7 - Cornelis Lely: The plans

As early as the seventeenth century, plans were drawn up to follow the example of the Beemster, Schermer, Purmer and other lakes and drain and reclaim the large Zuiderzee. Until the nineteenth century, however, it was technically impossible to carry out those plans. The arrival of the steam engine, which was first used for the Haarlemmermeer lake, offered new perspectives but also new problems: who or what would fund a project of this size? Proposals for draining the Zuiderzee were technically and/or financially unfeasible. Cornelis Lely, who submitted his plans in 1891 and guided them through parliament in 1918, was successful in both respects. Without him, the Zuiderzee Works and thus the Noordoostpolder would not exist today.

Old plans

Plans for the reclamation of the Zuiderzee have long existed. In his book Wisconstich Filosofisch Bedrijf, Hendric Stevin described a plan in 1667 to close the gaps between the Wadden Islands. Technically, however, this was still impossible.

Hendrik Stevin developed the earliest known plan to close off the Zuiderzee (1667). A plan that was not feasible at the time, but inspired other plans which eventually led to the work of Cornelis Lely.

View the book here 

The reclamation of a large inland waterway like the Haarlemmermeer was already a huge hurdle. Let alone taming the Zuiderzee with its open connection to the tides and the confluence of large rivers.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Haarlemmermeer was drained successfully after all.  The success was due to a new invention: the steam engine. When it turned out that it could be used successfully to pump out large amounts of water, people started to develop ideas on how this new technology might well be the solution for the large inland water in the heart of the Netherlands.

The Haarlemmermeer on an old map of the “Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland” Atlas Maior, Joan Blaeu, 1665.

Various plans were submitted (the streets in the “professorenbuurt” between the centre of Emmeloord and the Emmeler forest were named after the developers), but all of which failed in their technical and/or financial substantiation. Among all the challenges, the technical aspect was the least difficult to solve. The Zuiderzee was still entirely different than the Haarlemmermeer, but if limited to the actual Zuiderzee (not the Wadden Sea) and the drainage of that section, it had to be feasible. Moreover, technical development certainly did not stagnate, even after the reclamation of the Haarlemmermeer.


The financial picture was a bit more complicated. In the seventeenth century, the polders had been developed with the help of private capital. But the really big reclaim projects required such a large sum that only the government would be able to finance them. But who could convince the government to spend such an incredible amount of money for an adventure with an outcome that was still very uncertain at the time? In that regard, the Dutch reclamations resembled the beginnings of the American and Russian space programs in the 20th century.

Cornelis Lely

The man who overcame these obstacles was Dr. Cornelis Lely (Amsterdam, September 23, 1854 - The Hague, January 22, 1929). He designed the plans and guided them through Dutch parliament. It was precisely that combination that ensured that the closure and the reclamation of the Zuiderzee became a fact.

Dr Cornelis Lely (1854-1929), the creator of the Zuiderzee project.

In 1886, the engineer Lely, together with J. van der Toorn, entered employment as a technical advisor for the Zuiderzeevereniging, which had been founded in the year following the storm surges of 1884 and 1885. Their assignment was to create a plan for the reclamation of the Zuiderzee. Lely started to make his calculations behind a desk. But he also sailed over the Zuiderzee in a boat to take measurements: where did the soil consist of fertile clay, suitable for agricultural land? Where was the soil just sand, not worth the effort and the costs of the reclamation?

Expeditions by Cornelis Lely to the Zuiderzee and the Wadden Sea, 1891.

After five years of work, he published his findings in eight papers which determined the layout of the new polders. He accomplished that in an unbelievably short period of time. And Lely had to wait an unbelievably long time until the plans were implemented. Not until 1918 (an anagram of 1891), after he had become Minister of Water Management, he succeeded in getting the law passed.  And that would not have been possible without a threatening food shortage during the First World War and flooding of the Zuiderzee in 1916. In the night of 14 to 15 January 1916, many dikes broke, with the devastating result of dozens of deaths (especially on the island of Marken), thousands of homeless and millions of guilders in damage. On Schokland, the water level remained about 68 cm lower than in 1825, but the waves climbed over the northern port wall of Emmeloord - which was 3.60 above the NAP (Amsterdam Ordnance Datum). Parts of the piling walls at Ens and Emmeloord rose one and a half meters.

In such storms, the family of Pieter Verschoor, lighthouse keeper at the southern tip of Schokland, had to go to the platform at the top of the lighthouse at night.

The objections to Lely's plans came mainly from the Zuiderzee fishermen. But when his proposal was accepted and the Zuiderzee Works Service was set up in 1919, nothing happened. A lack of funds delayed the execution. It was not until 1925 that the project started and the dike between the island of Wieringen and the mainland was constructed. In 1926, a law was required to speed up the Zuiderzee Works and to get the larger projects started. The reclamation of the Wieringermeer followed in 1930 and by 1932, the closure of the Afsluitdijk was completed which created the IJsselmeer.

Aerial photo of the closing of the last gap in the Afsluitdijk: final phase of construction, 28 May 1932. Click here for the video.

Lely himself did not see the last two major projects finished. He died on January 22, 1929 while he was working at his desk. His statue was erected on the Afsluitdijk. A pumping station in the Wieringermeer was named after him and in East Flevoland, an entire city bears his name. In the Noordoostpolder, there is only the Minister Lelysingel, a short street and bike path on the outskirts of Emmeloord. The coat of arms of the municipality of Noordoostpolder bears, as in all Zuiderzee municipalities, a French lily that refers to Dr. Lely. But that is all. No monument, no statue, not even a plaque.

Tombstone of Cornelis Lely and his wife, General Cemetery, The Hague.

Without Dr. Cornelis Lely, being the unique combination of hydraulic engineer and statesman, the Zuiderzee Works and the Noordoostpolder would never have materialized.