The still, meandering Buckingham canal, degraded into a sewage carrier, has long ceased to be a freshwater navigation channel. But a few trades along the waterway in the city live to tell the tales of the glory of yesteryears.
The canal, which runs from Andhra Pradesh (AP) to Tamil Nadu, was once a lifeline for coastal residents who transported various goods and food materials such as pulses and vegetables. Within Chennai limits, the canal runs for a distance of 50 km between Ennore and Muttukadu.
The cyclone in 1966 had a devastating impact on navigation, grinding activities to a halt.
Some markets and trade hubs in north Chennai are remnants of the brisk business carried out until half a century ago. The timber markets in Choolai and near Hamilton bridge, Mylapore, and the dry-fish market in Moolakothalam are among them.
Sources in the Public Works Department said an area near Basin Bridge had been named after the wood-wharf that was used to tether boats then. Historian K.R.A. Narasiah recalled that different types of boats such as the Madras top boat and the Madras open cargo boat were used to transport various commodities including firewood.
Korukkupet, which became a hub for limestone manufacturing units, is now losing its charm as many traders are moving out of inherited businesses.
R. Jagadheeswaran inherited his limestone manufacturing unit on Sunnambu Kalvai Street, Korukkupet, from his grandfather. “Basin Bridge was a major point to transport goods through the canal. I remember my father mentioning boats bringing goods to our unit. We shifted to Korukkupet four decades ago. I now get raw materials for the unit from Pulicat and Andhra Pradesh.”
People travelling through the Basin bridge junction cannot miss the dry fish market at Moolakothalam. K. Habib, a dry-fish seller, said his grandfather started selling fish as it was easily available along the canal then. “Then, fish was brought mainly from Andhra Pradesh. I now source it from AP, Gujarat and Kerala,” he said.
Salt Cotaurs, an old neighbourhood of north Chennai, got its name as it was used as a godown for storing salt bags by the British. M. Shanmugam, president of Indian Railways Technical Supervisors Association, recalled that salt collected from areas along the canal were stored in Salt Cotaurs and transported through the waterway. The area, which is now under the control of Southern Railway, is being used as a goods depot.
Several attempts were made in the past to revive Buckingham canal as a navigable channel. A recent one was a proposal of the Inland Waterways Authority of India to desilt and deepen the canal between Kakinada and Puducherry. Apparently none of them have taken shape, since the canal remains turbid with sewage.
(With additional reporting by Nitya Menon)