Augustów Canal: beautiful and useless

On June 15, 1823, just 200 years ago, Lieutenant Ignacy Prądzyński began to break a way through the raised bogs and backwoods of the Augustów Primeval Forest thereby setting the course for the most ambitious undertaking in the history of Polish hydroengineering.

Were I capable of writing historical novels (not the traditional kind but those full of flavors and literary games), the first would start as follows: June dusk, bats flying around, dust slowly falling down on the macadam road to Goniądz, the smell of calamus rising from the backwaters of the Biebrza river, the scent of elderberry wafting from the granary.

A young military man sits at a crooked table in a room on the first floor of the inn. Beneath a darkening sky, aside from the bats, beetles and mosquitoes, one can imagine resonating to the verses of [Polish poet] Adam Mickiewicz ["Ballads and Romances" was published in 1822] -- amidst the company of the ghosts of the poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe, the emperor Napoleon, the King of Poland Zygmunt August (who died not far from here) and Piotr of Goniądz [the Polish political and religious writer and thinker], an outstanding member of the Arians [the Minor Reformed Church that flourished in Poland between 1565 and 1658], who was born here. However, 30-year-old Ignacy Prądzyński, who in 1812 was awarded the golden Virtuti Militari [the highest military decoration for heroism and courage that was created in 1792 by Polish King Stanislaus II Augustus] for the defense of the Berezina crossing [during the battle between Napoleon's army and the Imperial Russian Army, in 1812], is unbothered by any of the foregoing. All he does is rub his prematurely balding forehead or attempt to swat away the tallow moths flocking around the candle. And, as he reads the unfolded engineering manuals by Eytelwein [Johann Albert], Gilly [David] and Wiebecking [Carl Friedrich], shards of the moths’ burnt wings fall on the pages he peruses. Furtively, Prądzyński has taken them out from the Military Application School’s library. He may well be a lecturer at this school, but these volumes are so valuable he is not allowed to borrow them. They are supposed to be read only in situ!

He needs the books because the Krauts use different mathematical terminology than that which he is familiar with from Śniadecki’s [Jan, the Polish mathematician's] textbooks. That, however, is not the biggest problem he faces. The terms can be translated as can Bernoulli's equations [Johann, the Swiss mathematician]. But how to calculate how many cubic meters of water must actually flow down both sides of the canal to ensure its permeability and prevent it from silting up? This requires taking into account the length of the fairway, its width, depth and slope on both sides of the watershed (something no one has ever measured!), plus water level fluctuations, droughts, floods, weirs, harbors and workshops. And still one has to allow for the effects of frost, heat, swamps, backwaters and cobwebs.

Moreover, there is the need to provide enough iron, steel, crushed stone, slaked and hydraulic lime, brick, oak, clinker, paint, lead, and tar in this remote area. Added to which there are further requirements involving lumberjacks and mechanics, sawyers and diggers, accountants and sailors, post offices and bookkeepers.

And that's not all since it is essential to know how to convert all of the above into double royal złotys [the currency in the Congress Kingdom of Poland at the beginning of the 19th century] and rubles, given the currency fluctuations and the limping budget of the Kingdom.

And as if that's not enough, there's the pressing need to find the guides to lead you through the backwaters of the river of Netta.

But most pressing of all is the urgent priority of creating alone a superior project than the one purportedly conceived by the large team of engineers heading into the region from St. Petersburg, under the command of Prince Alexander of Württemberg, the uncle of His Majesty, Tsar Alexander I.

Prądzyński's task is to accomplish all of this in order to fulfill the driving ambitions of Lubecki [Prince Franciszek Ksawery Drucki-Lubecki, the minister of the treasury in the Congress Kingdom of Poland]. And he must also try to catch at least two hours of sleep before dawn.

Really, it was much easier to pour Berezina mud out of botfort military-style boots.

Jump across Watershed

Historians of the Augustów Canal like to write that the waterway connecting the basins of the Vistula and Neman rivers was first mentioned as early as 1660 by Andrzej Maksymilian Fredro, the castellan of Podole. However, the truth is that anything can be drawn with a finger on a map. Besides, Fredro didn't so much write about it as he shouted about it in the Sejm [the Polish Parliament]. What he really wanted to do was to provoke the deputies from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, rather than create any economic strategy. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth dreamt of controlling the Dnieper (a difficult feat to achieve since the Muscovites, Cossacks, the Ottoman Empire and the Crimean Khanate were resolutely against it). They were intent on rubbing the nose of recalcitrant Gdańsk but not really interested in the Neman. If one wanted to sell grain mowed in Lithuania, it was best taken by rafts to Konigsberg. Grain from Masovia was sent down the Vistula. Why would anybody wanted to transport heavy goods across Podlasie and the watershed? Seemingly, Fredro fantasied. Everything changed 150 years later. The Grand Duchy had already separated from the Congress Kingdom, but both countries were under the common scepter of the Romanovs. The Prussians sat at the mouth of both the Vistula and the Neman, and, regardless of the cordial relations within the Holy Alliance, they were suffocating grain exports with prohibitive tariffs.

Let's be honest. It was a game played by both sides with the same cards. Historically, first came Alexander I's decree in June, 1822, which imposed duties on industrial products imported from Prussia to the Kingdom of Poland and Russia. The tsar did this to protect domestic industries. However, when Prussia responded on January 1, 1823, with a gigantic increase in customs duties for imported agricultural products (duty on oats was increased thirteen times -- that on rye, seven times), the press, followed by Polish historiography, decried the decision as "Berlin reprisals". Dispatches and delegations began circulating between Petersburg and Warsaw.

Export via the Venta river

There was only one way to outsmart Berlin: by finding a way for Polish grain to get to Baltic, and from there sail west. Just breaking through to the Neman would not be enough since the river mouth also lay within Prussian borders. An integral part of the grand plan was to dig a second canal, connecting the Neman with the Dubyssa and the Venta, further north-east. Ventspils, the port at the mouth of the Venta, formerly one of the main cities of Courland, a fief of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, had been within the borders of the Russian Empire since the third partition of Poland.

Russia was to take care of the construction of the Windawski Canal while the Congress Kingdom of Poland [a puppet state, created in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna, in a personal union with the Russian Empire] was to plan and finance the construction of the main water route connecting the basins of the Vistula and the Neman.

Of course, intrigues, pressures and demonstrations citing Petersburg's advantages followed. Minister Lubecki, an enthusiast of large-scale investments to boost the economic situation -- a real Keynesian avant la lettre and on a scale that would delight Rafał Woś [the Polish economic journalist] -- wanted the entire initiative to remain in the hands of the Ministry of Treasury. However, Tsar Alexander entrusted the task to the army, and Grand Duke Konstantin, the commander-in-chief of the forces of the Kingdom, delegated it -- logically -- to the General Quartermaster of the Polish Army, General Maurycy Hauke. Hauke did the only thing he could. He summoned Major Prądzyński, so greatly valued for his service during the Moscow campaign and in the battles of Leipzig and Berezina, as well as for his facility with languages, trigonometry and fortress architecture. The pleading words with which Hauke begged Prądzyński to accept the assignment are there to see in most guidebooks about the Canal (certainly any that detail its historic origins): "I cannot tell the Prince that there is no officer in the Polish artillery, engineering and quartermaster corps capable of doing a canal project! If you do not want to undertake it yourself, please tell me, but under the responsibility of your conscience, who will do it better than you".
The Dębowo sluice. Scuba divers take part in the 21st edition of the "Underwater cleaning of the Biebrza" on the Jagłowo-Dolistowo section of the Augustów Canal. Photo: PAP/Marcin Onufryjuk
Hence, the earlier reference to Eytelwein's textbook atop the crooked table at the inn. Prądzyński studied at night. During the day he rode, walked, waded, swam and made his way through alder and oak-hornbeam forests, oxbow lakes and backwaters on the border between Podlasie and Suwałki, and between the Congress Kingdom and Russian Empire. (The border ran for several dozen kilometers along the Bierza and Netta rivers, moving away further to the north, leaving Augustów, Suwałki and Wigry on the Polish side). Above all, his task focused on the area between the basins of the two great rivers. The challenge was to decide where best to cross the several dozen meters high watershed between the Neman and the Vistula, to determine just where the work of digging the canal would require the least effort.

Koterbska sings

There were three possibilities. The shortest route would be to dig from the Supraśl River towards the Świsłocza where it meets the Neman. The second option was to start from the Biebrza, moving up to the Tatarka, and then cut through the swamps and watercourses that dry up in the summer, through the Sokołda and Przerwa, to reach the Łosośna that is also a part of the Neman basin. Had this happend, who knows? Perhaps the famous Polish singer Maria Koterbska and the whole of Poland wouldn’t have sung "Augustów Nights” but rather a song called "Białystok Nights"? Ultimately, however, it was the hydrodynamics that decided the outcome. (Yes, the Eytelwein proved useful for something!). In the era before the invention of steam-powered dredgers (and God knows, even today!) siltation has been the canal builders’recurring nightmare. Thousands of tons of earth and soil flow down with the rains and the streams and end up settling at the bottom of the stagnant water of the canals. After a few years, the barges begin to scrape along the bottom. The simplest and cheapest solution to this problem is to construct the canal route in such a way that it has a river flowing into it midway, generating a small current.

The second issue concerns the huge mining costs involved, something that can be tackled by routing the canal as much as possible through terrain featuring lakes, preferably long, post-glacial, ribbon lakes.

     This consideration was also a decisive factor. The Czarna Hańcza, flowing from Wigry lake, and the Sucha Rzeczka, fed by the Serwy lake, supplied water to the highest section of the Canal running through the Primeval Forest. This stretch of the Canal is sometimes known as the Czarnobrodzki section. Other lakes such as the Necko, the Krechowieckie, the Studzieniczne and the Orle also played a part.

However, the final choice of the waterway connecting the Vistula and the Neman was made by the Tsar himself on April 22, 1824. The details were determined at a meeting in Łomża in June 1824, attended by General Hauke from the Polish side, and, on the Russian side, Pierre Bazaine [the French engineer who became Director of the Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences and Chairman of the Committee for Buildings and Hydraulic Works in 1824]. Both made use of maps that had been drawn by Ignacy Prądzyński.

He didn't like water

Major Prądzyński himself initially took over the Canal construction management but he wasn't to remain in Augustów for too long. The "Prądzyński’s Mansion" in Augustów, which used to house the Canal Construction Management, and is a museum today, is something of an antiquarian joke. In early 1826, Prądzyński was arrested in connection with the investigation of the Patriotic Society. After his release in 1829, the November Uprising [against Russia] broke out in 1830. It was during the uprising that he became renowned as one of the most astute strategists, winning the battle of Iganie, and serving as commander-in-chief for four days (August 16-19, 1830). Exiled to Vyatka in Russia, he came back to Poland in 1834, where he lived on an estate in the Świętokrzyskie Mountains. Ironically, perhaps presciently, he wasn't expecially fond of water. He was to die by drowning when taking a healing bath at the spa in Heligoland in Germany [in 1850]. But his sketches and plans were as powerful as if he had drawn them with a Magic Pencil. In 1825, 5,000 people joined construction sites from the Biebrza to the Neman (a number that would later increase to 7,000). The engineering corps, the penal company of the Polish Armed Forces brought in from Zamość to do the hardest work, and local peasants along with Lithuanian tar makers (for whom the job represented the opportunity of a lifetime) were working hand in hand. The Russian Old Believers who had come to the Suwałki Region in the 17th century to escape persecution from Russia were especially valued as blacksmiths. The Jewish poor from shtetlach from Goniądz to Białystok were hired to draw water by large windlasses.

The greatest paradox of the Canal is the fact that by the spring of 1825, on learning about the scale of the works undertaken, Berlin, concerned about the durability of the Holy Alliance, lowered its tone and took a unilateral decision to reduce customs duties. And thus the total investment that had been envisaged for the grain trade turned out to be unnecessary and was never fully used. The Poles finished their part (resuming work after the November Uprising, which they completed in 1840), but the Russians were reluctant to continue working on the Windawski Canal. Nonetheless, the several sections and weirs that were already built are proudly displayed by the Lithuanians to this day.

Eighteen locks

(In the Kingdom meanwhile) the flywheel was spinning: brickyards were working from Augustów to Wólka Wołłowiczowska, ironworks and iron foundry too in the estate of count Karol Brzozowski (which today is known as Huta Sztabińska). Blast kilns for burning ordinary and hydraulic lime were roaring, gravel was being dug near Sejny, granite was being brought from the Świętokrzyskie Mountains, and red clinkers were being fired in Warsaw. Lubecki doubled and tripled: he started the creation of the fleet, signed contracts for the systematic felling of trees (something that in those days did not scandalize anyone), and he launched a tar factory (to seal the locks and gates) on such a scale that to this day the Augustów Canal is still cited as the "cradle of the Polish bitumen industry”…

Why? Of course, one could invoke his reputation as a Keynesian of his time, straight from the dreams of the journalist Woś, and how he was spurring the economy with the help of large investments. Undoubtedly, there's much truth in that hypothesis.

However, it was at least as important for him (and for the Congress Kingdom's elite) to bind the lands of Congress Poland more closely with Lithuania. Since the tsar was not eager to fulfill promises dating from the days of the Congress of Vienna and did not want to join the "north-western provinces" to Poland, the plan was to tie them together at least economically!

There was some logic in this, even though from the second half of the 19th century onwards, only rafts, local travelers, letters, and at times some honey, resin or vendace were moving through the Canal. The vast majority of goods was transported by cart along the Kaunas route, and in time on the St. Petersburg railway. Honestly, who would choose to push up the Narew, Biebrza and Netta rivers, passing through sluices 18 times? And yet. Some lucky star hung over the Augustów Canal. It was looked after by the Polish Government during the interwar period and by the communist authorities after WW2. Of course, everything was done within limitations. For members of the Sanacja interwar political movement, the Yacht Club and the Officers' Club in Augustów were the most important. After the war, the Water Management Authority in Białystok poured concrete everywhere without remorse up until the early 1970s, when the entire system was finally placed under conservation protection and wood, clinker and fascine were once again deployed for use.

Vistula Dug-through. First such great river regulation accomplished by human hand

The idea was to cut off the branches and hold the current together

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For many people it was a special place. The borderland (not until 1569 was the Podlaskie Voivodeship incorporated into the Kingdom), where the Old Believers, Lesser Poland uhlans, Jews and Lithuanians worked so closely side by side, was to become for many a kind of keystone or memento of old Poland. In the interwar period, those who had money and wanted to make a show of their wealth would spend their summers in Zaleszczyki [now Zalishchyky in Ukraine], while those who wanted to promote themselves politically did likewise in Druskienniki [now Druskininkai in Lithuania]. But echt the intelligentsia, both the academics and the technocrats, made a point of going to Augustów. And so it has been ever since. It would be interesting to write a one-act play set on a hot day along the Canal in 1954, when somewhere between the sluices located in the villages of Przewięź and Gorczyca, three kayaks come to the bankside: Wojtyła [Karol, later to become Pope John Paul II] disembarks from the first, Herbert [Zbigniew, the poet] from the second, and Mrożek [Sławomir, the playright] alights from the third ...

It was here on the Canal that Maciej Nowicki, the most outstanding Polish architect of the 20th century, was to build his first large building (the PTTK Tourist House in Augustów) in 1938. That same year, an informal meeting was held in a nearby palace, paving the way for the establishment of Polish-Lithuanian diplomatic relations, something that had been impossible to achieve in the preceding 20 years. And all of those intellectuals, diplomats and scouts making their way through the sluices were captured on film by a native talent: a grain merchant who having once picked up a camera went on to become one of the most outstanding landscape photographers of the interwar period -- Judel Rotsztejn.

Ciecierski Confectionery

I have not yet written a historical novel about the Augustów Canal. Fortunately, such a novel already exists, one that perfectly reflects the spirit of the region, and shows how all that is best in the Commonwealth of Many Nations meets and mixes there timelessly. Allow me to quote two paragraphs from this novel, especially now that it is the month of June:

"The Marshal’s wife Alexandra Piłsudska talks there -- stroking the dead-alive ermine that lies on her lap -- with three elderly knights of Władysław Jagiełło, and Mr. Ciecierski, owner of a confectionery at 88 Kościuszki Street, serves tea to Lithuanian tramps dressed in leather hoods and fur boots -- suwiłkai.. And who's approaching now? This is Mrs. Fliegeltaub, adjusting the yellow and white wig that the SS knocked off her head when they pushed her down the hotel stairs with rifle butts. Yes, this is she, the kind Mrs. Fliegeltaub, who charged less for a room than in Suwałki, offering an additional bed with bed linen for one złoty, and even a girl, clean and healthy, even a Christian, if the guest preferred a Christian. Yes, she [Mrs. Fliegeltaub] walks arm in arm with Father Jemiałkowski, but who was he? And then Mrs. Maria Konopnicka follows, and on the other side, Miss Zielonek, the bookshop owner at 84 Kościuszko Street, that is close by Mr. Ciecierski's confectionery. The two Zielonek sisters, both very pretty, the less bold one hanging back a little, lead Szymon Konarski by the elbows. He has five frayed holes with red borders on his chest, as if he had been killed by a firing squad volley, or perhaps its a livid welt on his neck as if he were hanged -- Mr. Mareczek has no memory of just how this heroic emissary died. And three rowers from Warsaw's AZS run up to them, wearing tight black, knee-length shorts and T-shirts with a white and green club logo on the chest, their red oars leaning against the wall, and they invite both Zielonek sisters -- and also Szymon Konarski, if he has nothing against it -- to join them kayaking on the Wigry.

"We will go to the mouth of Czarna Hańcza and show the ladies the beaver lodges, and then continue to the Camaldolese monastery on the peninsula, where we will have lunch, and after lunch we will return to the city by the bus that leaves from PTTK.” "And then I,” says Szymon Konarski, "I invite the nice ladies and gentlemen for cakes at the Ciecierski confectionery. Ladies too," he repeats, addressing Mrs. Aleksandra Piłsudska and Mrs. Fliegeltaub.

(…) "And these cakes, will they be with cream," the oldest of Jagiełło's knights asks.

"With cream and raspberries," Mr. Ciecierski assures them. "The raspberries were picked today at dawn in the forest near Płociczne, where the road from Gawrychruda turns left, towards the gravel pit in Sobolewo, by our nice, dear Zielonek girls."

"And the cream," asks the knight, "what kind of cream do you have? Is it the one with pink icing, just like before the war?"

"Any cream you like," Mr. Ciecierski replies. "We have all the creams in the world here." "Let's go, let's go!" – shout ladies, knights and vagabonds, and Maria Konopnicka also joins in.

The summer of 1983 has long passed and Mr. Mareczek [writer Janusz Marek Rymkiewicz] is again talking to Mrs. Piłsudska and Mrs. Fliegieltaub, inviting them for cakes to Ciecierski's heavenly pastry shop. And it's June again and the pines along the Canal, that were drawn with soft pencil on the map of the General Quartermaster exactly 200 years ago still stand.

-Wojciech Stanisławski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: The Przewięź sluice on the Augustów Canal, connecting Lake Białe Augustowskie with Lake Studzieniczne. Photo: PAP/Jerzy Ochoński
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