Engines of Change: Digging Deeper

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On the Docks of Copenhagen

August 1636

The heat was stifling today, and the sun beat down like the baker's oven. Bertel Kierulf made clicking sounds at his horses. Their ears flickered towards him, and they leaned into the yoke. With the reins, he guided the horses to settle the bucket into the strait. The bucket settled, and they dug in and began to pull the cable. The heavy rope straightened out and began to emerge from the harbor. Water dripped from it as the slack drew out of the assembly. Bertel said, "Steady now, pull, that's good."

EoC-DP-hrssThen Bertel whistled, and the horses immediately eased off and backed up a little bit. They didn't look like a matched pair, one chestnut, and one grey. But Daisy and Buttercup knew each other and liked working together. They were well-trained, perhaps the best pair of horses Bertel had ever worked with. Bertel took his hat off and shook it hard. The sweat drops flew everywhere. Daisy turned around and snorted.

He watched his crew at the shore's edge as they dumped the dredge. When it was empty, the two helpers on the breakwater turned the dredge, and set it for the next pass. That was the signal for Bertel to start another round.

He clucked to the team. "Okay, girls, it's time for the next pass."

The horse team, well-trained as always, moved back to the shore. Almost without direction, they took a position just to the side of a heap of stones.  As Bertel watched, his helpers waved their hats enthusiastically in the air. Bertel took up the slack on his rope, clucked to the team, and began the process over again.

The occasional bystander noticed the dredging team, but didn't pay a lot of attention. It was a common operation. Bertel had fairly steady employment all year round, unless the ice was too thick. He had to make sure that the various channels and entrances to the harbor were deep enough.

He enjoyed this job, and was glad for the money. There was, however, one channel, a long passage out into the bay, that was his constant headache. It needed to be dredged, but there wasn't enough horse power available to drag the dredge up the channel. It was true, he could load up on horses, but there really wasn't room on the land nearby for three or four yokes. Moreover, since it was the entrance channel, the only way to position the dredge was by rowboat, and by the time the dredge was positioned, the ropes were soaked with water and too heavy for a two-horse team to pull. Frankly he just didn't have enough horseflesh.

As the sun went down that evening, Bertel thought about his problem again as he guided the horses across the road and between the warehouses. That was another problem. The warehouses were starting to get so close together that there was no place for him to guide the horses anymore. Then there were rumors that more buildings were soon to come, now that the conflict with Sweden was over. The Union of Kalmar had been established, business was picking up, and more business meant a need for a deep harbor and clear channels but also more buildings crowding the waterfront. Soon Bertel would have to put up posts on the sides of the roads and run the rope around block pulleys so the horses could pull down the length of the shore. That was not a good answer, as it would put more wear and tear on the equipment and necessitate the purchase of brand-new pulleys as a frequent expense.


Later that week, they were working on the channel. Bertel had the team pulling, and there was a lot of resistance. Daisy and Buttercup dug in with their hooves, and Bertel could hear the ropes squealing. He urged them on, then like a shot the steel cable broke loose, slicing through the air.

The team leaped forward and stumbled, and Bertel raced for the end of the cable. Part of his mind analyzed the heavy steel cable. He realized that if it had broken closer to him, he could have lost a leg.

As the cable slowed down, Bertel ran to reach the end, and keep it from falling into the harbor. He finally got it at the water's edge. But there was still enough energy in the cable that it flipped him off of his feet and into the deep water.

By the time he had climbed out, the crew had collected the team, and gathered up the ropes and broken cable. The idle bystanders were laughing as he stood dripping on the dock. He could see the team, watching him. Bertel swore that Daisy and Buttercup were laughing at him too.

He picked up his hat and went towards them. Daisy nudged his arm, asking for a treat, while Buttercup snuffled in his ear to see if he was all right. Bertel pulled a couple of chunks of apple out of his dripping pocket, and rewarded his girls. Then, faithfully, they turned and started to walk towards the harbor.

Bertel saw his two assistants on the breakwater that protected the channel. They were rolling on the stony ground, laughing fit to be tied. Bertel waved his hat at them, and said to his horses, "I guess if I want to work at the harbor I should expect to get wet now and again." Buttercup nodded wisely. Buttercup understood better than anyone.

Bertel inspected the harness where it had torn loose from the cable. It would take extensive repairs. So he raised his hat and bellowed across the channel, "Come on back, boys. No more work until we fix the harness setup. And since it's almost sunset, I guess we will just close it out for today and start fresh tomorrow!"


The next morning a messenger arrived at Bertel's place. The seal-covered document was an update on his contract with the city. He sat down at the kitchen table and worked his way through the legal language as best he could.

One part was upsetting. "New standards have been set, and we now require the work be done by listed dates for each channel. It is imperative that the main channel also be dredged as soon as possible. Questions should be addressed to the harbor master. Regards, the Port Authority"

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