The first permanent way?

This is the ancient trackway of Diolkos, in Corinth, Greece. Archaeologists say it was built at end of the 7th or the start of 6th Century BCE. It enabled ships to avoid the 190 mile trip around the Peloponnesian Peninsula, including the treacherous Capes of Matapan and Maleas.

Ancient writers referred to the stone roadway as far back as Aristophanes, who lived between 446 and 386 BCE. Polybius, who lived in the 2nd Century BCE, also mentioned the hauling of 50 ships across the isthmus in 220 BCE by Demetrios of Pharos. It is believed that the route was also used to transfer goods as well as move cargo ships, and accounts say that it was also used to speed up military campaigns by moving warships.

The Diolkos ran for approximately 5 miles with a maximum gradient of 1 in 3 and operated from about 600 BCE until the middle of the first century CE. The idea for ​​its construction is attributed to the ruler of Corinth at that time, Periandros. The width varies between 3.4 meters (11.15 feet) to six meters (twenty feet) and the route included several secondary tracks in some areas, which are believed to enable vessels to pass each other on the road while going in opposite directions.

It was lost until the 1800’s when scholars, reading the works of the Greek historiographer Strabo (who was born in 65 BC) determined that the place name “Diolkos” also meant a physical passageway must once have existed there across the isthmus. and the rediscovered section, next to the Corinth Canal, is currently under restoration. The wash from passing boats has gradually eroded it and sections have been temporarily removed to the adjacent building seen here to allow the rebuilding works to take place.

Some scholars claim that the transport of ships was not as common as others have claimed, and it was used for mostly goods and as a roadway. However an engineering project of this magnitude would have been a massive undertaking at the time, so many believe it would have seen quite intense useage, and it is understood that tolls were in place for the passage of goods and ships. There’s a list of sources referring to movements here. Of course not all ship movements would have been documented, some of the major ones are listed.

Archeologists have confirmed that grooves were cut in the stones to enable the wheels of wagons to keep to a defined track whilst hauling boats. The main grooves are approx 1500mm wide. The arrow in this image shows one such groove. Obviously they are very worn down compared to 2000 years ago!

So was this the “first railway”? It’s certainly the first recognised use of a guideway for wheeled wagons used for transporting goods that we know of. There’s some evidence of Roman use of similar technology. And it was a massive feat of engineering. And almost standard gauge…

More about the restoration work can be read here.

If you’re thinking of visiting Corinth, this is the small budget apartment I stayed in, right in the centre of Corinth, about a mile from the Diolkos and Corinth Canal, available on, along with lots of other accomodation worldwide. This affiliate link gives me a small commission that helps to pay for the upkeep of this site and doesn’t cost you any extra.

When the left luggage point at the station isn’t convenient I use Radical Storage. The network of shops and other outlets worldwide keeps your bag safe and it’s all managed through the app. So if you arrive in a city with no local currency and the station lockers don’t take card payments, Radical Storage will work. This is an affiliate link that earns me a small commission when you join.

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