midicanalMidi & Languedoc guide book by Christopher (Rusty) Tunnard

A Brief History of the Midi Canal

The idea of building a canal to link the Atlantic ocean with the Mediterranean sea dates back to the Roman occupation of southern France. However; the idea did not receive serious consideration until the early sixteenth century, when Francis I brought Leonardo da Vinci to France to consult on engineering projects. The possibility of a canal through the Languedoc (originally called the Canal des Deux Mers, or Two Seas Canal and finally "Le Canal du Midi" or Midi Canal in English), following the natural path between the Montagne Noire or Les Montagnes Noires (The Black Mountains) and the Pyrénées (the frontier between France and Spain), was tremendously appealing for several reasons: First, it would provide a quick way to dispatch warships from sea to sea, saving the high costs of maintaining two fleets; second, the high taxes paid to the King of Spain for passage through the Straits of Gibraltar and the dangers of this long route would be eliminated; and last, the canal would serve as a commercial thoroughfare for the transport of produce throughout the south of the country.

Originally the concept seemed simple. Linking the Aude River, which flowed east-wards to the Mediterranean, to the Garonne, which flowed westwards to the Atlantic would require a canal only fifty miles (80Kms) in length running from Toulouse to Carcassonne But, because the Aude was treacherously rocky and often unnavigable because of flooding, this plan was rejected in favour of building a canal from the Garonne to the sea, avoiding the Aude completely.

As appealing as this idea was, however, it presented some imposing problems: the difference in altitude between the summit level of the projected canal and the sea was 620 feet (189 meters); the hot, long summers would quickly evaporate the water in the canal, despite the numerous small springs and rivers in its proposed path; and these water sources could just as easily flood during the rainy season. Also, the terrain through which the canal would pass was hilly in some places and swampy in others making digging difficult, if not impossible. Finally a canal that could accommodate frigates and other deep-draft warships was deemed financially and technically impossible to build, thus dampening enthusiasm for the project.

Pierre Paul Riquet

While successive teams of engineers hired to survey the area were engaged in professional and political squabbles, one man was becoming obsessed with the idea. Pierre-Paul Riquet, the Baron of Bonrepos, was born in Béziers in 1604 into a modest family of Italian origin. He became a man of means by marrying well and through his position as the salt-tax collector for the Languedoc. Although Riquet was untrained in engineering his interest in the sciences and his extensive travels throughout the region made him aware of the difficulties posed by the lay of the land and the water supply. He made extensive surveys of the springs and rivers of the Montagne Noire and had a miniature canal built on his own property to study the problems of locks and feeder systems encountered by the builders of the Canal de Briare, which had linked the Loire and Seine Rivers in 1646.
In 1662, Riquet sent a complete and considered proposal to Louis XIV for whom he was already a military contractor. His timing could not have been better, for the King had recently solidified his holdings in southern France at the expense of Spain, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the King's visionary minister, was looking for a project commensurate with his own grand designs for modernizing France's commercial communications. A royal commission was formed, and the Canal Royale du Languedoc (the Midi Canal) became an official state project, supported and financed by the crown.
With help from François Andréossey, a professional civil engineer, Riquet began work in 1667 on the most crucial part of the whole scheme: damming the rivers and springs of the Montagne Noire to create a reservoir to supply the canal with adequate water year-round. This was a colossal project. The dam that created the Bassin de St Ferréol is half a mile long, 105 feet (32 meters) high, and 450 feet (137 meters) thick at the base; it required 5.6 million cubic feet (158 574 cubic meters) of material to be quarried and laid by hand. This was only the first of many civil engineering feats accomplished by Riquet and his construction team, an army of workers that, at times, totalled more than twelve thousand, including six hundred women.

Constructing the canal locks themselves was another challenge. Designed to be deep and rectangular, the original lock walls collapsed under the tremendous pressure of the surrounding earth. A larger number of shallower locks had to be built with thicker, concave walls. (Most of these original oval chambers still exist today.) Flood control dams, more feeder systems, canal aqueducts, and the world's first tunnel were invented, tested, and, on more than one occasion scrapped and re-conceived.

Riquet's solutions were not only at the cutting edge of available technology, but were also beautiful. The rows of plane trees that give the canal its distinctive appearance served two other purposes: Their shade retarded evaporation and provided relief from the summer sun; and their contorted root system prevented the erosion of the built-up banks.

The problems, however, were not Iimited to construction alone. The people of the Languedoc were suspicious by nature and, on occasion, were violently opposed to paying the levies for the canal's construction. Riquet had to fight to convince the financial advisers from Paris that taking the canal to the sea on a long and costly route through the Minervois, and thus keeping to the north of the Aude flood plain was safer than using the shorter; low-lying, and more politically popular route via Narbonne.

In the late 1670s, in spite of Riquet's construction triumphs at the Malpas Tunnel the lock staircase a Fonserannes, Colbert became frustrated by the fact that the canal was still unfinished and withdrew state support. Riquet, although in his 70s and suffering from fatigue and failing health, was determined to see his dream accomplished. He financed the rest of the work himself. He died in October of 1680, only a few months before the Mediterranean was finally reached.

On 15 May 1681, the canal officially opened, and all of Riquet's expectations began to be fulfilled. It became a commercial success, and its engineering refinements were used in canal systems all over Europe and England. The last link in the chain was completed in 1856 with the opening of the Canal Lateral à Ia Garonne between Toulouse and Bordeaux, making it possible to sail from sea to sea on man-made waterways. Ironically the new rail-road opened at the same time, spelling the beginning of a long, slow demise in canal traffic in favour of a faster, more modern means of transport. Today only a handful of commercial Hotel barges remain from a fleet that once numbered in the hundreds.

Indeed the canal's future may lie in pleasure travel; hotel barges, self-drive boats, and yachtsmen en-route to and from the Mediterranean are now seen in increasing numbers. One wonders if perhaps Riquet prepared for this by taking pains to build a canal as beautiful as it was functional. The locks, bridges, and plane trees form what some have called a linear park, as impressive a piece of man-made landscape as has ever been built (Since 1996 a UNESCO World Heritage Site). More and more people are discovering the tranquillity, beautiful scenery, and enticing, small villages of the Languedoc by crossing it on this historic monument to Riquet and to the grand designs of the age of the Sun King, Le Roi Soleil.

from The Canal du Midi and the Languedoc - a Sightseeing Guide - moc.lanacidim@ytsur


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Revised -- 11 December 2018

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