Later, the canal would create yet another new community, the families who would operate the infrastructure of locks and toll houses and those who would crew the barges themselves or drive horses along the towpaths. The way of life of canal workers was quite different from that of river communities: especially with the advent of steam power, boats were not tied to currents, while the managed pounds were not subject to droughts or floods. When moored on the still waters, narrowboats could serve as permanent homes, and became a focus for distinctive vernacular art, music and folklore. As well as transforming the physical landscape, canals created entirely new human geographies and connections, and an unprecedented sense of people on the move.
Four days before Christmas in 1804 saw the Grand Opening of the Rochdale Canal, with a yacht procession from Rochdale to Piccadilly Wharf, Manchester that was witnessed by huge crowds. Their excitement was justified. The Rochdale Canal was the first to cross the Pennines and the only one to do so without a tunnel, thus opening new localities at the Summit. It was now possible to send a 70-tonne cargo overnight from Manchester to Todmorden in Yorkshire by ‘fly boat’, hauled by a relay of swift horses. Investors and industrialists also had reason to celebrate. Raw materials could be easily sent inland, creating a second wave of cotton towns like Todmorden and Leeds, and coal would gradually relieve the need for water power in the valleys, while transforming their vistas into the grimy Victorian archetype of soot-blackened mills and chimneys. Yet the landscape was transformed in other ways too, into a habitat for fish and waterfowl. Nature was changed, as the din of geese at the Summit still attests.
In 1839, the second year of the young Queen’s reign, the canal reached its peak of trade, generating £62,712 [£6.5 million today] revenue from 875,000 tonnes of cargo. Two years later, the Manchester and Leeds Railway opened along the same route as the canal. In various places between Hebden and Todmorden the railway runs only few yards from the canal and the later trunk road, all three modes of transport snaking through the deep valley. While the railways soon superseded the waterways in terms of speed, much of their civil engineering derived directly from the earlier designs of cuttings, embankments and bridges and drew on the expertise of the next generation of navvies. Continuities were seen in other respects too. Rather than causing a steep decline in the Rochdale Canal’s fortunes, the railway brought synergies that kept barges moving for another century. Bulky, non-perishable goods were still cheaper to move by water, freeing up space for food supplies and of course, passengers to travel by train. With the two routes cheek-by-jowl, even more spectacular structures were added – the Gothic turrets of Skew Bridge Viaduct at Gauxholme Lock or the three million bricks that form the railway embankment into Todmorden station [the ‘Great Wall of Tod’], and in Manchester itself, the multistorey connections of rail and water around Deansgate.
Lending its financial strength, in 1855 the railway leased the whole canal infrastructure, which included the Pennine reservoirs. Part of the lease terms allowed the railway to open Hollingworth Lake to the general public. Visitors could reach it by train from Manchester, with a short walk or trap-ride from Littleborough Station. Indirectly, the canal created yet another landscape out of nowhere, one of the earliest working-class tourist resorts. Around two purpose-built hotels were pleasure gardens, gaslit dance terraces, a fairground, camera obscura and an early photographic studio. The ‘Weighvers’ Seaport’ might be considered the world’s first theme park, the ‘theme’ being the lake itself as water became identified with leisure and health as well as trade. Rowing boats and two paddle-steamers were popular attractions, as were opportunities for freshwater angling and open water swimming [Captain Matthew Webb trained here before swimming the Channel]. In several hard winters, the lake froze enough to allow skating and curling matches. A less typical use, during the First World War, was as an army camp where amphibious military operations were rehearsed.