The Seine, Boulevard of Business
THE Seine is a thoroughfare through Paris for millions of tons of raw materials, foodstuffs, and even merchandise. That fact does not take from its picturesque possibilities or from its historic importance as the reason for the very existence of Paris.
There is grave doubt whether it ought to be called the Seine, however, for those who have studied the river claim that at Montereau, where the Seine and the Yonne come together, the Yonne should not give up its name but admit quite frankly that it has swallowed the Seine, instead of the other way around; it is too late now to correct the error, and no one will ever say “Paris on the Yonne.”
But if you want proof of the theory that Yonne is the river which passes through Paris, follow the salmon; when they come to Montereau they go right on up the Yonne; they do not think for a moment of side-stepping into its branch, the Seine.
The quays along the river front are like the broad sidewalks of this boulevard; they change their names from bridge to bridge; they offer a study of the little “ports” at which enters whatever the boats are bringing up or down the river.
Were you a born Parisian, you would swell with pride, for this port is the most important river port in France; its tonnage has a present average greater than that of Marseilles and Rouen together, about fifteen million tons.
But Paris, unlike Marseilles and Rouen, is a port of consumption. Over two million tons of fuel are unloaded here annually; you will see coal and wood on many of the quays. Cereals, sugar, wine, and ice are brought here by the hundreds of thousands of tons.
Not all this is unloaded along the quays of the city; much of it arrives at what are called the “satellite” ports of Bercy, Charenton, Ivry, and Alfortville; all of these could be visited formerly on the small boats which ran on the Seine but which have been taken off “because they did not pay” much to the loss of the tourist!
There are other satellite ports upon the canal of the Ourcq; downstream at Issy, Billancourt, and Boulogne; and at all the industrial suburbs beyond, as far as the town of St Denis, the oldest of them all.
Paris occupies a strategic point as a river port: the Marne links her to the eastern part of France and to the Rhine; the Oise, to the north and to Belgium. And the Seine has, besides, six other important affluents which explains, among other things, why the flood danger has always been so great.
Paris is served, indeed, by twenty-five hundred miles of navigable water; the three canals, of St Martin and St Denis and of the Ourcq (once a river), are part of this service, and they are the reason why you see so few barges upon the river itself within the city limits; a shorter way has been cut through from one loop of the Seine to the other at St Denis, ‘lessening the route by fifteen miles.
Indeed, only seven miles of the Seine are within the limits of the old fortifications; but the “Port of Paris” covers seventeen and a half miles, which means thirty-five miles of docks. And there are twenty-nine different ports for the unloading of specified cargoes.
If you are walking along the Right Bank and arrive at the Quai Henri IV (once an island but joined to the mainland in 1840), you will see at its end the opening of the canal of St Martin. At this point it is called the “Gare d’Eau” (Water Station); canal boats lie up here as well as pass on to reach the canal of St Denis. But you are looking at what was the inlet for the moats around the Bastille, and until 1789 the huge bulk of that prison could have been seen from here.
Nearly opposite you, on the Left Bank, are the Halle aux Vins (Wine Market) and the Jardin des Plantes, a zoological garden. You can see on that side the Austerlitz railroad station, and behind you at some distance, the tall tower of the Paris-Lyons-Mediterranean Station (called familiarly, the “P. L. M.” or the “Gare de Lyon”).
If you keep on walking upstream, or if you take a car for Charenton, which skirts the river from here, you will arrive at the Port of Bercy, where it is worth while to walk out on the bridge in order to get the view of the largest wine cellar in the world. Its capacity is twenty million five hundred thousand gallons.
Bercy, like so many other public institutions in Paris, began as a gentleman’s domain; its park was laid out by the famous landscape gardener, Le Notre, in 1656. Then it became the place where all the wine to be used in the hospitals and hospices of Paris was unloaded. It still has the air of a huge park, with its magnificent trees, among which are the oddest little houses, used as offices by the different firms which bring wine into this port for distribution in Paris; the lanes among these trees are named as follows : the rue de Cognac, the rue de Médoc, the rue de Bourgogne, de Bordeaux, de Vouvray, de Pommard, and the rest. Bercy covers a hundred acres; and if, from the bridge, you count the doors on the water-front each one with its tall poplar alongside you will find there are one hundred and fifteen.
At but a short distance from here the Marne comes into the Seine as well as the Marne canal. A popular promenade is on the island between the two, the Promenade des Marines. On fête days and Sundays the banks of this island are covered with placid families, fishing and eating out of generous lunch-baskets. There is a fine double row of old trees, glimpses of countryside on the mainland, an open-air restaurant, and occasional artists painting the best bits of it.
If you cross to the Left Bank here, you will find, a short five minutes further on, a small 17th-century château, surrounded by a moat which has water in it when spring floods are moving. Unfortunately, in spite of the low-lying land, real estate agents have seized upon it, and the picturesque is being engulfed in rather sordid practicality.
Unless they have torn it down before this book reaches you, you will find the Château de Charentonneau on the rue de la Ferme, after you have passed, on your left, the remains of a very old flour mill. The first evidence of the château will be the “granary,” a beautiful piece of architecture which looks as though it had escaped from the Trianon at Versailles.
This is but ten minutes from the city limits; when the real estate venture does not obtrude, it seems a hundred miles from the modern present. If you have come by car, you will have been touched by the thoughtfulness of the authorities, who have cut down four rows of splendid plane trees to make it safe for those who want to go at a mad pace. Trees are so dangerous to the mad!
It was out here that the flood of 1910 did the worst havoc; at Bercy and at Ivry, across the river, the water was up to the second-story windows; all communication was by boats. And in the Mairie (the City Hall) of the 12th Arr., there is an enormous painting which shows a boat-load of refugees.
It was this last great flood which stimulated the public works designed to prevent them in the future. But that has been no small engineering problem. It seemed as if the Seine wanted to give ocular proof of that age when she (or the Yonne) filled up the plain which she had so carefully cut for herself so that she might lie at the foot of the buttes of Montmartre, Belleville, and Montparnasse. In 1910 she got her clutches on Paris through the tunnels they were cutting for the underground road called the Nord-Sud, which is now part of the Métro; and she dashed in, as well, by two tunnels used by the railroads, the one at the Austerlitz station, the other at the Invalides.
It was the tortuous path of the Seine which made the floods so nearly always victorious; and the building of quays has been no ordinary problem, since they must take into account the current of the river which, rising suddenly, takes them by surprise.
Who pays for their building and their upkeep? That is the sort of question I like to think occurs to an occasional visitor in Paris. The answer is this: that since a river cannot be doled out to the towns through which it flows, the national budget must carry the expense of caring for the river-bed and the banks upon either side.
But the city must pay for any additional work done to the quays. The Department of the Seine assumes the larger share of the dams which are being built in the effort to curb floods. Now this Department of the Seine is the smallest of all the departments or states in France : its diameter is only twelve and a half miles. Yet it has within its limits nearly sixty-nine miles of navigable waterway to look after; of this the Seine offers twenty-five miles.
The Chamber of Commerce has its share of responsibility, too: just beyond the warehouses which belong to the Gare d’Austerlitz are those which belong to this body as a concessionnaire. And all the equipment besides belongs to the Chamber of Commerce.
And not far from these entrepôts, as they are called, are the great flour mills (Grands Moulins) with a bread-making school attached. More or less naturally, there are, across the river at this point, all sorts of canneries and coffee-roasters, to say nothing of bottlers of several popular brands of aperitif.
Another aspect of the industrial life of Paris is visible here, too, largely on the Left Bank: refrigerating plants, steel-wire mills, foundries, compressed-air plants, and tanneries.
All these things you are not likely to guess, sitting in front of a boulevard café, “seeing Paris.” Nor yet are you likely to imagine the meaning of the cantilever bridge which is here on the river at Conflans: it carries the cable of the enormous electric plant of Ivry, a cable that weighs thirty thousand tons and represents a million volts.
So much, in passing very superficially, for this part of the river. If your interest lies towards St Cloud and it is a pity that you cannot go there by water you will find, beyond Auteuil, the two rather dingy towns of Billancourt and Boulogne. They have been taken possession of by automobile makers, one of whom has even seized an island in the Seine at this point, for a factory site.
At Sèvres you have a National Manufacture of porcelain which was once royal. The National School of Ceramics is there, too, and the Museum. But it is still farther along that there can be seen, at Suresnes, the big new structure which is called the “regulator”; it has metal doors, weighing ninety-four tons each, which can be lifted at the rate of twenty centimeters a minute. The improvement in this method of controlling the flow of the river, as though it were nothing but a canal, allows whole trains of canal boats to pass through at once.
The work of building dams along the Seine, in its twisting course west of Paris, seems never to come to an end; at Chatou, still further on, another flood control dam has been just carried through, which is worth looking at.
Then, if this sort of thing interests you, there is the canal port of Pantin to the east and north of Paris. You will find a motorbus to take you which bears the sign, “Pantin et au delà,” which ought to arouse laughter among the French, for au delà is used for the “Great Beyond” by poets and mystics; and Pantin, be it noted, has the reputation of being an industrial purgatory!
That does not detract, however, from the importance of the new water depot, whose cisterns, all told, have another irony the capacity of three million five hundred thousand litres of alcohol.
To bring you by way of the Business Boulevard of the Seine to the canal de l’Ourcq and let you pause in the midst of alcohol, is perhaps not the least of the adventures which you may have, once you decide to see something other than the tourist Paris.