The Lost River of Paris

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The Lost River of Paris
Some cities seem to reinvent themselves constantly — old buildings are torn down and replaced with shiny glass and steel skyscrapers almost weekly: Shanghai comes to mind, as an example. Other cities appear to be immemorial; they wear their history proudly and seem to be unchangeable. Many people would put Paris in that category. But Haussmannian Paris is only 170 years old and much of the rest of the city has undergone great changes more recently; it’s just that often it has happened away from the world famous museums, boulevards and monuments. Tucked away in the 13th and 5th arrondissements is one such change — a secret river that is completely hidden from view — but which was a bustling industrial artery a little over a century ago. And now, sections of it are coming back into use. La Bièvre in Fresnes (Val de Marne). Photo credit: Mica/ Wikimedia Commons Rising from an underground spring near the town of Guyancourt in the Île-de-France, the little river of La Bièvre flows northeast to enter modern Paris on the edge of the 13th arrondissement. No one is sure of the origin of its name: popular legend says it’s after the Gaulish word for “beaver,” although no bones or remains of beavers have ever been found. As far back as the 11th century its banks were covered with watermills. In the middle of the 12th century, the canons of the Abbaye Saint-Victor actually diverted it to improve the irrigation of their fields and increase the flow to their own flour mill. Streets such as Rue Moulin des Près hark back to these beginnings. The original course was named the bras mort or ‘dead arm’ and the new channel the bras vif or “living arm.” This is the river that was covered over in Paris. At one time frozen water from the river was stored underground during winter, to supply ice cream and sorbet makers in the summer – hence the origin of Glacière Métro Station. Not sure I would have wanted an ice cream frozen with river water! The back of the Gobelins tapestry factory, where the river used to flow. Photo: Pat Hallam Industry always characterized the Bièvre. In 1443 a young Flemish dyer arrived in Paris and set up his works on the riverbank. His name? Jean Gobelin. He would become renowned for his brilliant scarlet dye which, later, would be incorporated into the famous Gobelins tapestries that adorned royal palaces across Europe. His competitors were convinced the bright color was down to the clear waters of the Bièvre and rushed to set up their own dyeing works along the river. Not surprisingly, the water quickly lost its sparkle and purity and the river’s long descent into a polluted canal began. The process was intensified in 1672 when a royal ordinance decreed that all noxious industries had to move outside Paris. Dyeing works were joined by tanners, leatherworkers and laundries. By the middle of the 19th century, the whole stretch of the river alongside the present Rue Croulebarbe and the surrounding area was little more than an open sewer. Photographs of the time show the street and surrounding area full of mills, dyeworks and tanneries, the buildings butting right up to the riverside. However, a series of disease outbreaks were blamed on the polluted water and from the time of Haussmann onwards, the river was progressively culverted until, by 1912, it was completely covered over.

Lead photo credit : Tanneries along the Bièvre, late 19th-century. Photo: Charles Marville/ Wikimedia Commons

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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.


  • Robert Ferre
    2023-06-01 08:43:56
    Robert Ferre
    Fascinating article. A great contribution to Bonjour Paris.