Before diesel and electric engines made sailing convenient, boats and barges had to be either rowed or pulled. In many European countries such as the Netherlands and the UK, and to some extent in France, Germany, and Belgium, horse-drawn boats were common. Horses and sometimes mules and donkeys would walk along the canal on a towpath pulling behind a small tow-boat loaded with goods or passengers. Because the cargo moves on water, friction is minimal, allowing the horse to pull fifty times as much weight as it could pull in a traditional cart on road.
A vintage English narrow boat being pulled by a horse, on the Cromford Canal, near Matlock, UK.
For a long time, boats were pulled by men because many river banks were privately owned and didn’t have designated towpaths for an animal to walk. So gangs of men worked their way along the river banks as best they could. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that Britain started building dedicated towing paths along the banks of rivers and canals allowing men to be replaced by animals. Before long, horse-drawn barges became an efficient mode of transport carrying passengers, mail and small goods. During the industrial revolution in Britain, whenever huge amounts of heavy produce had to be moved inland, horse-drawn barges did the job.
From the 1770s to the 1830s, Britain went through a period of intense canal-building, often referred to as the “Golden Age” of British canals. During this period of “canal mania”, huge sums were invested in canal building, and although many schemes came to nothing, the canal system rapidly expanded to nearly 4,000 miles in length. Many canal companies were formed and there was frenzied competition and rivalry among them.
These 18th century canals were, however, very narrow and only very narrow boats, less than two meters in width, could navigate these waterways. Various innovative solutions had to be sought to prevent the lines on the towing horses from becoming tangled up as they moved from bank to bank or under tunnels and bridges. At places where the horses needed to switch sides, turnover bridges or changeling bridges were constructed with ramps that allowed the towing horse to cross the canal without unhitching the tow line. These bridges had ramps aligned with the towpath on the same side of the bridge. The horse ascended the ramp on one side, crossed the bridge, descended on the other side and then passed under the bridge to continue on its way.
Many bridges have towpaths that passed under the bridge. If a tunnel or a bridge didn’t have interior towpaths, the horse was disconnected from the barge and the boatmen were forced to “leg” through the tunnel, which involved lying on their backs and pushing their feet on the tunnel walls and roof to push the boat forward. Legging was dangerous and difficult and often boatmen employed professional leggers to navigate long tunnels.
A changeline bridge where the towpath changes sides on the Macclesfield Canal.
A bridge with an interior towpath.
In the Netherlands, where canal traffic is significant, horse-drawn boats began operating more than a century earlier than in the UK. Locally they are known as trekschuit.
The first trekschuit sailed in 1632 between Amsterdam and Haarlem and could carry 30 passengers. The canal was dug in a straight line to guarantee the shortest route, but passengers needed to change boats midway. This stopover town eventually became Halfweg, which means "halfway". The trekschuit became so successful that the route was extended from Haarlem to Leiden two decades later.
By the turn of the 18th century, an extensive network of trekschuit and ferry services linked all of the important cities in the coastal provinces of the Netherlands. Travel by trekschuit was reliable, comfortable and cheap, and the speed was about 7 kilometers per hour, which was faster than walking, and more comfortable than by coach. The system became so popular that a towpath was added when the Ohio and Erie Canal was dug in the US in the 1820s.
With the advent of railways, horse-drawn boats became obsolete but they continue to survive as tourist attractions at many places in the UK such as at Foxton, Godalming, Tiverton, Ashton-under-Lyne, Newbury and Llangollen.