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When A Parisian Canal Aged Two-Hundred Years Was Drained, No One Could Believe What Was In There

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When A Parisian Canal Aged Two-Hundred Years Was Drained, No One Could Believe What Was In There

It seemed like rain was about to fall on the heads of the crowd bunched around Paris’s Canal Saint-Martin. Every one of the dozens of pairs of eyes was transfixed on the phenomenon that had been unearthed. The authorities were draining the muddy water from the man-made river, and all were desperate to see what lay beneath. Just what was it that the canal had buried for so long? As it turned out, more than two hundred years’ worth of mysteries lay waiting for the Parisians. But what could have drawn such a large crowd?

The Right Moment For Drainage

Canals will not generally be drained unless there is some major issue or new construction has come into the canal’s path. But in this instance, the authorities had a far more unusual task to carry out as they began emptying the canal in question. The water was finally receding to the point that the onlookers and experts alike could see something that would help flesh out their iconic city’s past. Few could have predicted what had been thrown in here all those years ago.

Giver Of Life

Measuring at 4.5 kilometers, the Canal Saint-Martin was commissioned by the iconic Napoleon Bonaparte. Those great builders and city planners involved aimed to provide the 550,000 Parisian citizens with a clean drinkable water source. But Bonaparte was not just a great military leader, he was also a man that could look to the future and understand that a city like Paris was destined to house millions of people one day. This was a man whose genius was unparalleled during his time.

The Deeper One Goes

Bonaparte also wanted his people to thrive past the many health issues that the city was plagued with. As you well know, when a population does not have a clean source of water, then terrible infections like dysentery and cholera run wild, as was the case in Paris. The Canal Saint-Martin was then constructed so extensively that it snaked throughout Paris for around three miles’ worth of access. Beyond providing fresh and clean water, this canal also allowed the delivery of building materials and food.

When A Parisian Canal Aged Two Hundred Years Was Drained No One Could Believe What Was In There

Incredible Past

A pair of canals would then follow the successful construction of the Canal Saint-Martin with the same goals attached. They were named the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Canal Saint-Denis. The former went on for a phenomenal 108 kilometers and had a width of 3.4 meters. It commenced at Port-Aux-Perches and ran all the way to the Bassin de la Villette to fuse with the Canal Saint-Matin. Given that all three canals are around two centuries old, it really puts the amazement of these engineering and construction feats into perspective.

Rising Water Levels And Uprisings

The Canal Saint-Martin happens to be the best-regarded out of the three canals, which ran subterranean and connected the Bassin de l’Arsenal with the Place de la Bastille. If you know your French history, then the Place de la Bastille is significant to you as the place where the French Revolution saw some of its bloodiest and most important struggles. Better known as the Bastille, this was a prison that was assaulted during the French Revolution. Given that this was the place where so much significant historical action took place, you can imagine that modern Parisians were terribly eager to see what was down there.

The Modern Canal

Today, you are more likely to see tourists strolling about than armed bands of revolutionaries at the canal. It is also an incredibly popular spot for locals, where youngsters can often be seen hanging out on the Seine’s banks or drinking coffee at the beautiful cafes in the area. Tourists adore photographing the historical spots that hold so much architectural and cultural significance. As this is such an important spot, why did the authorities decide to disturb it?

What Lies Beneath

With around two hundred years of presence in the bustling Parisian streets, the canal has undergone plenty of editions since it was constructed. You might think that it was a bold move to try and empty it in the first place, but authorities have been attempting this particular mission every decade or so. The goal was to clean up the canal that tended to accumulate all manner of trash that collected at the pits. This time around, things were about to get interesting, far different from the usual cleanup operation.

Giver Of Life

How To Empty A Canal

Paris is known as one of the most romantic cities in the world, but it is also one of the most mysterious. The City of Light has plenty of dark and intriguing places, such as the Catacombs of Paris, and the Canal Saint-Martin. While you might understand why the Catacombs would be so alluring, what was it about an innocent-looking canal that caused such obsession among Parisians? All that they could do was watch from the banks as the authorities got on with their drainage mission. But what lay in store for the busy workers?

Remains Of World War I

2001 was the first year that the canal was emptied. More than 40 tons of trash were removed from the area during a single operation. Much of the most interesting stuff that was unearthed originated from World War I, where all manner of bombshells, bullets, and even gold pennies were brought to light. Somehow, someone had managed to drive their car into the canal decades ago! But what other mysteries had been laid to rest in the canal?

The Price Of Mysteries

This was no small task, as you can imagine. This was a mission three months in the making, where around 3 million cubic feet’s worth of liquid had to be emptied. Thankfully, the city’s managers had established a $10 million budget for this operation, so the team could take many liberties when it came to clearing out as much of the filth as possible. This time around, the large crowd was buzzing with tense excitement….

The Curious Crowd

January 7 was the day that the canal was finally emptied. Following 15 years of obscurity, the secrets of the canal were finally going to rise to the surface. The surrounding bridges were crammed with all kinds of folks, young and old, who were incredibly curious to learn more about the canal’s enigmas. The work was slow going, and the crowd’s anticipation intensified with every passing hour. Would the crowd be rewarded for its patience?

The Deeper One Goes

Paris’s Submerged Past

This was going to be a monumental period for Paris’s people. This iconic Canal Saint-Martin was one of the most intriguing spots in the city, despite being far less beautiful or romantic than so many of the grander spots in the historical city. When a large body of water hides many secrets, you can be sure that people will be desperate to see the bottom one day. But when that clarity finally came, it blew hundreds of minds.

The Thriving Ecosystem

The canal was emptied to the point that the water level was reduced to 50 centimeters. But the workers had another perhaps more important task at hand, which was to rescue the many living creatures that called the canal home. As it turned out, almost five tons of bream, carp, and trout were scooped up by the dedicated laborers. The fish were then moved to healthier breeding grounds, but not before being identified and weighed individually. Despite their new home not being ideal, it sure beat the murky depths of the canal!

A Litany Of Litter

The fish would certainly not miss the fathomless mounds of trash that people had so casually tossed into the Canal Saint-Martin. All manner of possessions were found in this watery expanse, but the most commonly spotted were bicycles. An enormous fleet belonging to the car-sharing network called Vélib happened to be the primary owner of most of the bicycles. In total, almost 14,500 bikes were stocked with the Vélib system at one point in 2007. Somehow, most of them would find unusual final resting places.

The Strangest Things

But bicycles would become comparatively tame finds as the workers continued to plumb the depths of the canal. At its darkest and deepest reaches, wheelie bins, mopeds, and more bicycles were exhumed. Someone even came across a toilet! Items like these were very important finds, as they largely contributed to the filthiness of the Canal Saint-Martin. That did not stop onlookers from enjoying a good laugh, however. But there was still more wonder for the dedicated crew to stumble across, even deeper into the canal.

How To Empty A Canal

There Are 9 Million Bicycles…

One witness of the event called Marc described to The Guardian how astonished he was at how many Vélib bicycles had been found within the canal. He could only assume that these were stolen bikes that had been discarded into the canal once the thieves were done with them. Certainly, an enormous canal is a fantastic place to get rid of the evidence! But there would be more things that people would rather were never found again hidden in the Canal Saint-Martin.

Dirtier Than You Thought

While many foreigners are under the impression that Paris is some kind of heavenly and spotless utopia, for the people that live there, quite the opposite is sometimes true. One man named Bernard who was spotted at the scene called Paris filthy! As he watched the latest draining operation get into full swing, he was shocked to see how much debris had collected down there. “The last time, I don’t remember seeing so much rubbish in it,” Bernard said. “I despair. The youth are using it as a dustbin.”

Bicycles And The Bizarre

Among all the many bicycles that were found, some things far more powerful on two wheels would also be located, a couple of motorcycles! How on Earth did people manage to launch motorcycles into the canal? Hopefully, no one had consumed one too many glasses of wine and took a wrong turn! We hope that one day the true owners will come forward and they were not stolen for some daring heist. It was now time for things to get even stranger for the Canal Saint-Martin crew!

An Abundance Of Rubbish

With every few meters of progress, the workers discovered more and more strange objects, with fish and other creatures somehow living among all the trash. While this was a phenomenal testament to nature’s ability to thrive in the most inhospitable environments, that did not take away from the shock of the workers. They were picking their way through glass bottles, shopping bags, and traffic cones. But these were too mundane for the onlookers, who wanted to see the more interesting trinkets.

The Thriving Ecosystem 

Office Space

While you would never look twice if you saw an office chair in a place of work, seeing in a canal was bound to raise some eyebrows and generate some interesting theories. Could some disgruntled office worker have decided that they were going to get revenge against their oppressive boss by throwing one of his office chairs into the Canal Saint-Martin? We will never know the truth, unless the perturbed white-collar worker comes forward with a hilarious confession!

The Surviving Suitcase

We love situations like these because each discarded item has a story to tell, and the most ordinary-looking things could have belonged to some of the most curious individuals, such as whoever owned the enigmatic suitcase in the canal! It was badly rotten, but still could have contained some interesting items that were filled with all kinds of interesting items or documents. Could someone have thrown away some damning evidence, or was this an innocent mistake?


The crew was making incredible progress, despite the ocean of debris that they were facing. There were more things to find that belonged on the roads, such as a traffic cone, which was pulled out by one of the workers. The man could not help but wonder how something like this ended up in the canal, given that it would have been placed in a roadworks site as a safety measure, probably far away from the canal…

The Consumer’s Fate

When you finish loading your groceries into your car boot after a solid shopping spree, it is decent consumer etiquette to return your shopping trolley. One person who seemed to have taken this etiquette too far would end up pushing their shopping trolley straight into the Canal Saint-Martin! At least that is our theory, as we cannot imagine how else a shopping trolley ended up down there. Paris might be a central European shopping city, but this person seemed to disagree!

An Abundance Of Rubbish

Aquatic Rescue

The drainage process was proceeding smoothly and the workers managed to now reduce the canal’s water level to 20 inches high. It was now time to speedily rescue all the fish as their home was being essentially destroyed. This monumental process took three days, where a large river’s worth of bream, carp, and trout was relocated. These fish would be moved to a distant part of the river that fed the Canal Saint-Martin, becoming one of the biggest efforts in conservation that the city had ever seen.

Dreaming Of Swimming

After learning how polluted and downright repellant this canal was, few people would ever even think of willingly entering the Canal Saint-Martin. But this notion was what the city’s leaders would use to try and convince people not to dump their garbage into the canal. MailOnline interviewed one of these authorities, called Calia Blauel, who claimed that swimming in the canal could be possible in the near future if people respected the canal. Was the deputy mayor being too optimistic?

The Cost Of Conservation

At this stage, many of the workers that were heroically wading through the canal’s depths might have felt overwhelmed as the true scale of the problem at hand became clearer. This was a serious issue that would never have been established if the canal had been left alone. Such a costly effort may not have been executed if it weren’t for the lucrative status of the properties surrounding the Canal Saint-Martin across the arrondissements. Some spots in this district have rates that go as high as $9,000. Surely none of the local residents had an inkling that their beloved canal was so choked with trash. 

The Cost Of The Canal Explained

While you may be picturing a rather ghastly looking spot given how much filth was unearthed during the operation, the Canal Saint-Martin is actually a beautiful spot (at least on the surface) that is a fantastic attraction, one that inspires incredibly high real estate values. From artists, to lovers, to sailors and historians, the Canal Saint-Martin has inspired people from all walks of life. It is also a bustlingly active area, where street artists sit and capture the beauty of the canal and its surroundings. It is also a major multimedia art center in general.

There Are 9 Million Bicycles

A Dream Twenty Years In The Making

The three canals in question were excavated throughout Paris during a huge engineering project that took twenty years to complete. This watery network resulted in over 80 miles of waterway service when joined together. The Canal Saint-Martin is certainly the most renowned canal. The Canal de l’Ourcq would never have joined the Seine River if it weren’t for the Canal Saint-Martin. This is an essential canal that has served Parisians for many years and aided the city’s development into the European wonder that it is today.

For All To Enjoy

The Canal Saint-Martin also happens to be a major attraction for tourists, making it a highly lucrative spot for France’s tourism board in general. You can be sure that the locals love to spend their time strolling side-by-side with the canal. There are also plenty of barges to ride for some of the most romantic and scenic ways to explore and see Paris at large. If you have plans to visit the City of Light in the near future, make sure to visit the Canal Saint-Martin!

A Splendid Way To Spend An Evening

Those that have visited or live in Paris will know that the Canal Saint-Martin area is also home to a sensational nightlife scene. But this was a relatively recent development in the area’s history, as it was once quite a silent area. But this bustling party area would turn out to be a double-edged sword for the city, as with the added entertainment business came a lot more pollution for the Canal Saint-Martin. It was during 2016 that the scale of the issue became more apparent.

The Legend’s Legacy

While you might better recognize Napoleon for being one of the most ruthlessly successful military leaders in European history, he also did more for France (and Europe in general) than most of his contemporaries at large. This included the construction of the Canal Saint-Martin, which commenced in 1802. Napoleon wished for Parisians to have access to fresh water and to no longer need to suffer the awful effects of water-borne diseases. He was also certain that the canal would serve Paris for hundreds of years to come.

Following The Path

This canal can be traced across the Bassin de l’Arsenal, which runs alongside the Seine, all the way to the underside of La Bastille. Before the French Revolution, La Bastille was a terrible prison where captives were kept in awful conditions and treated incredibly cruelly. The canal then continues onwards to the Place de la République prior to its climb towards the Bassin de la Villette in Paris’s northern regions. This is also where it joins the Canal de l’Ourq.

The Murky Depths’ Contents

But since its grand and essential establishment, the Canal Saint-Martin has been exploited by those that have no appreciation for its life-bringing services. Thankfully, the government cares enough to show the canal the respect and love that it deserves with the frequent cleanup operations discussed. The latest one revealed a flood of debris made up of motorcycles, toilets, suitcases, shopping carts, and all manner of other trashed objects. There was also a vintage stereo! This was a truly bizarre ‘treasure hunt’ of sorts.

A Shocking Amount Of Cans And Bottles

There were so many bottles and cans found in the Canal Saint-Martin that could only have been a product of the bustling surrounding night scene and its revelers’ lack of decency. We all know that alcohol tends to make people rather careless, but throwing bottles and cans into a canal is shocking behavior. But just how many bottles and cans had been lobbed into the suffering canal? If you guessed hundreds of thousands, you are sadly correct.

The Length Of The Canal

Much of Paris surrounds the lengthy Canal Saint-Martin, which measures three miles in length. The 10th arrondissement is the proud host of the canal, which is highly regarded for its many notable fashion-centric attractions. It is also a prime tourism draw which sees some of the wealthier visitors dropping thousands of dollars on the haute couture available at some of Paris’s most opulent fashion houses. It is also an exhilarating nightlife scene that draws the attention of many tourists. Make sure to spend some time here when you visit Paris!

Reference: History 10 

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