Travelling back in time along the Buckingham Canal

CELEBRATING MADRAS WEEK

Presently Buckingham Canal, formerly known as Elambore River. Pic: Akshatha M

Having been a resident of Madras for 20 years, I finally got an opportunity to visit the Buckingham Canal, through a walk organised for celebrating Madras week.

Cochrane Canal, Clive Canal, East Coast Canal, North Canal (in Basin Bridge side), South Canal (in Adyar side) and finally Buckingham Canal. A bit of research revealed that these are the various names by which the Canal was known over the years. Interesting, isn’t it? I wanted to know more about the men after whom the canal was named at different points in history.

Nineteen of us, all from different backgrounds, began our expedition from the starting point, The Mylapore Cricket Club, with the intention of exploring the history of the canal early on a cloudy Sunday morning.

“Many people go through this road, not many would know that St George’s Bridge was the oldest bridge in the city,” begins D Hemachandra Rao, the historian-researcher who led the walk along the canal.

“As a child, I have travelled from Lattice Bridge to Mahabalipuram, a journey that fuelled my fascination for the Buckingham canal. Twelve years ago, I visited the ‘Tamil Nadu Archives’, where I wanted to know more about three aspects of Madras – bridges, lighthouses and Buckingham Canal and this proved to be almost like another high school learning experience, or another Alma Mater, I should say”, he added as we made our first halt at the majestic Periyar Bridge aka St George’s bridge,  constructed in 1805.

The early days…

Way back in 1782, Stephen Popham, a police reformer and administrator who was off for a vacation to Ennore Lake, suggested the construction of what can be called the precursor to Buckingham canal – a saltwater channel connecting Ennore Lake to villages in North Chennai, using the flow of the seasonal Elambore river (which the locals used in any case to transport goods) Another officer named Goldingham also supported this idea in 1797, but it was only in 1800, that Lord Robert Clive gave the go ahead, and a tender was floated for its construction. The first phase was completed by contractor John Ludwig FK in just nine months, and opened in 1802. in 1806 the canal was extended till Pulicat, to facilitate movement of firewood, dry fish and other essentials by the locals.

Remembering St Mary’s Bridge

After listening to the early history of the canal, we resumed our journey and made our second halt at Stanley Viaduct.

“Long, long ago, during the monsoon, when all of Chintadripet used to get flooded, the 300-ft cut in between the Cooum River and Elambore River became an island. When Elambore River got flooded, the water went to the Cooum via the cut and vice versa,” explained Rao.

Before the construction of the Viaduct, St Mary’s Bridge, which was present right above the cut and got its name from St. Mary’s cemetery on the island, ran across where the Cooum meets the Canal.

“The remnants of the bridge can still be spotted, and you can see two pillars if you walk down the viaduct but the plaques are nowhere to be found,” said Rao, pointing out the pillars from the Viaduct.

Understanding Basin Bridge

Suddenly, we stopped in the middle of the road as Rao enthusiastically narrated the tale of the market located in Basin Bridge, “We received most essential goods such as firewood, salt and dry fish via the canal. We are standing in the famous Karuvaadu (Dry fish) Market which unloads the dry fish from the boats that halt in the wharf nearby.”

Basin bridge with the sludge-filled side arches. Pic: Bhavani Prabhakar

Slow and steady. Yes, that was how one had to walk to reach the Basin Bridge in North Madras. The Basin Bridge was constructed in 1807 and got the name as the basin is in proximity. The basin in the name denotes the place where boats come, halt, load and unload; the basin also denotes a circle, there is a circle present where the boats can take a turn.

“I still vividly remember 1500 shallow boats, each of 80 feet, that used to travel in the canal even during summers. It used to be very congested,” reminisced Rao.

“This is the starting point of the first man-made saltwater canal—Buckingham Canal,” Rao exclaimed as he showed us the beginning near Basin Bridge, emphasizing the term ‘salt water canal.’

“The place was later developed in 1939, I have seen the wharf here, and there used to be storage sheds behind the bushes. Unfortunately, we cannot visit the sheds as the pathway is rugged and unpaved,” he added.

Toll Office

We started to walk towards the toll office, an old dilapidated building that is located close to the basin. The boats pay the toll charges and halt at the basin.

When FK expressed his thoughts of extending the canal up to Kattupalli Island and further to Pulicat late, the government ordered him to fund the extension work with his own money. Post-completion, FK demanded and obtained rights of having the canal on lease for 45 years – 1802 to 1847.

“FK was very particular to list down toll charges for each and every product the boats carried and he did not charge for empty boats. However due to his financial situation, he quit the contract halfway and the canal was  handed over to Basil Cochrane, for whom FK worked as an employee,” narrated Rao.

“The peculiar thing about the boats that sailed in Buckingham Canal is that the sailors did not row but poled,” he added.

In 1835, Cochrane left for England, after which the canal fell into disuse. The government tried to take control of the canal in 1837 but to maintain the honour of the British legacy, they paid Cochrane the profits they made till 1847. After the contract expired, the canal directly came under the purview of the government.

The Adyar-Cooum link

The great famine that hit the Madras in 1877 shook the people of Madras. Under the “Food for work” policy, Lord Buckingham initiated the work on the Adyar Cooum phase and the labourers involved were paid. The canal avoids the crowded Mylapore—from Madras University the canal flows till Queen Mary’s College which is parallel to the sea shore, takes a right turn to avoid the Mylapore surplus channel, reaches Kotturpuram and joins Adyar at Greenways Road.

“It was briefly known as South canal. The extension of the canal that started in 1855 and got over in 1882, went up to Marakanam for 65 miles,” recounted Rao.

Last leg

From the toll office we went to Napier Bridge near Madras University and traced the origin of the Cooum, which enters the sea at this point. “The 25th mile which marks the end of the canal in Madras is in Pulicat Lake and Vincent and I are lucky enough for having discovered the milestone,” laughed Rao as he bade us goodbye.

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