200 years ago ….. on 22nd November 1797 the Preston to Tewitfield section of the Lancaster Canal was officially opened and a grand celebration was held to mark the occasion.
At 9.30am a number of boats with local dignitaries on board sailed from Lancaster up to the Lune Aqueduct accompanied on their journey by red-coated guardsmen. In the distance an artillery salute was sounded over Lancaster Moor. This was repeated at various intervals along the route with the final round being fired from outside the town hall.
As the VIP's dined at the Kings Arms Hotel in Market Street the boats turned back and headed towards Galgate along with a boat carrying limestone from the Tewitfield end of the canal in the north. At Galgate the cargo of limestone was exchanged for a shipment of coal from Preston. This heralded the start of a trade which led to the navigation becoming known as the "Black and White Canal". In its heyday the waterway carried up to 460,000 tons of freight a year between Preston and Lancaster.
Our story really begins some 50 years before. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Lancaster was a prosperous town and port but there were ominous signs on the horizon! As ships grew in size, so did the difficulties of navigating the notorious estuary of the River Lune. This threatened the prosperity of Lancaster and the smaller port of Milnthorpe, a few miles to the north, whilst to the south Liverpool was growing in importance.
In an effort to save Lancaster, the merchants proposed building a canal, which, starting at Kendal and running almost due south through Lancaster, would reach Preston. Here the canal would enter the River Ribble by a series of locks. On the south side of the river another series of locks would lift the canal out of the river valley onto the West Lancashire plain. From there it would run southwest, passing through Leyland to the village of Parbold where it would join the western branch of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.
The scheme did not attract much support in the town. An alternative idea of building a new port at Glasson at the mouth . of the Lune found favour, and the idea of a canal was dropped. However, there was a group who extolled the virtues of having Lancaster on the canal map, and in the 1770's,John Rennie was asked to re-survey the canal. Rennie’s proposal followed much of the original route to Preston, but here Rennie crossed the Ribble by means of an aqueduct and struck out southeast towards Chorley and then east of Wigan to Westhoughton. Rennie proposed that the canal should be capable of taking broad beam craf t, up to seventy two feet in length, an indication that he had designs on linking the canal to the Bridgewater Canal, and thus the main canal system. In the event this did not happen.
An Act of Par liament was obtained, construction beginning in 1792. Construction began north and south of the Ribble, but the canal company was dogged by financial problem s. By the beginning of the nineteenth century only the southern section from Walton Summit, five miles south of Preston, to Wigan and the section northwards from Preston to Tewitfield had been completed. These two sections had been linked with a temporary tramway. However, by 1819 the canal was completed to Kendal and the last section, a branch to Glasson Dock, was opened in 1826. The northern and southern sections were never linked by water, the tramway becoming permanent.
In the meantime, the southern part of the southern section was incorporated into the main line of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. This part was eventually leased, then sold, to the L&L, the rest of the southern section abandoned, and all hope of the Canal ever being linked to the main network disappeared for almost 200 years. In the 196 0s, the Ministry of Transport proposed culverting the canal north of Carnforth in six places thus denying access to this lovely section of canal. Despite vigorous opposition plans went ahead and the M6 motorway was extended northwards. This left only forty two of the original fifty seven miles north of Preston open to traffic.