The Leopold Canal runs just south of the Dutch border from Boekhoute in the east in an almost straight line westward to Heist-aan-Zee (Heyst-on-Sea). It is about 40 km (25 miles) long.
With the independence of Belgium in 1830 the Netherlands lost more than a third of its territory, not counting its colonies. As they had done before in other periods of conflict the Dutch blocked the discharge of water through their territory from Belgium into the Westerscheld. Year after year this caused inundations in the northern part of our Meetjesland and with these came an illness which the locals used to call "polder fever".
The idea of a canal was put forward and promoted by canon Andries (° Ruddervoorde 1796 - † Bruges 1886). He was the Middelburg parish priest from 1827 till 1836. And from 1830 until 1835 he was a representative at the Belgian National Congress.
In 1846 the Chamber of Belgian Representatives (the Lower House of the Belgian Parliament) declared it agreed in principle that the canal be dug. Clearly according to this version things moved rather swiftly from then on because first a set of locks was built at Heist-aan-Zee and this complex was solemnly inaugurated on 16 September 1846. And after this the canal was dug and completed in 1848. It meant the help of the Netherlands was no longer needed to get rid of excess water in our regions. It also created this typical canal landscape which so many now come to admire every year.
Our source for most of the above is the excellent "Streekgids Meetjesland", p. 22.
If the government green light came in 1846 could the money have been ready beforehand? Or were/are a government stamp of approval and the appropriation of the necessary finances two very different hurdles? And what about the inevitable expropriations? They couldn't have been arranged before the money was made available or could they? Could such a large project have been completed in a mere 4 years? We have our doubts.
According to Mr. J. De Paepe in an article in "Ons Meetjesland", Issue 2, 1982 the canal was dug between 1843 and 1862. And not without difficulty. He quotes from "de Eecloonaar" of 1 April 1849. Apparently at the time the work was in full swing and on the territory of St. Laureins 1200 men were stacked one against the other. And every day there were complaints, fights and other mischief. The Eeclonaar hoped the authorities would send in a strong brigade of gendarmes to maintain law and order.
The canal received the name of the first king of Belgium and it was a great success. An extra unexpected consequence was the fact that "polder fever" disappeared overnight.
The canal drains 36000 ha of arable land. Half the water is nowadays evacuated via Heist-aan-Zee and the other half via the Braakman in the Netherlands. The canal is between 1,20 and 2,30 meters deep.
At the end of WW II the Nazi forces resisted along the canal for almost 2 months while the port of Antwerp had already been taken more or less unscathed. That resistance was eventually broken and many Germans surrendered on 13 October 1944. Now the south side of the Westerscheld could be cleared of enemy troops. Walcheren, north of the Westerscheld was flooded and soon after that the port of Antwerp could be used to bring in the supplies required to push on into Germany itself.