December 12, 2015 by Emma Bentley
If you have spent any time at all in Paris, you must have crossed at least one of the bridges over the river Seine at some point. Every tourist has strolled across the Pont Neuf taking in the hue of the city’s beautiful stone buildings at sunset. Incidentally, despite being called the “New Bridge” it is today the oldest bridge still standing, because it was the first to be made out of stone.
However, very few people know of Paris’ second river: La Bièvre.
It dissected the Left Bank of the city, flowing in from Stade Charléty, past La Buttes aux Cailles and through what is now known as the Latin Quarter until it eventually joined la Seine near Gare de l’Austerlitz.
It was a natural waterway which stretched for 33 kilometres (approximately 21 miles) and provided a livelihood for the communities which sprung up on its banks.
Namely, Les Gobelins tapestry works (for centuries, the official suppliers of fabrics to the French royal family) which would not have survived without a good source of water.
Neither would a whole host of dyers, mills and leather tanneries have chosen this area to set up business had it not have been for the Bièvre.
-> Incidentally there were so many watermills that the river was straightened to accomodate them all. Many street names in this area still bear the mention “moulin”! <-
The market-sellers on rue Mouffetard received their deliveries by boat.
These businesses also enjoyed the tax credits that came from being located just outside the mediaeval city limits. (See here about the history of wine in Montmartre.)
When reflecting on the rise of industrialisation and urbanisation in Paris, there’s no denying that the river Bièvre was key.
Unfortunately, what was the river’s strength also became its downfall. Because of all this industrial activity, it became so horribly polluted that in the late 1870s Baron Haussmann, that radical rebuilder under Napoleon III, decided to put an end to its days. The stinking river was transmitting disease and illness to those downstream. It had become too much of a health risk.
Bit by bit, the river was culverted (the technical term for “built over”) and nowadays the regenerated city of Paris leaves next to no trace of what still flows underneath. The only signs that a pair of sharp-eyes might spot are a couple of medallions dotted in the pavement.
The photo above was taken on rue Censier, a road which was itself only created after the river was sacrificed. For those who are particularly interested, the road was inaugurated in 1913.
The Bièvre still flows but now it does so under our feet, as part of Paris’ sewage system.