The Huddersfield Narrow Canal is twenty miles (32km) long, and passes through 74 locks, from Portland Basin in Ashton-under-Lyne through the beautiful Pennine Hills into the centre of Huddersfield. It is now fully open and restored for navigation as a result of considerable effort by numerous groups. The Huddersfield Narrow Canal was last completely open in 1944.
The seventeen years spent building this canal is an indication of the problems encountered both in design and in the terrain it covered. In 1793 a company was formed to cut a canal linking the Sir John Ramsden and Ashton under Lyne canals at Huddersfield and Dukinfield Bridge to from what was hoped to be the shortest and first waterway system connecting Lancashire and Yorkshire. The company's engineer was initially Benjamin Outram whose first canal route plan was 31.8km (19.8 miles) long, to rise 133.8 metres (438 ft), travelling through 42 locks between Huddersfield and Marsden.
The canal would reach a summit level of 197.7 metres (648 ft) above sea level and would work its way through the Pennine watershed by means of a tunnel which would be the longest and highest canal tunnel in the country at 5,024.8 metres (5,477 yards) long. Outram stated that the canal would be narrow to save on labour in cutting the tunnel and to limit the amount of water needed.
By 1796 some sections of the canal were nearly ready, and by 1799 16 miles of the canal was open, but problems began to surface as a result of Outram's design around the locks and a management structure which, no doubt to save costs, had lumbered Outram and one other inexperienced young surveyor with sole responsibility of supervision. The canal did not have wide enough foundations for abutments and waste-water channels around the locks had not been made watertight. Seepage and frost damage were the result. The venture came close to collapse in 1799, after floods and devastation.
Outram resigned in 1801, and from 1806 the engineer Thomas Telford, with the help of John Rooth, produced specific guidelines and a report on what was need to complete the canal. In June 1811 the final cost was deemed at 396,267 pounds, which included 123,804 pounds for the tunnel alone. This was more that double Outram's original estimate.
The building had taken much longer than originally thought. The rival Rochdale Canal, completed in 1804, and later the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, completed in 1816, were poised as key competitors to take business away from the Huddersfield Narrow. The company therefore had to reduce toll charges to compete.
Investors who saw little pay back espoused that the canal was of more benefit to local residents and businesses in the area, and to a large extent, suggests Keevill, this is true. By the mid-19th century the population of Marsden, alongside the Huddersfield Narrow, had grown considerably, as had local mills. This was partly due to the increase in trade encouraged by the canal.
Although bulk heavy goods like coal and grain were favourably transported along the Narrow, favourable because of their economies of scale and less demand for speedy delivery, smaller goods requiring quick delivery times were less well transported along the canal. Narrow-boats were towed by horses and it took approximately 4 hours to 'leg' a narrow-boat through the Standedge Tunnel.
Legging is literally a canal worker lying on their backs on top of the narrow-boat and using their legs to push it through the tunnel. Visit the Standedge Tunnel Visitor Centre in Marsden with interactive tunnel simulator where kids can see how fast they can 'leg'! Canal boat trips also run through the tunnel itself. The canal suffered because it was a narrow canal - narrow canals have locks which can only take through one narrow-boat of approximately 7ft in width.
When it came to building railway routes in the mid-19th century from Manchester to Huddersfield, the railway company benefited from knowledge in the excavation involved in the building of the Standedge tunnel. The railway route from Manchester to Huddersfield (the new line being from Stalybridge to Huddersfield), with its own tunnel above the canal running through Standedge, opened in July 1849.