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

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From Fountains to Flour Mills: 200 Years of a Paris Canal
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
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Lead photo credit : Canal de l'Ourcq © Jeanne Menjoulet at WikiCommons

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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.