Environment

From Fountains to Flour Mills: 200 Years of a Paris Canal

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On a sunny summer evening the tables outside the Dock B brasserie in Pantin are busy with customers enjoying an afterwork apéro. Joggers, dog walkers and cyclists fill the towpaths, while the red-canopied motorboats of Marin d’Eau Douce move leisurely up and down the waterway. This is the Canal de l’Ourcq in 2022, a far cry from its 19th-century industrial past and, latterly, an abandoned symbol of de-industrialization.
The early 2020s are witnessing a succession of canal bicentenaries in Paris. First of all, the Canal Saint Denis celebrated its 200 years in 2021; in 2025 it will be the turn of the Canal Saint Martin. This year it is the Canal de L’Ourcq, one of two canals (the other is Saint Denis) which flow out of the Bassin de la Villette. A program of events to mark the occasion is scheduled through the end of the year, but why was the canal built in the first place?
Paris Plages at the Bassin de la Villette © Pat Hallam Well, to answer that question you need to go back to Napoleon Bonaparte and one of his civil engineering projects — to bring clean drinking water from the River Ourcq to Paris for the benefit of its citizens.
The Ourcq is actually a tributary of the River Marne, one of France’s major waterways flowing from near the country’s eastern border with Germany. Back in 1415  King Charles VI gave rights to Paris’s prévôt de marchands (the forerunner of the city mayor) to haul grain and wood for fuel along the river in return for maintaining it as a navigable waterway. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the course of the river was tweaked and plans drawn up to canalize it, but it was 1802 before Napoleon really got down to work on such a project.
The modern Elis laundry works carrying on a 150-year tradition © Pat Hallam One of the main reasons was to provide Paris with (relatively) clean drinking water. Since before Roman times, Parisians had drawn much of their drinking water from the River Seine. By the turn of the 19th century this was literally like drinking sewer water, with all the deadly diseases such as typhoid and cholera associated with that. Far removed from densely-populated areas and industrial processes, the Ourcq offered a comparatively healthy water source.
To build the canal, Napoleon called upon the engineer Pierre-Simon Girard who had accompanied him during his Egyptian campaign. Girard had studied the hydraulic systems of the Nile Valley and brought that expertise to France. The Bassin de la Villette opened in 1808, followed by the first stretch of canal in 1813. However, Napoleon would die on St Helena the same year as the canal was completed, in 1822. In its entirety the canal stretched 97 kilometers.
The Geode at Parc de la Villette © Pat Hallam

On a sunny summer evening the tables outside the Dock B brasserie in Pantin are busy with customers enjoying an afterwork apéro. Joggers, dog walkers and cyclists fill the towpaths, while the red-canopied motorboats of Marin d’Eau Douce move leisurely up and down the waterway. This is the Canal de l’Ourcq in 2022, a far cry from its 19th-century industrial past and, latterly, an abandoned symbol of de-industrialization.

The early 2020s are witnessing a succession of canal bicentenaries in Paris. First of all, the Canal Saint Denis celebrated its 200 years in 2021; in 2025 it will be the turn of the Canal Saint Martin. This year it is the Canal de L’Ourcq, one of two canals (the other is Saint Denis) which flow out of the Bassin de la Villette. A program of events to mark the occasion is scheduled through the end of the year, but why was the canal built in the first place?

Paris Plages at the Bassin de la Villette

Paris Plages at the Bassin de la Villette © Pat Hallam

Well, to answer that question you need to go back to Napoleon Bonaparte and one of his civil engineering projects — to bring clean drinking water from the River Ourcq to Paris for the benefit of its citizens.

The Ourcq is actually a tributary of the River Marne, one of France’s major waterways flowing from near the country’s eastern border with Germany. Back in 1415  King Charles VI gave rights to Paris’s prévôt de marchands (the forerunner of the city mayor) to haul grain and wood for fuel along the river in return for maintaining it as a navigable waterway. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the course of the river was tweaked and plans drawn up to canalize it, but it was 1802 before Napoleon really got down to work on such a project.

The modern Elis laundry works carrying on a hundred and fifty-year tradition

The modern Elis laundry works carrying on a 150-year tradition © Pat Hallam

One of the main reasons was to provide Paris with (relatively) clean drinking water. Since before Roman times, Parisians had drawn much of their drinking water from the River Seine. By the turn of the 19th century this was literally like drinking sewer water, with all the deadly diseases such as typhoid and cholera associated with that. Far removed from densely-populated areas and industrial processes, the Ourcq offered a comparatively healthy water source.

To build the canal, Napoleon called upon the engineer Pierre-Simon Girard who had accompanied him during his Egyptian campaign. Girard had studied the hydraulic systems of the Nile Valley and brought that expertise to France. The Bassin de la Villette opened in 1808, followed by the first stretch of canal in 1813. However, Napoleon would die on St Helena the same year as the canal was completed, in 1822. In its entirety the canal stretched 97 kilometers.

The Geode at Parc de la Villette

The Geode at Parc de la Villette © Pat Hallam

The project was beset with difficulties, not least a shortage of workers arising from the Napoleonic Wars which had conscripted tens of thousands of young men. To provide the workforce, old men, Prussian prisoners of war and even children were pressed into service.

The canal’s role of bringing clean drinking water to Paris only lasted a few decades. By the end of the 19th century most of the capital’s drinkable water was being obtained from underground springs or modern river treatment plants. However, by then a new industrial district had sprung up along the canal, around La Villette and the north east suburbs of Pantin, Bobigny and Bondy.

A peaceful stretch of canal between Bobigny and Pantin

A peaceful stretch of canal between Bobigny and Pantin © Pat Hallam

The abbatoirs (slaughterhouses) of La Villette were by far the largest complex, almost a city-within-a-city of railway tracks, stockyards and killing sheds. Sometimes cattle would fall into the canal, turning the water red with their blood. La Villette kickstarted more industrial development upstream, especially in Pantin: a huge laundryworks, the Grands Moulins (Great Mills) for transporting grain, and the aptly-named Magasins Generaux (General Shops). These were massive warehouses built in 1931 for stocking goods from the colonies, alcohol, coal, wood, cloth, grain and flour destined for supplying Paris.

The period between the 1950s-1970s saw canal trade reach its peak but by the end of the 1970s industry along the canal was in decline and bit by bit the once-impressive buildings were abandoned and fell into disrepair. And that could have been the end of the story. Except that a few far-sighted people saw past the polluted water and vandalized buildings and realized that a post-industrial landscape could become a positive amenity for local people.

The remains of Les Grands Moulins

The remains of Les Grands Moulins © Pat Hallam

The redevelopment of La Villette started things off: by 1989 the wasteland of disused abbatoirs had been transformed into Paris’s largest park and a cultural hub. Now, the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, the Géode, Zénith arena and the Philharmonie de Paris are well-established destinations attracting Parisians and visitors alike. In turn, this has helped the canal itself to regenerate. There is now a continuous cycling trail along the old tow path that goes deep into the Île de France and beyond (it forms part of the trans-European cycleway Eurovélo 3).

In Pantin most of the Grands Moulins were demolished but a few buildings, notably the clocktower, have survived, surrounded by shiny office and apartment blocks. The Magasins Generaux, meanwhile, closed since 2001 and once a magnet for graffiti artists, are a vibrant cultural hub. Since 2016 they have been hosting concerts, exhibitions, performance and festivals, aiming to reach out to the local community. On the ground floor bars and restaurants have sprung up.

The Magasins Generaux converted into restaurants, bars and cultural spaces

The Magasins Generaux converted into restaurants, bars and cultural spaces © Pat Hallam

And of course, there is Paris Plages. The town council of Bobigny actually pioneered the idea of summer activities on the canalside back in 1985, but the City of Paris picked up the baton and first extended its “plage” to the Bassin de la Villette in 2007. Now, the canal is clean enough to swim in (well, just about, with a lot of filtration. Swimmers say it can feel a bit slimy).

Some industrial activity continues and barges hauling gravel and sand still moor at the internal port at Pantin. And although the waterway is now primarily for leisure use, its original purpose has not been forgotten. While Parisians drink purified water, the canal feeds all those decorative fountains, lakes and ponds that adorn the city’s streets and parks, not to mention the gallons of water swilled along the gutters every day.

Still making a useful contribution 200 years after its inauguration.

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