Supplementary Appendix 435.3

Georg Heinrich Karl Wiebeking and the Elbe-Weser Canal (1808)

In her letter to Pauline Gotter on 16 September 1808 (letter 435), Caroline relates that “they are sending Wiebeking, however, to Kassel with a stupendous expense account in order to wed several rivers.”

Georg Heinrich Karl Wiebeking was a distinguished hydraulics engineer, and had indeed received a commission to “wed” several rivers, namely, the Weser and Elbe by means of a canal between the Aller (which flows into the Weser) and Ohre (which flows into the Elbe; A compleat map of Germany, comprehending the differents seats of the present [viz. seven years] war [London 1759]; Bibliothèque nationale de France; département Cartes et plans):


The project is described succinctly as follows in Johann Kretzchmar, “Napoleons Kanalprojekte zur Verbindung des Rheines mit der Elbe und Ostsee,” Zeitschrift des historischen Vereins für Niedersachsen (1906), 139–150, here 140; additional illustrations below of period concepts in hydrology from: David Gilly and Johann Albrecht Eytelwein, Praktische Anweisung zur Wasserbaukuns etc., nos. 1–3 (Berlin 1802):

When the French arrived in the country [the Treaty of Tilsit had consolidated most of the Prussian lands west of the Elbe with Braunschweig and parts of Hannover to form a Kingdom of Westphalia for Jerome Bonaparte], it was, perhaps surprisingly, King Jerome who became particularly interested in the potential of inland waterways.

He first considered connecting the Elbe River with the Weser River by using the Ohre River and Aller River, since both rivers flowed quite close to each other at Oebisfelde and Calvörde, where they are separated only by a swampy lowland, the Drömling, such that connecting them by means of a canal would not present any particular difficulty.

In 1808 Jerome commissioned the Bavarian engineer F. von Wiebeking study the terrain and work out a plan. Wiebeking was prepared to complete the project within three years at a cost of 2,730,000 Francs. The canal, however, was not built, though no one knows why.

The anonymous article anonymous, “Kameral-Chronik,” Allgemeiner Kameral-, Oekonomie-, Forst-, und Technologie-Korrespondent, ed. Johann Paul Harl, 1 (1808) 147 (Thursday, 8 December 1808), 294, described the project just after Wiebeking had returned to Munich in November 1808:

Missive from Munich, 18 November [1808]. The union of the Elbe and Weser by means of a canal that His Majesty the King of Westphalia has resolved to carry out and whose construction theory was proposed by the Geheimrath and General Director of Construction for Waterway Bridges and Roads in the Kingdom of Bavarian, Herr Wiebeking, who has just returned here, is one of the grandest and most useful ideas of our age.

This canal will greatly promote the delivery of grain from the fertile regions around Magdeburg, Braunschweig, and Tangermünde, and the delivery of salt from the Westphalian salt mines to Zelle, Bremen, and Holland, will facilitate the supply of wood to the latter [for shipbuilding], as well as expand trade with foreign states and the capitals of northern Germany. It will provide direct shipping routes by water between, among other locales, Kassel, Bremen, Zelle, Hannover and Braunschweig, on the one hand, and Magdeburg, Berlin, Danzig, Petersburg, Dresden, Warsaw, Frankfurt on der Oder, Breslau, Hamburg, Halle, Naumburg, and other trade centers, on the other.

From Braunschweig, the Ocker River will be rendered navigable to this canal; from Hannover, the Leine River is navigable to this canal, and from Kassel the Fulda and Weser rivers navigable. The honorable credit for the official state and economic conceptualization of this grand undertaking is to be accorded to the Westphalian minister of finance, Count von Bülow.


The canal will begin from Magdeburg and unite with the Ohre River at Wollmirstädt, which river will be rendered navigable as far as Kallvörde. Above this town, a canal of eight hours will be constructed in connection with which the supply canals laid by Friedrich II of Prussia will be used as well. This section of the waterway constitutes the division point of the canal. It will be supplied with water from 2 tributary canals that at the same time irrigate large meadow tracts, and whose dams protect several villages from flooding.

The Aller River will be made navigable as far as Zelle. This inland waterway will have 11 locks and can be navigated by boats that, constructed according to a new design by Herr Geheimrath Wiebeking, can carry 1000 Zentner [in England at the time: a kintal or quintal, a hundred weight]. The king of Westphalia, to the glory of his administration, intends to have this project commence at the beginning of spring [1809].

His trip to Kassel and beyond during the autumn of 1808, of which Caroline here speaks, is explained in considerable detail in Friedrich Nauck, “Ueber die Kanalprojekte zwischen dem Rhein, der Ems, Weser, Elbe und der Ostsee, und deren technische Bearbeitung in den Jahren 1810 und 1812,” Verhandlungen des Vereins zur Beförderung des Gewerbfleißes in Preußen 11 (1832), 244–80, here 245–53 (here the primary locales of Wiebeking’s exploration journey mentioned in the accounts below; map from James Monteith, Barnes’s Complete Geography [New York 1885], 106):


During the autumn of 1808, Emperor Napoleon and Alexander met in Erfurt. The entourage of the king of Bavaria included Herr von Wiebeking, who then traveled from Erfurt to Kassel, where Count von Bülow introduced him to the King of Westphalia, who in his own turn commissioned him with undertaking an on-site examination of the canal project.

Herr von Wiebeking traveled to Zelle, from there along the Aller River as far as Wolfsburg, where we lingered with Count von der Schulenburg (at the time the president of the landed estates of the Kingdom of Westphalia), who then guided us along the journey as far as Oebisfelde, where Herr Wiebeking was convinced by on-site observations that the Aller River as far as Oebisfelde was capable of supplying the summit section of the canal with sufficient water.


We now traveled to conduct our investigation of the Drömling as far as the Tarterberg and found the supply trenches constructed by Friedrich II of Prussia filled with water. We continued on to Calvörde, and from there along the Ohre River to where it flows into the Elbe, then back as far as Wolmirstädt, and from there along the old Elbe up to Magdeburg.

[Here a more detailed map of the area around the Drömling Swamp, along with the Aller and Ohre Rivers (Map of the Empire of Germany including all the states comprehended under that name with the Kingdom of Prussia, &c. [London 1782]):]


We returned from there to Kassel by way of Halberstadt and Braunschweig. The results of Herr von Wiebeking’s investigations, which he delivered to the finance minister in Kassel, were as follows. [Wiebeking’s report]

This section [presumably the final section cited concerning costs] was not carried out because Herr von Wiebeking was in haste to deliver his memorandum and report to the minister. It was November [1808], the weather was becoming increasingly cold and harsh, and other business matters probably prompted the Herr General Director [Wiebeking] to return to Munich.

The Herr Finance Minister paid out the previously stipulated sum of 12,000 Francs in gold for this report, and Herr von Wiebeking journeyed back to Bavaria. This technical report of the Bavarian general director was now passed on to the Westphalian general inspector Jussow, who put the entire matter aside, and it was not until 29 July 1810 that the finance ministers wrote to the district construction manager in Göttingen, [Friedrich] Nauck [i.e., the present author]: “Since the preliminary work for the canal project requires that the necessary surveying be started, I herewith commission you to commence this project etc.”

Hence during the autumn of 1810 these terrain survey studies were begun between Zelle and Magdeburg. But because Herr von Wiebeking had not provided instructions, and the finance minister nothing more in the way of orders, I thus followed my own instincts and surveyed from the upper waters of the Aller as far as Zelle in the valley of the Fuse and Erse up as far as the Rothe Mühle on the Oker (approx.. 1 [German] mile below Braunschweig. But before this project could be finished, I was transferred by a royal decree on 8 November to Magdeburg as a district construction manager of the 1st Class, and these survey investigations were not continued. . . .


Geopolitical and military developments along with, of course, the fall of Napoleon himself in 1815 considerably lowered the priority of the construction of the originally projected canals. That said, today a separate canal (or series of canals) does indeed begin at Magdeburg as originally conceived and connect the Elbe with the Weser, albeit not by connecting the Aller and Ohre rivers, but rather bypassing them or running in part parallel with them and then continuing on to the Weser at Minden rather than at the conjunction, in the easterly direction, of the Aller with the Weser or, in the westerly direction, with the Ohre with the Elbe.

Translation © 2018 Doug Stott