It was a cold January day in Paris; a group is beginning to form along the Canal Saint-Martin. As they gaze into the murky abyss below, the waters gradually disappears, revealing mysteries that haven’t seen the light of day in over a century. As the floor of the 200-year-old trench comes into view, a seriously strange history of the city is uncovered.
Construction of the canal began in 1802, when French leader Napoleon I demanded its construction. At the time, around 550,000 people were living in Paris, and the population growth showed no sign of decreasing. Napoleon hoped that canals bringing fresh water to the city would help prevent the spread of disease. Well…
The Canal Saint-Martin
Over the course of the next two decades, three canals were dug across the city, coming together with a total of over 80 miles. The most famous of the three, the Canal Saint-Martin, connects the 68-mile Canal De l’Ourcq to the River Seine.
Starting at Bassin de l’Arsenal by the Seine, the canal travels under La Bastille, the site of a prison that was destroyed during the French Revolution. It emerges close to the Place de la République before heading north to the Bassin de la Villette. There, it merges with the Canal de l’Ourq.
In total, the Canal Saint-Martin covers around three miles of Paris. Originally funded by a levy on wine, trade and fresh water flowed into the city. Back then, the waterway also carried both building supplies and food to the people of Paris.
Today the canal is mostly a place for tourists and locals to relax. Wealthy Young Parisians can often be seen congregating on its banks and in nearby cafes while tourists tend to focus on the bridges and landmarks for photo opportunities.
While most people bring up the Eiffel Tower when they think of Paris, the canal is just as famous to the locals. Several artists, such as impressionist painter Alfred Sisley, have drawn inspiration from these waters. Numerous movies have been filmed here as well.
The past two centuries have definitely taken their toll on the canal. Officials now make an effort to empty it every ten to 15 years, removing the waste that has found its way to the bottom. Things were a little different this January though…
The last time that the canal had been drained was 2001, when authorities retrieved some 40 tons of trash from the water. They uncovered a car, washing machines, gold coins and two 75mm shells, the shells being traced to World War I.
The area around the Canal Saint-Martin has become famous for its nightlife scene, with young people flocking to the previously quiet district. There were concerns that this would bring even more waste to the waterway – and in 2016 it was time to find out if it was so.
On January 4 work began on the gargantuan task of emptying the canal. The project would take three months and involve moving some 3 million cubic feet of water. It would also cost the city over $10 million, but it needed to be done.
Workers drained the water from the canal until just 20 inches remained. The fish needed to be evacuated first. For three days, the cleanup team rushed to catch the bream, trout and carp that live in the waters, subsequently placing them in the safety of another section of the waterway.
January 7th, the rest of the water was emptied from the canal. The waterway’s secrets were finally seeing light for the first time in 15 years. Crowds flocked to the bridges and sides to get a closer look at what the crew had unearthed.
While much of the rubbish revealed at the bottom of the canal was of the sort that you might expect – items such as glass bottles, shopping bags and traffic cones – some of it left locals puzzling over exactly how such objects had ever ended up in the water.
The most common objects revealed as the water levels dropped were bicycles, particularly ones from the city’s Vélib hire system. Launched in 2007, this scheme brought some 14,500 bikes to the streets of Paris. Sadly, however, many of them seem to have met an unfortunate fate.
“It’s like some kind of weird submarine treasure,” one witness, Marc, told The Guardian. “I just can’t believe the quantity of Vélibs in there. I guess they were stolen and thrown in afterwards. It’s bizarre.” Moreover, bicycles weren’t the only strange things to have found their way to the bottom of the canal.
Even more strangely, a pair of motorcycles were also found as the waters continued to drop. How did such expensive pieces of transportation end up dumped in the canal? The truth may never be known. But The Findings get weirder…
Alongside the bicycles and motorbikes were shopping carts, chairs, trash cans, and suitcases, all scattered across the muddy surface. There were stranger oddities, still: a vintage stereo, for example, and even an abandoned toilet.
“That’s Paris for you,” onlooker Bernard commented. “It’s filthy.” What’s more, apparently it’s only getting worse. “The last time, I don’t remember seeing so much rubbish in it,” he continued. “I despair. The youth are using it as a dustbin.”
Despite this, there is hope for the canal. With the litter problem laid bare for everyone to see, authorities have seized the opportunity to speak out against the problem. “If everyone mucks in and avoids throwing anything into the water,” deputy mayor Celia Blauel told the MailOnline, “we might be able to swim in the canal in a few years.”