First – a little history…
Built between 1666 and 1681, by Pierre Paul Riquet, the Canal du Midi was then regarded as one of the wonders of Europe. It had first been conceived by Leonardo da Vinci 150 years earlier, and was undoubtedly the greatest work of engineering in the world at that time. Nothing on such an ambitious scale had been built by man since the fall of the Roman Empire.
Cutting across southern France from the westward-flowing Garonne at Toulouse to the port of Sete, its purpose was to provide an inland route for shipping between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and thus avoid the long and hazardous sea passage via Gibraltar. One hundred and fifty miles long and climbing by ladders of locks to a height of 600 feet, it was the first summit level canal in the world.
On November 26, 1662 – after years of preliminary work, Riquet wrote a formal letter of proposal to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, chief minister to Louis XIV…
“…I am writing to you from this village on the subject of a canal which could be made in this Province of Languedoc for the connection of the two seas. You will be astonished that I dare to speak of such a thing of which I apparently know nothing and that a salt tax collector should be engaged on matters of surveying. But you will excuse this step when you know that it is at the order of the Archbishop of Toulouse that I write. It is some time since the said Lord did me the honour of coming to this place, either because I am a neighbour and admirer of his, or in order to learn from me the way of making this canal – because he had heard tell that I had made a particular study of it. I told him all I knew of it and promised to go to see him at Castres on my return from Perpignan and to lead him from there by ways which would enable him to see the possibility of it. I did this and the said Lord, in the company of the Bishop of Saint-Papoul and several other distinguished people, visited all the things which were found as I had told them, [whereupon] the said Lord Archbishop charged me to draw up an account of it and to send it to you. It is enclosed here, but in rather poor order because, knowing no Greek or Latin and only with difficulty knowing how to speak French, it is not possible for me to express myself without faltering.
Also, I undertake this in order to obey and not of my own volition. All the same, if you will please read my account you will judge that this canal is possible, that it is, in truth, difficult as to cost but that, having regard to the good that should come from it, one ought to weigh the expenditure less highly.
Until today, the suitable rivers to supply it had not been thought of, no easy route for this canal was found because those one had imagined easy [involved] the insuperable difficulties of reversing the flow of rivers and of machines for lifting the waters. So you will believe that such difficulties have always discouraged people and postponed the execution of the work.
But now, my Lord, that easy routes have been found, as well as rivers able easily to be diverted from their ancient beds and conducted into this new canal by natural fall away from their usual gradient, all difficulties cease excepting that of finding money to cover the cost of the work.
You have for this a thousand means, my Lord, and I suggest to you two more still in my attached memoir in order to incline you most readily to this work which you will judge very advantageous to the King and to his people when it pleases you to consider that the facility and safety of this navigation will make the Straits of Gibraltar cease to be a necessary passage; that the revenues of the King of Spain from Cadiz will be diminished by it and that those of our King we shall be augmenting by so much on the Treasury leases and from the import of merchandise into the Kingdom – apart from the tolls which will arise from the said canal which will bring in enormous sums, and his Majesty’s subjects will profit from thousands of new commercial enterprises and will draw great advantage from the navigation.
If I hear that the project gives you satisfaction I will send you a financial estimate marked with the number of locks which it will be necessary to make and with exact calculations in fathoms of the said canal, either in length or in breadth…”
Then follows a memoir of which the most significant passage reads:
“… But what seems to me most important is to have enough water to fill it [the canal] up and to take this to the right place where the summit level is, which can easily be done, using the river Sor near the town of Revel, whence it will flow by natural gradient because there is a 54 ft difference in level between the said Revel and the watershed, the country being flat and without any hills. It is also easy to drive the brook called Lampy into the bed of the Revel river, distant about 1,500 paces from one another. It is just as easy to drive into the Lampy another brook called the Alzau about five quarters of a league distant, and consequently, several other brooks which one finds along that conduit, so that, joined together, the vigorous and durable supply they constitute will make up a big river which, driven to the watershed, will supply both sides of a canal six feet in depth and 54 ft wide throughout the whole year so that navigation on this canal would be easily carried on…”
This, in a nutshell, was the key to the success of Riquet’s great scheme and we may imagine the anxious thought that was put into this missive and the drafting and redrafting that went on in the study at Bonrepos before Riquet was finally satisfied and sent it off.
Almost exactly four years later (1666) King Louis XIV granted letters patent to Riquet – and in January of 1667, construction began.
How do I know these things?
The kids gave me this book – and it’s fascinating. I’ll post in on to you two… just as soon as I’ve finished it!
More on The Second Trip – 2006…
2. Getting Together… Again