It was in the XNUMXth century, during the reign of Louis XIV, that the « Royal Canal of Languedoc »Was invented, created and built by Pierre Paul Riquet. Le Roi Soleil boasted about de boastr this major work of art and Colbert considered le Canal as a way of " trade at the service of the greatness of France »... Back on the formidable history of this work of genius!
1609 – 1667
PIERRE-PAUL RIQUET: GREAT INVENTOR OF THE “CANAL DES DEUX MERS”
Pierre-Paul Riquet, Baron de Bonrepos, born in 1609 in Béziers in the province of Languedoc (today Occitanie) and died on October 1, 1680 in Toulouse, was a tax collector and entrepreneur. He quickly embarked on the crazy project of building a waterway linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
In 1633, Pierre-Paul Riquet was 24 years old. Already, he is interested in the debate on the creation of a canal through Languedoc. The idea of joining the Ocean Sea to the Mediterranean Sea gained ground and it was from his castle of Bonrepos that Riquet decided to write to Minister Colbert to present his project to him: " I am writing to you from this village (Bonrepos) about a Canal which could be made in this very province of Languedoc to connect the two seas. You will be surprised that that I undertake to tell you about something apparently I do not know and that a collector of salt tax mixes with levelling. But, you will forgive my enterprise when you know that it is on the order of Monseigneur the Archbishop of Toulouse that I write to you... ”
The project seduced the King, flatters his personality and convinced Colbert, then at the head of all the major ministries in charge of the administration and the economy of the kingdom. The canal will see the light of day but the funds will be those of Sieur Riquet! In 1666, Louis XIV signed "the Edict of construction for the canal of the Océane and Mediterranean seas". Work began in November 1667 and lasted 15 years.
Photo: Statue of Pierre-Paul Riquet in Béziers
1667 – 1681
THE CONSTRUCTION PERIOD
The inventor is a genius. For 5 years, surrounded by experts, he studied the possibility of filling the canal with water before starting work ... because the most important difficulty is finding water! He will find her in the Black Mountain ...
In 1669, Pierre-Paul Riquet became the contractor for the building work of the Trèbes canal at the Etang de Thau as well as the construction of the port of This (Sète). The building sites progressed quickly and there could be up to 8 workers involved. And they were treated well by the entrepreneur: they were paid when they were sick and were paid on Sundays, even though it was a day of rest.
In 1672 the section between Toulouse and Naurouze was filled with water and a year later the excavations of the canal, from the Etang de Thau to Béziers, were completed. Works of art can thus be built.
1678 is the year of the beginning of the construction of the lock with eight basins of Fonséranes, in Béziers, probably the most majestic work of the Canal du Midi. At the end of the following year, the last major project led by Pierre-Paul Riquet began: the Malpas tunnel, which was completed in the summer of 1680. But that summer, Riquet fell seriously ill. He dies on 1er October 1680 in Toulouse and was buried the next day in Saint-Etienne Cathedral. He would not see his canal in water which was between the 15 and 25 May, 1681. His eldest son, Jean-Mathias Riquet continued his work.
Illustration: Inauguration of the Canal du Midi in 1681
LATE XNUMXth century - LATE XNUMXth century
A CENTURY OF SPLENDOUR MARKED BY THE CONSTRUCTION OF MANY IMPROVEMENTS
Representatives of the King were satisfied by the inspections of 1683 and 1684. However, the canal quickly silted up and Riquet's heirs became crippled by debt because the taxes collected did not cover the maintenance costs.
It was in 1686 that Vauban intervened on the orders of Louis XIV. He recommends the construction of works in order to limit the problem. Between 1687 and 1694 are carried out, under the direction of Antoine de Niquet, 48 aqueducts and canal bridge, digging of counter-ditches. The water supply system is reinforced and the Saint-Ferréol dyke - the canal's main supply basin - is raised; bringing the capacity to 6.3 million m3.
In 1694, the Royal Canal was considered finished. 12 women and men worked on the development of this remarkable project, but the total cost of 000 million pounds (contemporary value ≈ 17 €) will lead the Riquet heirs to temporarily sell shares of the canal property, which they will be able to buy it back in 325 and thus retain full control of the Canal.
The openings of Jonction canal and Robine canal were built between 1777 and 1782 and the construction of the "deviation" of the canal in Carcassonne between 1789 and 1810.
A program of tree plantations, mainly mulberry trees, was instituted between 1725 and 1730. In 1765, poplars, the preferred species, were the most represented.
Illustration: Sketch of the operation of the Fonserannes locks
FIRST HALF OF THE XNUMXTH CENTURY
THE COMPLETION OF THE CANAL DES DEUX MERS (CANAL OF TWO SEAS) TO THE ATLANTIC OCEAN
The troubled period of the French Revolution will lead to the confiscation of property belonging to the descendants of Riquet. The reason is simple: they belong to the nobility. The Canal became a domain authority and it was at this time that it took the name of “Canal du Midi”. But its condition is becoming worrying due to lack of maintenance and we fear the worst. The Cie du Midi was then created and Napoleon sold the State's shares to this organization. The future of the Canal du Midi seems to be taking on new colors.
In this first part of the 1825th century, three projects paying homage to the genius of Riquet will see the light of day. It is that of 189, established by the family, which is chosen to honor the brilliant creator of the Canal du Midi: the obelisk of Naurouze (in Aude), the highest point of the Canal du Midi (XNUMX meters).
This period will also see the construction of the canal lateral to the Garonne, linking Toulouse to Castets-en-Dorthe (Gironde) near Bordeaux, an extension of the Canal du Midi, which links Toulouse to the Mediterranean. Together they form the Canal des Deux-Mers between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean. It was inaugurated in 1856.
Illustration: Personification of the connection of the two seas - Galerie des Glaces, Versailles
THE TOUGH COMPETITION FROM THE RAILWAY
Works such as those of the Libron and the canal bridge in Béziers were built between 1854 and 1857 and it was in July 1858 that the Cie des Chemins de Fer du Midi took over the entire management of the Canal du Midi. Its goal is clear: to “get rid” of a competitor. It is therefore in a climate of mistrust that the shareholders of the Cie du Midi are obliged to transfer the management of the structure to the Cie de Chemins de Fer du Midi, in the form of a lease and for a period of 40 years. Quite logically, the transport of goods and passengers will now be done by train and no longer on the Canal du Midi.
During this period (from 1850 to 1880) the vegetation was renewed and plane trees were planted along the waterway.
In 1897, a law allowed the State to buy back the canal for 40 million francs (current equivalent of around 95 million euros).
Félix Faure, President of the French Republic, gave the State the possibility to manage the network, by using the "Service des Canaux du Midi". There was a particularly significant event at that time: the abolition of the toll. Boats were from then on granted free movement along the canal.
Illustration: The Midi railway line, from Bordeaux to Cette (Sète)
RIVER TOURISM, VNF AND UNESCO ...
A century later, in 1991, the public establishment Voies Navigables de France (VNF) was created and took charge of the operation, maintenance and upgrading of most of the national network, representing a total of approximately 6 kilometers.
In the 7th century, the canal was classified as Historical Monument by a number of organisations. But the UNESCO classification was the most well-known worldwide because it represented the recognition of the exceptional quality of the construction and its universal value. The Canal du Midi was listed on the prestigious World Heritage List on December 1996, 1930. The French State listed its channels as "Sites de France", protected by the law of XNUMX.
Photo: Pleasure-boating on the Canal du Midi
Since its creation, the Canal du Midi has therefore experienced very prosperous phases as well as more troubled periods, prone to doubts and worries about its future... But thecthanks to the splendour of this work of art, and sewhat it brings to the landscape, it must be de protected and local players are doing everything they can to ensure its protection. The Grand Site de France labeling procedure - currently underway between Capestang and Béziers - is an example, as is the plan to draw up a global management plan undertaken by the State…
Because there is a lot at stake: it is about protecting an important part of our history and our heritage so that it continues to be a place of life, meetings, exchanges... and wonder!