The Hidden History of the Gare des Invalides

The Hidden History of the Gare des Invalides
It’s summertime and every available patch of grass in Paris seems to be colonized by picnickers and sunbathers. In the 7th arrondissement there is the Champs de Mars of course, but equally popular is the broad Esplanade des Invalides. But how many people among the crowds on the grass know that they are sitting on top of a railway that at one time numbered 12 platforms? On the eastern side they may know that the long building that edges the river was the Air France terminal, but not that it used to be a train station that once harbored ambitions to provide a through transatlantic service from New York to Paris. Aerial view of Les Invalides. Credit: Wikimedia Commons Such was the Gare des Invalides, a train station that has had as checkered a history as the railway it once served. It closed in 2022 but already it’s being reconceived as a museum honoring the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, just one more incarnation in its long life. The story of the railway is a tale of stops and starts over 60 years and caused constant problems for its parent company, the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer de l’Ouest (or CCFO). Starting as a commuter line between Versailles and the first Montparnasse Station, the CCFO had plans to join it up to the main line at Gare Saint Lazare in a network that spread into western France. A station at Versailles-Rive-Gauche opened but financial lawsuits and construction problems meant that only disconnected sections were built. Bas relief sculpture in the station entrance. Photo credit: Pat Hallam By the end of the 19th century, the CCFO had a major headache in managing the volume of rail traffic: the stations at Saint Lazare and Montparnasse were overcrowded and hemmed in by buildings and bridges which made it impossible to enlarge them. The Universal Exhibition of 1900 provided an opportunity to build two new lines south of Paris that would connect Versailles to the routes into Normandy and Brittany. They would bring thousands of visitors directly to the doors of the Exhibition via a brand new station next to the Esplanade des Invalides. Alas, nothing seemed to go right for the CCFO. The plan was to build a terminus right on the riverside to provide easy access to the Exhibition pavilions that stood alongside the quais. However, when local residents complained loudly about the idea of a smoky, dirty railway terminating outside their smart apartments, the CCFO was forced to trench the line below ground. This is why, if you look closely, the level of the Esplanade reaches halfway up the station windows. And on the other side, the police commissariat of the 7th arrondissement is completely hidden from view in the same manner.

Lead photo credit : The station designed by Juste Lisch, built in 1902. Public domain

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.