The structure, at Anderton, connects the river Weaver with the Trent and Mersey canal, raising barges 50 feet from one waterway to the other. It was revolutionary in its day and was soon copied in France, Belgium and Canada, but now is one of only eight left in the world.
Before the Anderton lift, cargoes of salt, coal and china clay were manhandled with the help of cranes and by sliding material down a chute.
The Victorian engineers who built the lift decided that locks were impracticable at Anderton. Derek Cochrane, manager of British Waterways North-West region, said: 'A series of locks would have meant a considerable loss of water from the Trent and Mersey canal to the river Weaver. One of the great problems for us now, as well as then, is to maintain a constant head of water in our canals. The water loss through a series of locks would have been too great so they were forced to look for this daring solution . . .'
The lift was first conceived by Edward Leader Williams, engineer to the Weaver Navigation, and was designed by Edwin Clark, a prominent civil engineer. The lift raised one or two barges in two troughs of water 75ft by 15ft by 5ft deep. As one trough, weighing 250 tonnes, descended, another trough, made lighter by removal of some water, ascended. The movement was controlled by hydraulic rams assisted by a steam engine.
The structure worked well for the first 10 years but the hydraulic parts began to be corroded by the polluted canal water. By 1908 the corrosion was so bad that a decision was made to replace the hydraulic rams with winding gear run by an electric engine, the only boat lift which makes use of winding gear.
The Anderton lift continued to be used until 1983 when it was no longer considered worth repairing because commercial barge traffic had become so infrequent. The massive winding gear, consisting of 72 steel cogs six feet in diameter, and other smaller wheels, was taken down.
However, the main structure of the lift is intact and all of its important parts have been retained. It will cost British Waterways pounds 2.8m to get it into working order and about pounds 68,000 a year to run. Funds for the restoration will be raised by a private trust formed for the purpose, which may eventually run the lift.