No. 501.

Mr. Wurts to Mr. Bayard .

[Extract.]
No. 46.]

Sir: The ceremony of the official opening of the St. Petersburg and Cronstadt Canal took place yesterday, the 15th (27th) of May, which was the second anniversary of the coronation of the Emperor Alexander III. It was witnessed by their Majesties, all the members of the Imperial family, the diplomatic corps, and a large number of court and state functionaries. No fewer than 130 vessels took part in the proceedings, which occupied the whole day. The event has been looked forward to with great interest by the commercial world, not only of St Petersburg, but by that of all Russia transacting business directly through the Baltic Sea, for the whole commercial future of the Russian ports on the Baltic and the Gulf of Finland will be affected by the cange now to take place since St. Petersburg has become a seaport.

St. Petersburg was founded in 1703, and it was a leading idea with Peter the Great that it was to be a seaport; but Cronstadt has been the real port all this time. No vessel drawing over 9 or 10 feet of water could float over the bar of the south of the Neva and reach the capital. All vessels requiring a greater depth of water had to deliver their cargoes at Cronstadt. The goods were there put into barges, which were either poled or tugged to St. Petersburg. Commercial operations were thus carried on at a great disadvantage. This can be well understood by the statement that goods can be sent here from England by steamer in about a week, but their transshipment at Cronstadt with the short but slow passage to St. Petersburg, the delivery there—no proper harbor existing—with the formalities of a highly-developed customhouse system, usually occupied as much as three weeks, at times even [Page 661] more. Often the barges got aground, or sunk with their freight. This condition of things made contracts difficult, and the commercial prosperity of the capital has in consequence been retarded. Now, sea-going vessels of almost any size will be able to come direct to St. Petersburg by the new canal, at the end of which docks have been built and connected with the railways. Cronstadt is to remain exclusively for the naval marine, but nothing is yet known as to the time of the compulsory closing of its port, and it is not likely to take place this year.

The canal just opened has, therefore, carried out the design contemplated by Peter the Great for the capital of the Empire. That Peter intended to make a canal there is evidenced in the fact that he commenced one, which was to start from Oranienbaum, on the south coast opposite Cronstadt, to the mouth of the Fontanka Canal at St. Petersburg, the remains of the works begun being still visible between the villages of Strelna and St. Sergius. Peter’s death put a stop to this scheme.

It was in 1872 that Count Bobrinsky, then minister of ways and communications, issued a report on the subject of the canal, and a commission was appointed under the presidency of Engineer Kerbeds to study the question. Two projects were formed; one was produced under the triple authorship of Cotard, Champoulion, and Janisky, and the other by Mr. Pontiloff. The latter was finally adopted in 1874. The works were commenced only three years later, as the dredging and other machinery had to be brought from France and England.

The whole length of the canal is about 17 miles. It starts from the island of Goutonieff, on the southern side of Neva, where the river enters the Gulf of Finland, and it extends westerly along the southern side of the gulf, terminating at Oronstadt. The canal, after leaving the islands of Goutonieff and Volnoy, and the low, marshy ground known as the Isle des Cannoniers, passes ail the rest of the way, nearly the whole of its length, through the waters of the gulf. On this account, instead of calling it a canal, the work might be described as the making of a channel through a shallow portion of the sea.

At the east end a few miles of it had to be embanked to prevent the deposit of sand and mud which produces the bar at the mouth of the Neva. The longer portion on the west, which is not liable to this deposit, is simply a channel which has been dredged out, and its course will be indicated by buoys.

A large dock has been formed at Goutonieff, with which the railways have been connected. There is ample space for the construction of other docks. It is also intended to widen one of the existing canals, or to make a new one on the southern side of St. Petersburg, so that vessels can communicate with the Neva above the city, thus avoiding the numerous bridges of the town.

By the Neva, Schlusselburg, on Lake Ladoga, is reached, where the vast canal system of Russia begins. This system was another of Peter the Great’s far-seeing schemes in relation to his new capital, by which the city was to be connected with the Volga and other great rivers, thus forming a water road from the Baltic to the Caspian.

According to the original plan, the canal just opened was to have a depth of 20 feet, but this was increased to 22 feet. The contract for the dredging was made with an American firm, Morris & Cumming, of New York. Unfortunately for them the soil was not well adapted for their mode of dredging, and their contract had to be abandoned. The eastern portion of the canal towards St. Petersburg has been by far the most important part of the work, as it had to be protected by large and [Page 662] strong embankments on both sides. These were formed by the output of the dredges, and are faced with granite bowlders from Finland. At the western extremity the work is of a more durable kind, and large square blocks of granite have been employed, so that now the heavy surf which at times is raised by the westerly wind in the gulf may be resisted.

The sea channel, that is, the western portion of the canal, is 350 feet wide. This is the width at the bottom, the whole of which is 22 feet deep. Between the embankments it is 700 feet, and of this 280 feet will be the full depth of 22 feet. This is more than twice the dimensions of the Suez Canal, which is 100 meters or 320 feet wide on the surface, but it has only 72 feet of the full depth at the bottom. The Amsterdam Canal intends to have 100 feet of the full depth. The depth of this last is to be 24 feet; that of the Suez Canal is 26 feet. In these details they exceed the St. Petersburg Canal, but should the larger class of vessels ever venture into the eastern end of the Baltic, the great width of the canal will admit easily of a further deepening to meet the requirements of heavier ships.

The works on the canal have been carried out under the direction of a committee presided over by Mr. N. Sarloff. The resident engineer was Mr. M. Fofiesky. Councilor Pontiloff, the originator of the scheme for the canal which was adopted, died while the works were in progress. In October, 1883, the new dock was finished, and the ceremony of letting the waters of the canal into it was performed in the presence of the Emperor.

The total cost of the work is something short of $12,000,000.

The Russian journal, Kew Times, writing of the inauguration of the canal, points out—

Its utility for the commerce of Russia in general, and for the development of the commercial activity of St. Petersburg in particular. As an idea, the maritime canal and port of St. Petersburg represent a grandiose enterprise and a promise of a brilliant future. It was to create a place for the immediate exchange of the internal trade of Russia with that from abroad. On one hand, St. Petersburg was to serve as the port of importation of Moscow, which absorbs half of the foreign merchandise imported into the Empire, and on the other it was to facilitate the exportation of home products.

Of all the Baltic ports, St. Petersburg is the nearest to Moscow. Revel is 300 versts farther; Riga 370, and Liban nearly 600 versts. The cost of transportation from abroad to one of these ports being about the same, it was evident that economy in the railway transportation to Moscow could be effected by taking the St. Petersburg route. For the exportation of grain the maritime canal, in diminishing the cost of transport and of unloading, has great importance at present, when the rivalry with America and India is specially felt on all the European markets. The absence of a maritime canal and of a port at St. Petersburg necessitated a series of supplementary expenses, both for the transshipment of foreign merchandise coming into Russia, and of the national products going out of the country. Therefore, no sooner had Moscow become connected by railway with Revel, Riga, and Liban, than the commerce of St. Petersburg commence to decline.

In order to avoid the annoyance of transshipment at Cronstadt, foreign merchants preferred to send their goods to Moscow by way of these ports, finding it more to their advantage, even with the additional 300 to 600 versts of railway travel.

In 1861 the total exportation of Russia amounted to 159,000,000 of rubles. St. Petersburg figured in this sum for 42,000,000, equal to 26 per cent. For the same year the importations amounted to 142,000,000, and of this sum 85,000,000 passed through St. Petersburg, equal to 60 per cent.

Twenty years later, the population of this city having increased one and a half times, and the consumption of goods in proportion, the merchandise exported from St. Petersburg reached only the figure of 23,000,000 of rubles, while that imported remained stationary at 85,000,000, with this difference, that compared with the total importation into Russia this figure no longer represented 60 per cent, but only 15 per cent, of that amount. In other words, during this period the imports become four times less and the exports five times less.

[Page 663]

It was at this moment, when the decrease in the commerce of St. Petersburg became felt, that Mr. Pontiloff, well known for his energy, conceived the idea of the remedy for the evil. He bought up all the vacant land bordering on the projected port, in the hope of a rise in its value. Unfortunately he failed beforehaving been able to accomplish anything for the canal. At the same time, the justice must be done to him to say that the plan left by him, which was to be used for the realization of his scheme, showed a very broad view and great knowledge of the matter.

Later this plan was modified and the work has been pursued on a much smaller scale. Nevertheless, the enterprise is said to have cost the state 20,000,000 rubles.

It is permitted [concludes the New Times] to think that the precarious state of the commerce of St. Petersburg is an abnormal fact; it depends not on the situation of our capital as a sea-port, but on the bad organization of its commerce. In order to ameliorate this condition of things, one could, among others, have recourse to the railways, especially in regulating their tariffs.

* * * * * * *

I have, &c.,

GEOEGE W. WURTS.