It is because the skill and generosity of St Martin appeal equally to the people of France, that you can see the episode of his cutting his cape in two, cut into the stones of many a church. In Paris, for instance, it is to be found on the walls of the old church of St Séverin in the Latin Quarter.
It has often seemed to me that the naming of a canal after him was a mistake, for it resembles much more the beggar who went off with his half-cloak, leaving the rest to the chivalrous Seine. A canal, no matter how diligent, is a humble creature and lives only by the charity of a flowing stream. Diligent the canal of St Martin certainly is; its two and three-quarters of a mile length are in-dispensable to the water traffic of the region, particularly of Paris.
Its beginning is in the Water Depot (Garage d’Eau), just west of the Pont d’Austerlitz. When it reaches the Place de la Bastille, it plunges underground and passes mysteriously along below the boulevard Richard Lenoir. At the entrance to this tunnel canal boats find a 50-horsepower tug waiting to take them through; and they go on to the canal de St Denis, by which they find again the Seine, the tug taking back the boats coming from that direction.
Nine locks raise the water of the Seine to the canal de l’Ourcq, which was once a river! It was Napoleon who transformed it; but credit should be given to Leonardo da Vinci, who tried to persuade Francis 1st to do it. It is hard to believe this when you see the l’Ourcq at its source, halfway between Rheims and Epernay. From there it flows gently, parallel to the Marne, towards Pantin, the industrial suburb. Although the canal is fifty-four miles long, only a mile and half lie within Paris. It meets the canal of St Martin in a body of water called the Bassin de la Villette. And at this point we are seventy-five feet above the Seine. The Bassin occupies sixteen acres and is, in reality, a huge reservoir holding sixty-six thousand cubic meters of water.
A hundred years ago, frozen over in winter, the Bassin was as fashionable a resort for skating parties and sledding as the Bois de Boulogne is today. The artists of the period have left us some charming scenes done out here.
And in the summer the Parisians used to amuse them-selves here by jousting. Even today, in spite of the dust of coal, the smell of tar, and the glitter of broken bottles, they occasionally put on a water pageant.
Artists of today who know their Paris come here for certain picturesque bits, and particularly to do the queer high foot-bridge over the Bassin, with the canal boats, the warehouses, cranes, and barrels as decoration. The scene was even done in a modernistic fashion for a successful play, Donagoo, but I doubt if many in the audience recognized it, with its span of three hundred and ten feet shrunk to the needs of the stage.
From this bridge you can have one of the most interesting of Paris views: you can see in one glance the Eiffel Tower and the church of the Sacré-Coeur on Montmartre; and if you want to see this scene as one of magic, be there at sunset.
The best way to reach this point is to follow the canal; but be sure then to notice the Customs House at the foot of the Bassin; it is no ordinary structure but the most imposing of those sixty toll-houses which were to surround Paris and make the fortune of the Farmers-General. The building was undertaken in 1784. Ledoux was the architect. You will find two other of his toll-houses, one on the north side of the Parc Monceau and the other at the Place de la Nation. This one is called the Rotonde (rotunda) ; its circular form and its columns belong to history. The old warehouse makes a good back-ground, with its ancient pulleys for hoisting into loft windows all that arrives from the land side to be loaded upon canal boats later.
The rue de Grimée, one of the longest streets in Paris, crosses the Bassin over a hydraulic drawbridge, whose wheels are turned by the water-power of the canal. And beside it, in a tiny square, a village church and a fire-station are fraternizing.
The whole scene is one to remember; the loading and unloading of barges, the cranes, with their H. G. Wells vitality, whose detached mouths gobble sand in the barge only to vomit it gently and without grimace into cement tanks. Plaster and coal, wet hides and sugar it is all in motion.
And who, I ask, named that small building which shivers at the passing of every train over the railroad bridge, “the Trembling Castle” (Château Tremblant) ? Someone with imagination.
The canal of St Denis begins at the upper end and runs or ambles for two miles and a half through the Plain of St Denis, where factories are crowding more each year because of the canal’s practical aid.
If you like to connect places and people, know this significant bit of history: that when Louis XVI was captured with his family at Varennes in his attempted flight, it was through the toll-gate alongside this Customs House that he re-entered Paris !
Or you may prefer this: that in 1814 the King of Prussia, the Czar of Russia, and several other members of the “Allies,” with their troops, besieged the Buttes-Chaumont near here, coming in by this same way. And it was not far from here that Blucher and the Prince of Prussia conquered the French and came in through the Porte de la Villette (today the entrance of the Stockyards of Paris). The armistice of 1814 was signed a stone’s throw from here.
Just an old and dingy canal system, perhaps, but crammed with history, as is nearly every part of Paris!