Until the construction of the Canal du Nord, the Canal de Saint-Quentin was the only waterway linking the Seine basin to the north of France. The rise of the coal industry in Pas-de-Calais eventually saturated traffic on the Canal de Saint-Quentin and necessitated a new transportation link to the Île-de-France region to ensure that the northern French coal mining companies could effectively compete against their Belgian and English equivalents. In 1860, the principal coal companies in the Pas-de-Calais region grouped themselves into a Comité des Houillères du Pas-de-Calais, responsible for coping with transportation problems. The group expanded into the Comité des Houillères du Nord et du Pas-de-Calais in 1878, and began taking steps towards obtaining fundamental improvements in water connections.
A special commission of the French Ministry of Public Works conducted their first study in 1878 to find a “suitable means of putting the coal mines in a position to withstand foreign competition". The concept of the canal was included in the Freycinet Plan, a public works project whereby the government purchased railroads and built extensive new railways and waterways. Plans for the canal were presented to the Chamber of Deputies in 1882.
On 23 December 1903, the French government authorized construction of the Canal du Nord, a 93 kilometre long canal from Arleux to Pont-l'Évêque. The Canal du Nord would admit barges up to 300 tonnes and because it both increased waterway capacity and decreased transportation distance, it was expected to decrease freight costs by up to thirty percent.
In 1908 construction began on the canal. Under the plan, coal-mining companies contributed one-third of the construction cost and by 1914 this amounted to 23 million francs of the total 72 million francs in incurred expenses. Three quarters of the excavations, eleven locks and all of the bridges were complete, with work well advanced on the tunnels, when World War I forced a halt in construction. The war resulted in widespread destruction of the canal and the French government did not attempt to resume building prior to the Second World War.
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