This enormous undertaking, begun in 1887 and completed nearly seven years later, was on an altogether different scale to the barge canals of the 18th century.
It came about as the result of a political decision by Manchester that it did not want to be at the mercy of the Port of Liverpool.
Businessmen in Manchester believed, with some justification, that Liverpool was charging excessively high rates for it services. It was, in fact, possible for Lancashire millowners to buy their raw cotton on the continent, import it through Hull, pay rail freight charges across the Pennines and still pay less than they would had they used Liverpool.
Ted Gray, in his A Hundred Years of the Manchester Ship Canal, also points out that more than half the cost of exporting finished cotton goods to India came from railway and dock charges at Liverpool. In this situation, and with the spur of a deep trade recession in the 1870s, it was not surprising that the idea of a ship canal - first mooted as early as the mid 1820s - was revived.
Daniel Adamson, the owner of a Dukinfield engineering business, called a meeting at his Didsbury home in 1882 to "Consider the practicability of constructing a tidal waterway to Manchester." Representatives from 13 cotton towns, plus 55 merchants and manufacturers, decided to commission a detailed survey.
It took three attempts before Parliament could be persuaded to pass a bill authorising the construction, and two years more before the requisite £5million had been raised to allow work to start.
The construction was the biggest civil engineering project every undertaken in Britain up to that date.
It involved the laying of a temporary railway along the entire route for the movement of materials, using 6,000 wagons drawn by 180 steam locomotives, the employment of 16,000 manual labourers plus specialist workers, the manufacture of more than 70 million bricks, the construction of five sets of locks, a movable aqueduct to carry the Bridgewater Canal over the waterway, and a dock complex at Manchester and Salford that was to make the twin city the nation's fourth largest port.
Finally, after a superhuman effort, the last dry cutting of the canal was completed on November 11th, 1893, and two weeks later, the canal was in water from end to end.
Company directors made the first complete passage of the waterway on December 7th. New Year's Day 1894 saw a convoy of 71 ships pass from Latchford to Manchester, with The Pioneer, a Co-operative Wholesale Society steamer, unloading the first cargo, a load of sugar.
As the docks and industrial infrastructure grew, Manchester became the fourth largest port in Britain in tonnage handled (after London, Liverpool and Southampton).
By the mid 1970s, the canal was handling between 16 and 17 million tons a year, with imports including raw cotton, timber, grain, metals and chemicals, and massive amounts of manufactured goods being exported in return. Oil traffic had also become important, with Shell and other companies building huge refineries and depots in the Stanlow area.
During the late 1970s and early 80s, however, drastic changes were taking place in the shipping industry worldwide, principally containerisation and the replacement of the old ‘tramp’ steamers with huge bulk carriers.
Ship sizes increased dramatically and within a few years, the 10,000-ton ships which were small enough to navigate the canal virtually disappeared. The canal was too small to accommodate the new ships, so traffic to the upper end of the waterway declined rapidly.
Although a container terminal had been built at Salford’s No 9 Dock in 1968 to accommodate Manchester Liners' pioneering container ships, the optimum size for container vessels was far larger than the company had envisaged, and after only a few years they were no longer competitive.
Manchester Docks were redeveloped and the old Salford Docks became the "Salford Quays" leisure and residential area.
Traffic continues on the canal at a reduced level and cargoes are still loaded and unloaded for industrial customers in the Trafford Park area and elsewhere. Lower down the canal, the waterway is still busy with oil tanker traffic.