The Aire & Calder Navigation has increased in size over the years, and today large loads of goods can be carried from the Humber ports. It is also a popular route for pleasure boats, leading to the vibrant redeveloped waterfront area in Leeds.
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From Leeds, the Aire & Calder Navigation flows to the tidal River Ouse at Goole, where the docks are a reminder that the canal continues to serve its historic function of transporting freight. Oil, sand and gravel are currently the main freights. Until 2002, the canal was also used to transport coal.
The navigation has been regularly improved and upgraded throughout history. Some of the most famous names in engineering, including Smeaton, Jessop, Rennie and Telford, have left their marks. Though the waterway is usually considered a river navigation, the Ferrybridge-Goole stretch is entirely man-made.
Since 1625, Yorkshire entrepreneurs had sought to improve navigation on the natural rivers Aire and Calder. After getting the Act of Parliament in 1699, short canals were cut to bypass particularly narrow or tortuous stretches. Improvements continued, with the Knottingley and Goole Canal opening in 1826, and the most recent was an entirely new section near Castleford, constructed in the 1980s after a spectacular breach.
The legacy of continual improvement means that the Aire & Calder Navigation is still a busy freight artery after 300 years, despite competition from road and rail. With constant demands to carry more in bigger boats, sea-going and coastal vessels, carrying 700 tons or more, pass through locks almost 200 feet (61 metres) long controlled by traffic signals. Over two million tons of freight is carried every year — a figure comparable with many European waterways.
The Selby Canal is a branch of the Aire & Calder, built in response to a proposed Leeds and Selby Canal. The Selby Canal opened in 1778, becoming the main route from Leeds to the River Humber via the River Ouse. However, as vessel size increased its shallow draught proved inadequate. By 1826 much of its traffic had transferred to the new Knottingley and Goole Canal, which was in turn connected with the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation by the New Junction Canal of 1905 — the last waterway built in Britain until 2002.