The history of the Amsterdam canals
The city was founded around 1250 with the building of the Dam that gave it its name. ‘Aeme Stelle Redamme’ is Medieval Dutch for: ‘Dam in a Watery Area’.
The Dam is still there as the heart of the city. But today this former barrier between the River Amstel and the “Southern Sea” is one of the few places in the center of town that you cannot sail a boat to. The last part of the river leading to the dam fell victim to land-traffic in 1922. The street that came in its place is still called ‘Damrak’, which is Dutch for: “Last section of the river, leading to the Dam.”
Today, a subway line is being built in the old riverbed.
The first canals were dug for water management and defence. As the city expanded in the Middle Ages, successive defence moats ended up inside the walls and lost their function. But they acquired an important new one: local transport of merchandise. The warehouses along the old moats could store enormous quantities of trading goods that could be`pipelined through those moat-canals to a harbour full of ships that sailed all over the world that was known in those days.
Trade exploded in the 17th century, Amsterdam’s Golden Age. In one very ambitious expansion project that took 50 years, the 3 main canals of the city were dug and the houses around them were built. Completed around 1660, it made the city grow to 4 times its size and gave it the most intricate and efficient system of navigable waterways in the world. A maze of connecting canals brought merchandise from all over the world to the doorstep of every canalside merchant.
A fleet of thousands of small barges carried the goods from the big ships in the harbor to every corner of the city. More than a thousand warehouses on the canal-sides were supplied by these man-powered barges. On top of that, 9 specialized floating markets catered to the daily needs of 17th century Amsterdammers.
In those days, more goods were moved on barges in the canals by human power, than would even be possible today with trucks along the canalsides.
The 20th century needed space for cars and other land traffic. Many canals were filled in to make streets and parking spaces. Not without struggle: fierce protest had rescued the famous Seven Bridges of the Reguliersgracht already in 1901.
But in 1955, a local police commissioner still submitted a serious proposal to the City Council to solve all traffic problems by filling up all the canals to make highways. He was almost tarred and feathered for it. Amsterdammers are fond of their Canals.
Amsterdam canals today
Almost half of the original water in Amsterdam was lost to landfills, but a full 25 percent of the city's surface still consists of navigable waterways. With 65 miles of ancient canals, Amsterdam is still the most watery city in the world.
In the summertime, the canals can still be dense with sailing traffic. Strictly pleasure-cruising, privately and commercially.
15000 pleasure boats are registered in Amsterdam and the city is a favourite destination for private yachts from Germany and France. Eight local marina's serve their needs and two big new ones are under construction. A few times a year, at big events like the Queen's Day and the Gay Parade, traffic jams on the canals can get quite serious. Rest assured that on an average day, canal-tour boats dominate the scene on the usually quiet waterways.
If you want to explore the canals on your own, there are two options. One is to exercise your legs on a pedal-boat. The other is to rent a boat. From small few-person electric boats to large party barges. With a captain or without.
Because of strict municipal regulations, there are not many canal-side terraces in Amsterdam. The existing ones are popular for a good reason. It's fun to watch what happens on the water in the Summertime.
In the old days, when the canals were still used for transport of merchandise, living on a houseboat was a sign of poverty in Amsterdam.
But as their transport function dwindled in the last century, the old 'industrial' canals became upmarket residential area's. Old warehouses on the canalsides were converted to Deluxe apparment complexes. The barges that supplied them began a new life as comfortable houseboats with ample living spaces in their former cargo holds. They are all quite old. The oldest one was built in 1840 as a waterboat for fresh drinking water (Prinsengracht/Amstelveld). Many have been afloat for more than a century. Relative newcomers are the house-arks, floating bungalows that are usually built on a hollow concrete platform. These meet with increasing disapproval from local residents and Civil Authorities, who would like to see them move to canals with less historcal importance in the suburbs.
Most of the houseboats are private residences. Because of strict regulations, only a few have lodging space for rent legally. Because the demand is high, the city may ease up the rules in the near future.
Watermanagement is still the most important function of our canals. Without them, the city would drown. Circulating the water is also vital for sanitary reasons. In the days when windmills had to do the job, the stench of the water could become unbearable in periods with little wind or rain. One canal was even filled in for its stench by Royal Decree, from the only King who ever lived in Amsterdam.
Napoleon Bonaparte's brother Louis was King of Holland between 1806 and 1811. He had City Hall on Dam Square rebuilt to be his palace. The stench of the canal behind the palace kept his wife Constance from her sleep, so he ordered it to be filled in to make a "smart and respectable Avenue" The name of that street is still 'Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal', which translates into: "Front defence moat on the new side".
Today, the water in the canals is cleaner than it has ever been in their history. Three times a week, 14 of the 16 existing waterlocks around the city close up, so clean water can be pumped in from the big lake IJsselmeer. The current that creates pushes the dirty canalwater out through the open locks on the other side of the city. Specialized cleaning boats with big scoops and nets patrol frequently to clean surface dirt. Since 2005, all the houseboats in the city are connected to the sewer system.
The cleaner water has attracted life. About 20 different species of fish and crabs live a healthy life below the surface. That bounty attracts waterbirds like herrons, ducks, coots, gulls and recently even cormorants.