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The original section of the canal runs from Castlefield Basin in Manchester city centre.
This is where the canal terminates, and joins to the Rochdale Canal, and where boats used to unload their cargoes.
The canal runs west from Manchester for about four miles (7 km) to where it splits into two parts at "Waters Meeting" junction; en route it passes Hulme Lock, now disused, which provided a connection to the River Irwell and the Manchester Ship Canal, and a new lock at Pomona giving access to the Ship Canal.
From Waters Meeting, the original part of the canal travels north west for about 10 miles (16 km) until it reaches the village of Worsley and the entrance to the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater's coal mines via the Worsley Navigable Levels.
On the way to Worsley it passes over the Manchester Ship Canal on the Barton Swing Aqueduct near Eccles. This section of the canal was later extended a further 5 miles (8 km) to Leigh where it makes an end-on connection with the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
From Waters Meeting, the current main line of the canal was actually a later extension. It runs approximately 20 miles south-west to Runcorn, passing through the towns of Sale and Lymm, and to the south of central Warrington.
At Preston Brook the canal connects with the Trent and Mersey Canal, and at Runcorn, beyond the present terminus, a set of locks used to lower the canal to the Runcorn Docks on the River Mersey (later, to the Manchester Ship Canal). These locks are now disused; if a new road crossing of the Mersey is built, changes to the road system in Runcorn could allow complete restoration of these locks and a re-opening of the link to the Mersey and Weaver.
The Bridgewater Canal is often considered to be the first true canal in Britain, in that it relied on existing watercourses purely as sources of water rather than as navigable routes.
However, the Sankey Brook Navigation has good claim to that title. Although it was promoted as a scheme to make the Sankey Brook navigable, it did this by constructing an entirely new channel alongside the Sankey Brook and thus was effectively an artificial canal along the Sankey Brook valley, taking its water supply from the Sankey Brook watercourse.
The Sankey Canal, therefore, was before the Bridgewater, but, even so, it was not the first canal in Britain, merely the first in the 'Industrial Revolution fuelled Canal Building period'.
The Bridgewater Canal came about because the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, Sir Francis Egerton wanted an efficient way to transport coal from his coal mines at Worsley, into Manchester, where the Industrial Revolution was under way.
Furthermore it solved the ongoing problem of flooding in these mines. In addition to easing the overland transport difficulties, the underground section of the canal at Worsley also removed the need for expensive and difficult vertical winding of the coal to the surface whilst providing drainage for the mines and a source of water for the surface canal.
The Duke commissioned James Brindley as canal engineer to build the canal, and it opened in 1761. At the time it was considered a major engineering achievement, as the canal contained a large aqueduct over the River Irwell, and it greatly enhanced Brindley's career.
The Worsley part of the canal was later extended to Leigh, in 1799.
The Duke had invested a huge sum of his own money into constructing the canal, and it was a great financial success. Due to the greatly increased supply of coal which the canal had enabled, the price of coal in Manchester fell by nearly three quarters within a year of the canal opening.
A few years later construction began of the route to Runcorn, which opened in 1772.
Inside the mines 46 miles of underground canal on four levels linked by inclined planes was constructed. They were served by specially-built M-boats (also known as starvationers), the largest of which could carry 12 tons of coal. Mining ceased in 1887.
The canal carried commercial freight traffic until 1975, the last regular traffic being grain from Liverpool to Manchester for BOCM, and is now mainly used by pleasure craft.
The canal has suffered three breaches: one soon after opening, one in 1971 near the River Bollin aqueduct, and another in the summer of 2005 after a sluice gate failed in Manchester.
The Bridgewater Canal is unusual because it is one of the few canals in Britain which is still privately owned and was never nationalised. This is because it was bought by the Manchester Ship Canal company in the 1890s, which itself was never nationalised for various reasons.