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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
Grand Canal Cavour, 1862-7

SIMULTANEOUSLY with the construction of the v Turin and Savona Railway, a large '.’rigation work—the Canal Cavour—was in course of progress in Italy, called after the celebrated Italian statesman of that name, and Mr. Abernethy held the position of consulting or “controlling” engineer to the Italian Irrigation Canal Company, who were carrying out the undertaking which had been planned in 1854, by the eminent Government Engineer, Chevalier N06, and submitted to the Government of Italy and approved, but its execution postponed on account of the unsettled state of the country. The project consisted in reducing to one system of management, the existing Crown canals on the left bank of the Po, between the rivers Oreo and Ticino, and in the construction of a high level canal from the River Po, crossing the Dora Peltea and the Sesia, and terminating on the Ticino. To the above company the government now ceded the Crown Canals for the sum of 812,000, and on this sum and on the cost of all works connected with the canals, as well as on the cost of the Canal Cavour, guaranteed six per cent, with all surplus revenue, for a period of fifty years. Although the scheme of the company w as apparently divided into different parts, it had in reality but one great object—namely, to perfect and increase the means of irrigation in those districts east of Turin, which lie in the valleys of the Po and Ticino rivers, and west of Lombardy. The trunk line was the Grand Cavour Canal, 54 miles long, carried across the main drainage of the Alps from Chivasso. a point upon the river Po ten miles east of Turin, to the Ticino river beyond Novara. The second branch of the scheme was the acquisition of the Crown lands in the Ivrea and Vercellise provinces, for incorporation with the operations in irrigation of the new canal, and the third branch, the purchase of such private canals in the Novara province as might be necessary to give to the trunk canal command of the whole country, which lies south of Novara between the Sesia and 1'icino rivers. Power was also taken in the concession given to extend operations into Upper Lombardy, where a large dry district of 100,000 acres could be advantageously watered by the resources of the company. The total area to be irrigated was 300,000 acres, and the foundation stone of the Canal Cavour, which was to effect the major part of this drainage, was laid on June 1st, 1863, by Prince Humbert, to whom, previous to the ceremony, Mr. Abernethy was introduced by Mons. N06. The science of irrigation, as applied in Italy, India, or Egypt, is perhaps little known in England, where counter efforts are more usually made to dram the water from the land in order to render it capable of improved cultivation. In the former countries, on the other hand, the land requires a supply of water in order to develop and fertilise it, and many of the smaller rivers are dry during the summer.

Taking a glance on Ihe map at the physical nature of the tract of country !n north Italy, affected b}1 these irrigation works, one can see a striking similarity in the more important features of the land with northern India. Both are situated at the base of mountains of perpetual snow drained by rivers flowing thence: geologically they belong to the same period, and may be said to be generically the same. There is, however, this point of difference, that whereas, in India, the great drainage river has but one range of mountains, the river Po is affected by two ranges, between which it flows at a greater or less angle with its affluents, and thus occupies the lowest level of the valley which it traverses. On the left bank of the Po irrigation had previously been successfully carried out by canals from the various affluents, the Oreo, Dora Baltea, Sesia, Agogna, Terdoppio and Ticino, but the Po itself had never been laid under contribution. Large tracts remained starved between the Sesia and the Ticino, while a portion remained utterly waste, and it was to lay the River Po under contribution to this district, and for the systematising of the other works, already alluded to, that the concession was made and the guarantee granted to the Italian Irrigation Company.

In this undertaking, as in the preceding one, there was a good deal of reckless speculation, and considerable misfortune overtook many of the large shareholders, who were no doubt influenced to some extent in their application for shares by the distinguished names which appeared on the Italian Board of Directors, which contained those of the Marquis Cavour, Count Oldepedi, Senator Farrina, and M. de Vicenzie, Minister of Public Works, among others. The English Board of Directors were also gentlemen of good position, one of whom, Colonel Collyer, R.E., became an intimate and valued friend ;n subsequent years,

The obligation put upon the “ controlling” engineer of the Canal was that he should visit the works while in progress every four months, and inspect and advise upon them, and the report written to the Italian Irrigation Canal Company upon the occasion of the first compliance with the obligation imposed, shows plainly that he was dissatisfied with the method of procedure, for it concludes as follows:—“I regret to state that I was very much disappointed at the progress of the works, and more especially with the very inadequate provision made for their future progress. There is no well considered organization, nor sufficient implements and machines to ensure their being executed in a given time and with due economy, and unless this is speedily remedied it is utterly impossible to define either the period for the completion of the Canal, or its ultimate cost.”

A short time after this report had been sent to the Board a letter was received from the Secretary desiring a personal attendance at Turin for the purpose of explaining the reasons for having made such a strong attack on the method of conducting the works. Only one member of the English Board, Colonel Collyer, consented to accompany the engineer, who on June 20th, 1864, before a full meeting of the Italian Board, explained, through the medium of Dr. Gallen, an English physician resident in Italy, who acted as interpreter, the various unsatisfactory arrangements which in his judgment warranted the wording of the report. The explanation was apparently followed by satisfactory results, for the Marquis Cavour subsequently called and expressed his appreciation of the reasons given, and the contractor employed M. Tatti, an engineer of Milan, to supervise the works in progress, and under the last named gentleman and the staff of resident engineers, chief among whom was Mr. More, C.E., now Engineer-in-Chief to the Thames Conservancy Board, the works were successfully completed. Mr. Abernethy made several visits to Venice while the Canal Cavour was in progress, and upon one occasion made a sketch, which is reproduced on the opposite page.




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