Göta Canal history

The Göta Canal was one of the largest civil engineering projects ever undertaken in Sweden. The canal stretches from Sjötorp on Lake Vänern to Mem on the east coast. It has a length of 190 kilometres and a total of 58 locks. Of this distance, 87 kilometres were dug by hand.


A dream dating back 300 years

As early as the sixteenth century, the renowned Bishop Brask of Linköping proposed a canal across Sweden from the Baltic to the North Sea. Plans for such a waterway were discussed many times before Baltzar von Platen finally transformed them into reality in the early 19th century.


Baltzar von Platen

In 1806, Count Baltzar von Platen, naval officer and government minister, produced a treatise on canals and was later asked to submit a plan for the Göta Canal. On 11 April 1810, King Charles XIII issued a charter allowing the Canal Company to build and operate the canal, and granted the company labour, land and forests for the project. In May 1810, excavation work commenced in Motala. Work was soon underway at about 15 sites along the route.

Soldiers and their work

The Göta Canal was largely built by 58,000 billeted soldiers from 16 different regiments. During the 22 years building was in progress, about 60,000 men, including a company of Russian deserters and a number of civilian workers, worked a total of approximately 7 million man-days, each of 12 hours. Most of the canal was excavated by hand using iron-shod wooden spades. Work mainly consisted of digging, blasting and dressing stone.

Baltzar von Platen also introduced several new techniques using various equipment from England. A number of highly skilled English foremen were recruited.

The significance of the canal

The rise of modern manufacturing industry in Sweden is probably the most significant consequence that the canal has had for the country. The Motala Verkstad workshop was where budding engineers and foremen received their training in the new production methods. It developed a large body of know-how in the casting of iron, from which Sweden benefited. Along the way, Motala grew to be a modern industrial town.

Karlsborg Fortress is seen as a direct result of the building of the canal. When Sweden lost Finland in 1809, it was generally felt that Stockholm was too unprotected, as it was situated close to enemy territory. Assets and people needing protection in the event of war - armaments, gold, the royal family, the government and so on - would be safer in a strong, inland fortress. It was the canal that made it possible to transport them there.

It took nearly a hundred years to build Karlsborg Fortress, 1820-1909, but even so, it was never quite finished and was never called upon to serve its original purpose. During the Second World War the Swedish gold reserve was stored there. Today, the Fortress is the base for the Life Regiment Hussars, K3, the Paratroop School and the Defence Department Survival School. In addition to the military facilities there are civilian residences, shops, a café and a museum within the grounds of the Fortress. Today, the canal is one of Sweden's strongest tourist attractions.


Formal inauguration

On 26 September 1832, the Göta Canal was inaugurated at Mem amid great pomp and circumstance in the presence of King Karl XIV and his family. Sadly, Baltzar von Platen did not live to see the crowning of his masterpiece, having died three years earlier.

Commercial traffic

Throughout the 19th century, the Göta Canal continued to be a very important transport route for both goods and passengers. However, the canal never achieved the long term importance that Baltzar von Platen had expected. The railways, and later on road traffic, gradually took over its role. Instead, the Göta Canal later became one of Sweden's most popular and well known tourist attractions.


Smart solutions

When you look into how the canal was built it's impressive to see the ingenious yet simple ways in which various problems have been solved. Take the regulating gates for example. These are gates which always stand open at several points on the canal. 

They serve two purposes. Should a collapse occur in the canal the regulating gates are supposed to close automatically in response to the water suction. The result is that only a short stretch is emptied and the accident can be kept to a minimum. Proof that it works came in 1847 when the high bank burst at Venneberga. Only 100 metres away, the regulating gate slammed shut. The other purpose is to enable short stretches of the canal to be emptied for repairs.

In constructing the canal, the builders were forced to cross both streams and larger waterways. They didn't want to get this water into the canal. For one thing, it would make it hard to control the water level. At the time of the spring flood the basins at the locks would fill up very fast indeed. For another, the water would bring with it great quantities of silt, which would make the canal too shallow.

Accordingly, there is an impressive system of side-ditches and stone-lined culverts beneath the canal which carry the water away to other channels. Some of the culverts reach human height.


Opening a gate

For a gate to be able to open, the water level must be exactly the same on both sides. A difference of just five centimetres would impose excessive stress on the gate and cause damage. The basins are filled through sluices, which are opened upwards, in the gates. The very first gates were opened with the aid of large booms that were pushed forward. You can see examples in the upper gate at Klämman. As early as 1847, all gates in Östergötland had been fitted with toothed drives, which considerably simplified the work. The lower gate at Klämman has them. They are also to be seen in the Borensberg and Tåtorp locks. In 1969, the gates were modernised again. Electric motors were fitted onto the draw-boom on the seven-stage locks at Berg and elsewhere. Nine years later, the engineers began introducing hydraulics, and since 1988 practically all the locks have been powered hydraulically.


Casting a gate

In the beginning, all gates were made of wood or of cast-iron with wooden planking. During the 1970’s a number of them were exchanged for welded steel gates, which are now being replaced by cast-iron gates. The dimensions of the gates vary, but building new foundry templates for every gate would be far too costly. Instead, an attempt is now being made to build templates using one-decimetre gauge blocks. The templates are made by a woodworking manufacturer in Kristinehamn and the gates are cast in Mölltorp. These cost about half a million SEK per pair.