proposals, and Williams' plans were selected to form the basis of a Bill submitted to Parliament in November 1882.
However, due to intense opposition by Liverpool and railway companies, the Act of Parliament enabling the canal was not passed until 6 August 1885. The promoters then had two years in which to raise £5 million to cover initial construction costs, and to purchase the Bridgewater Canal.
Construction of the ship canal eventually started on 11 November 1887. Large portions of the eventual cost of building were borne by Manchester rate-payers, via Manchester City Corporation. Loans were arranged during the early 1890s on condition that the Corporation held 11 of the 21 seats on the Canal Company's board of directors led by John Aird, an engineering contractor and MP.
Following the death of the previous contractor (Thomas Walker), Aird's firm completed the Ship Canal.
More than 54 million cubic yards (41,000,000 m³) of material were excavated for the canal, including 12 million cubic yards (9,000,000 m³) of sandstone rock. At its peak, the project involved some 17,000 workers. In terms of machinery, the scheme called upon 228 miles (367 km) of temporary rail track, 173 locomotives, 6,300 trucks and wagons, 124 steam-powered cranes and 192 other steam engines (mainly used for pumping purposes).
Work was twice delayed by water flooding into sections of the excavation, in November 1890 and December 1891.
Major engineering landmarks of the scheme included the Barton Swing Aqueduct (carrying the Bridgewater Canal over the Ship Canal) and a neighbouring swing bridge for road traffic at Barton.
The canal was finally completely filled with water in November 1893, and opened to its first traffic on 1 January 1894.
The construction of the canal was overseen by the chief engineer and designer Sir Edward Leader-Williams, who was knighted by Queen Victoria at the official opening on 21 May 1894.
North-west of Ellesmere Port, on a narrow stretch of land between the canal and the River Mersey, Mount Manisty is a huge mound of earth created from extracted soil from the construction of the canal. Its name - and that of the adjacent Manisty Cutting - came from the contractor's agent on the Eastham section, Mr Manisty, who was well liked by the navvies due to the entertainments he and his wife provided.
From Eastham, the canal runs parallel to, and along the south side of, the River Mersey, past Ellesmere Port and, having intercepted flows from the River Weaver, through the Runcorn Gap between Runcorn and Widnes and to the south of Warrington.
Between Rixton, east of the M6 motorway's Thelwall Viaduct and Irlam the canal borrows the route of the Mersey (with some old meanders now isolated from the Canal), and between Irlam and Salford follows the course of the River Irwell.
The canal terminates just past Pomona Docks, Manchester. Today, a fixed road bridge separates Pomona Docks from Salford Quays, meaning only smaller boats can make the full trip to Pomona Docks. Most vessels have to terminate at Salford Quays, though smaller vessels can continue up the River Irwell to either join the Bridgewater Canall via Pomona Lock or, carry on to just short of Manchester Cathedral.
The MSC is the eighth-longest ship canal in the world, being only slightly shorter than the Panama Canal in Central America.
Upon completion, the MSC ensured that Manchester became Britain's third busiest port, despite being 40 miles (60 km) inland. To service the large amount of freight being landed at the canal's docks the MSC Railway was created to carry goods from nearby industrial estates, including Trafford Park, and connect to the various railway companies near the canal. The MSC Railway, unlike most other railway companies in the UK, was not nationalised in 1948 and became the largest private railway in the UK during the British Railways era. The MSC Railway operated a large fleet of steam locomotives, many being 0-6-0 tank engines, several of which have been preserved.
Unlike most British canals, the MSC and the Bridgewater Canal were never nationalised and remain in the ownership of the Manchester Ship Canal Company, which is now a subsidiary of Peel Holdings.
Today, due largely to the decline in manufacturing industry and the fact that many ocean-going ships are too large to fit in the MSC, the amount of freight carried on the MSC has declined, although over six million tonnes are still transported on the canal each year.
On 18 October 2007, Tesco announced that they would be using the Ship Canal for transporting New World wine between Liverpool and Irlam Container Terminal near Irlam, where the cargo will be offloaded and transported to a nearby bottling plant on Fairhills Road. Tesco has said that this will save 1 million km of road haulage per year. These shipments will be the first time the canal has been used for the transportation of consumer goods in many years.
It is possible to join the MSC from the Shropshire Union Canal at Ellesmere Port, from the Weaver Navigation at Weston near Runcorn, and from the Bridgewater Canal at Pomona Lock in Salford. However, the safety rules necessary on a major commercial waterway are too onerous for most leisure traffic, so only the most intrepid narrowboaters use the MSC to complete a "Shroppie/Trent and Mersey/ Weaver" ring route.
A few more canal boats take advantage of the less severe restrictions "upstream" of Pomona Lock, to explore the final section of the MSC and a short length of the River Irwell.
While the canal was built for ocean-going ships, ship sizes have long outgrown the canal. In 2005 the maximum length of ship accepted into the canal was 170.68 m with a beam of 21.94 m. However, beams of around 23 m are acceptable with a smaller length. Maximum draught is 8.78 m. The maximum size of a ship going to the end of the canal in Salford is length 161.54m, beam 19.35m, and draught 7.31m. This is due to the sizes of the largest locks that can be used, 182.88m x 19.81m. Ships passing the Runcorn bridge also have a height restriction of 24.25 m above normal water levels.
The Queen Elizabeth II Dock at the entrance to the canal can accept vessels up to 208.79 m long with a 28 m beam, maximum draught 10 m. While many ships are designed specifically to fit the Suez and Panama canals (Suezmax, Panamax), the narrower MSC is not of major importance for shipping.