Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910 
by Jeffrey Jackson.
Palgrave, 262 pp., £20, January 2010, 978 0 230 61706 3
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Paris Inondé 1910 
Galerie des Bibliothèques, Paris, until 28 March 2010Show More
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On 21 January 1910 in the coal-mining community of Lorroy, 80 km south-east of Paris, there was a landslide. Weeks of heavy rain had soaked the hillside above the little town and as the miners made their way to their homes for lunch, a mass of mud and rock was dislodged. Lorroy, which was linked by a canal to the River Loing, a tributary of the Seine, suffered ‘total annihilation’ – or that was how the weekly L’Illustration captioned its photos of the scene. Seven people were killed and there were many more injuries. Then, during the night, the inhabitants of Troyes, on the Seine, heard water rushing through the streets. By first light the town was unrecognisable; many buildings were little more than relics vouching for the force of the flood. Troyes is further than Lorroy from Paris, about 150 km upstream, and the river had been swollen for a while. People in Paris may have been nervous, but by and large they put their trust in news from the national Hydrometric Service.

Agents working for the service usually sent reports from their stations by cable, but on 20 January water breaking over the banks of the Loing had brought down the telegraph lines. Around the time of the flooding in Troyes a plant in the south-east of Paris which supplied compressed air to the owners of ‘pneumatique’ equipment – lifts, ventilation, industrial machinery – was submerged. Parisians were fond of compressed-air technology. It was how the postal service delivered mail from one office to another in small brass shuttles propelled along a network of tubes. It was also used to keep the clocks ticking on the streets of the city and, by subscription, in private apartments. When the plant went underwater during the night, pneumatic time stopped dead. That was at 10.53, as residents could ascertain when they woke on the morning of the 22nd. By then the basements of buildings close to the banks of the river were filling with water and people were abandoning their homes. Water levels didn’t stop rising for another seven days. It was the worst flood in Paris for 250 years and by the time it was over, a quarter of the city’s buildings had taken in water.

The Seine had not looked so daunting since 1658, but in 1910 the floodwater engulfed a very different city. The most recent round of changes was the result of a vast and controversial programme of works undertaken in the 1850s and 1860s by the préfet de la Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann. They produced what looked in parts of Paris to be a new capital, yet it wasn’t only the aspect of the city that was changed. A modern infrastructure was also in order and much of the inglorious but crucial work of ‘Haussmannisation’ went on below ground, supervised by Haussmann’s water services chief, Eugène Belgrand. Work on the sewers was heroic: there were fewer than 160 km of pipes when it began, four times that number when Haussmann’s tenure ended in 1870. In the same period the quantity of clean drinking water for every inhabitant of Paris doubled. Haussmann is still thought of as the man who tried to build a revolution-proof city, with wide boulevards and strategic views for the police, but it’s clear he believed that a good part of the solution to public disorder lay in a proper sanitary system. Work on the sewers and water mains continued after 1870 and in the 1890s another round of excavation under the city began with the construction of the Métro. The first eight stations opened in July 1900, during the Exposition Universelle; ten more were in service by the autumn.

Sooner or later this man-made geology was likely to turn into a vast cellarage, built beneath the most convivial city in the world, where unforeseen quantities of water could collect and then make their way above ground through the new complex of galleries. Yet in Haussmann’s day and later, the sewers were thought of as a safeguard against flooding. Run-off from heavy rain would simply go down the drains and out along the river beyond the city. Once the clocks had stopped at 10.53, however, it became clear that this was not happening, and for the next seven days Paris was like a sinking ship, filling with water from above and below, as its inhabitants took to the lifeboats. On 24 January the Assembly met to vote an emergency budget for the city and other regions hit by the flood. Members had to be rowed across the courtyard of the Palais Bourbon to take part. The following day, the electricity in the Assembly went down, as it had already in much of Paris.

When Apollinaire stepped out of his building in the 16th arrondissement and walked a block, he was charmed by the fen-like view down the rue Félicien-David. His piece appeared a day or so later in L’Intransigeant, by which time people were comparing the streets of the city, dotted with dinghies and skiffs, to the waterways of Venice, but Apollinaire was reminded of a visit to Dordrecht. He recalled a small boat approaching from a distance, ‘as in this street in Paris’, with ‘a dog and a well-dressed lady standing upright next to a melancholic gentleman’.

The way the city had been overwhelmed by the river may well have seemed charming, though only because of the scenes on offer. The sight of the boulevard St Germain transformed at its northern end into a wide canal from which the buildings on either side rose in silence like chiselled bluffs must have been extraordinary. So must the smaller streets in the Latin Quarter, door-deep in water. Soon enough, they could be reached by a series of wooden walkways set on tall trestles, their legs spread in the placid murk. The ‘passerelles’ were put up by soldiers, assigned to Louis Lépine, the préfet de police, a capable figure who had his own force, and the fire brigade, working day and night to keep the city from foundering. Sandbags, levees, pumps, improvised ferries, pontoons and round-the-clock rescue teams: it was a big and bureaucratic operation. The walkways, far from turning Paris into an ornamental Chinese garden, gave it the look of an agricultural fair or a series of seaside piers, magically transposed into a landscape of dressed stone and half-submerged shop fronts. Several photos in the centenary exhibition at the Galerie des Bibliothèques in Paris show people affably crammed together on the passerelles. Ruin has struck the city, but these are scarcely citizens in dark distress.

View from 4 rue Jacob

For a taste of drama, crowds flocked to the quays and bridges to inspect the boiling river. Water came straight over the midtown docksides that would be closed up after the flood, but elsewhere the walls of the quays were high and, in the heart of the city, the river never made it over the top. Parisians stood a dozen deep at the quays, waiting in line for a glimpse from the parapets. On the bridges thousands who’d been spared an intimate acquaintance with the torrent got as near as they dared, watching it roar a few feet below them. The river was so high that by 25 January, when Apollinaire’s piece hit the watery streets, you’d have been lucky to squeeze a toy sailing-boat under the Pont de l’Alma. Work teams removed the bobbing debris that built up round the spandrels and with some of the bridges pretty much clear, money began changing hands as people wagered on which wooden paving block or bit of broken furniture bowling towards them would be the first to appear on the downstream side of an arch.

The 1910 flood was a media jamboree, like a modern-day disaster in Africa with fewer human consequences. The French press were joined by correspondents from the US, Britain, Germany and Italy, a small number of movie-reel agencies and a handful of freelance photographers. Anxiety about the city, as much as its inhabitants, drove the story along. But it was only a few days before picture postcards of the flood were on sale and Parisians could see stand-alone, emblematic images of their city under water, like swatches from an epic tapestry, without having to wade through column-inches of hyperbole. The postcards, more than the papers, enabled them to commemorate the flood before it had subsided and to become spectators and consumers of their own misfortune.

Or should that be the misfortunes of others? In Paris proper, a relatively small number of lives were disrupted or devastated by the flood, the combined total no more than 150,000; add to those the people who suffered varying degrees of hardship and you still arrive at a modest figure. The population of the city at the time is difficult to estimate: maybe three million, larger anyhow than it is today. Parisians who’d already abandoned their belongings to a sullen confection of floodwater, sewage and drowned vermin might not have wanted to hang boggle-eyed over the torrent. Still, there were plenty of lively spirits to sample the excitement of the bridges and commiserate with fellow citizens. This wasn’t the first time Parisians had expressed a mixture of exhilaration, alarm and solidarity – for one another and for absentees – by congregating at symbolic points in the city.

Flooded streets of Paris

Midway through the last week of January it was dawning on Lépine and his colleagues that all the sandbags in the world wouldn’t stop a flood if the source of rising water was right underneath them. For the crowds going down to the Seine, the meaning of the spectacle was still out there, in the fulminating, yellowish river. They were transfixed by its fury, imagining the first eddies at quay-top level, then the quays becoming waterfalls, and eventually the metamorphosis of the city into a steaming lake, stretching from Montmartre to Montparnasse, its surface broken by gaunt promontories rising out of the mist. Yet the flooding was by now extensive on the Left Bank and parts of the Right: uncontainable volumes of water had already found their way into a vast urban basement riddled with sewers, mains and subways, and now they were bubbling up into the streets.

Much of the Left Bank was already a swamp when the Gare d’Orsay, the jewel in the crown of the Paris-Orléans railway company (and now the Musée d’Orsay), started taking in water. The company had cut the ribbon on the station in 1900, in time for the Exposition Universelle. As the water filled the concourse and platforms, the magnificent windowed arch combined with its image in this motionless soup to form a near perfect oval, like the mouth of an oracle proclaiming the hubris of all great works. It was a trophy subject for photographers.

Water seems to have entered the station along a Paris-Orléans line running beside the Seine, linking the Gare d’Orsay to the company’s original terminal, the Gare d’Austerlitz. At first it sloshed over the wall that was supposed to protect the line; then the cutting filled like a trough. As parts of the stonework on the quays gave way – well below the water level – the Seine began to take possession of the Left Bank.

Yet the creepy part, as inspections near the Gare d’Orsay slowly established, was the way that floodwater made guest appearances in places that should have remained high and dry: for instance the Gare St Lazare, or Concorde, or L’Opéra, all on the opposite bank. The conduit, as it turned out, was the ambitious Nord-Sud line, an under-river Métro link whose stations included the Gare St Lazare on the Right Bank and two more close to the Gare d’Orsay on the Left. The line had only just opened, but the work was not finished. On the Left Bank, building teams accessed the tunnels through holes in the road near the Gare d’Orsay – and now huge quantities of floodwater began to do so as well. By the last week of January it was cascading into the shafts and forcing its way north. As air was squeezed out under pressure and water sucked in to take its place, the entire trench became a kind of siphon, gasping floodwater in from the Left Bank, pulling it under the course of the river and up onto the Right Bank, where it spewed it out into parts of the city some way from the Seine, including the boulevard Haussmann.

The most impressive result could be seen outside the Gare St Lazare, on the cour de Rome – the grand apron in front of the building – and the rest of the square. Here, too, photographers arrived to take up lakeside positions on cobbled shores, or in high apartments offering bird’s eye views. The Daily Mirror described the flooded square as ‘a Dead Sea’. In a wonderful passage in Paris Under Water, Jeffrey Jackson retraces the itinerary of the Daily Telegraph’s man in Paris, Laurence Jerrold, whose first thought on seeing the lake at St Lazare was not Venice, but Sicily, where he’d witnessed the effects of the tidal wave in Messina in 1908. Coming out of the station and into the square, he reported, ‘we shuffled along, looking blankly at what … was now a sheet of filthy, brown, smelling water, in which an omnibus office, a newspaper kiosk all askew, and two or three drunken lamp-posts were islands … hotels, cafés, shops – all empty and dead.’

He made his way to L’Opéra, where the pavements were like jelly. A chasm had opened up in the square in front of the opera house. Before the police roped it off, people could look down at the drowned world of a work-in-progress destined to become the Opéra Métro station. ‘Would whole pieces of Paris collapse?’ Jerrold wondered. ‘Perhaps the whole of Paris really was doomed.’ His despair is a useful antidote to the tinseltown charms of the flood. It honours the darker parts of the story itemised by Jackson: the disaster of mud and debris that broke on the city, the lack of electricity, gas, safe drinking water or public transport; the hundreds of tonnes of food rotting in warehouses, the panicky price hikes, the symmetry of rising water levels and rising crime; the troops deployed around department stores to forestall looting; the ruin of the wine merchants, whose barrels floated out of the Bercy depots; the cruel fate of the horses brought back into service when the trams stopped running.

At the Gare de Lyon (where hundreds of those horses were mustered and stabled), large numbers of people were now seeking refuge, most of them from towns and villages beyond Paris. Wherever the flood had spared the city, people were queuing for food and shelter, from the government and well-born, energetic women of the Red Cross, who would perform with such distinction a few years later. Like the banlieues today, the suburbs were not all wealthy, and they were ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of the flood.

A few kilometres north of Paris and a short journey over the bridge to Argenteuil, the plein air laboratory of the Impressionists, the town of Gennevilliers sits in a looping bend of the Seine. During the night of 28 January, when the river reached its height, there was a tremendous boom as the levees broke. By morning Gennevilliers resembled the remains of a naval battle and indeed the navy, having set sail inland a few days earlier with 300 fold-out canvas skiffs, were soon fetching people to safety from the wreckage. The gas plant near the town was destroyed, a pharmaceutical factory damaged beyond repair and the power station across the way at Clichy knocked out. The long-term costs would be counted in job losses but in the short term 80,000 people in the region were homeless or hungry. Under normal conditions, the Seine rolled leisurely and amply around the town. It was reckoned in those days to be 300-400 metres across, far wider than Caillebotte seems to have it in La Plaine de Gennevilliers (1888), but on the morning of the 29th it measured six kilometres from flank to flank.

That day, to their relief, the Hydrometric Service realised that the level of the Seine was falling. The worst seemed to be over and piece by piece an inventory of the damage could be made, along with preparations for massive cleaning and disinfection. Jackson gets this well: ‘When it came to loss of life, Paris was not Messina after the earthquake.’ There was no cholera or typhus, though fears ran high, and casualties were miraculously low. The Annuaire statistique de la ville de Paris for 1910 counted six deaths by drowning in January; another seven were recorded in February, even as the river eased off. The only known death in Paris at the height of the flood was that of a soldier, Corporal Eugène-Albert Tripier. A nasty current on the Right Bank, opposite the Eiffel Tower, flushed his little boat towards the river like a walnut down a busy drain. When his colleagues went overboard, Tripier struck out through the water to rescue them, but they’d already spotted trees sticking out of the roil and once they reached them, they had the sense to hold on tight. There is no reliable record, in Jackson’s view, of the figure for deaths in the suburbs, but it can’t have been enormous. No record either, for Parisians or suburb dwellers whose lives were shortened, through illness or anxiety, as a result of the flood. The exhibition data give the full cost of the damage to Paris, including compensation, which was hotly debated at the time, at about one billion euros, derived from the figure of 400 million gold francs. That seems low. Most of the animals in the zoo were wrestled or coaxed to safety, including the crocodiles, which tried to head for the river. A giraffe, refusing to condescend to all the fuss, stood calmly in the rising water and later died of pneumonia.

The exhibition in Paris suggests that the city was a victim of its own modernity. Jackson goes further: ‘The flood challenged many of the era’s most basic assumptions about the inevitable force of progress.’ But before we read what happened in 1910 as a story of unintended consequences, it’s worth asking whether the geography of the city wasn’t as important as the visionary engineering. A map produced in 1910 shows the areas of Paris under water that year and compares them with those of 1658. You can see straightaway that parts of the Right Bank where water arrived via the subway were also engulfed by the earlier flood. It’s possible that after weeks of prodigious rainfall and ground saturation an ancient arm of the river was primed, as water came thrashing along the tunnel from the south. Something of the kind happened on the Left Bank, where the little River Bièvre, polluted by the small trades clustering around it in the 19th century, was being paved over and, in Jackson’s words, ‘driven underground’. When it came back to life with a vengeance in the fifth arrondissement, people had to climb to the roofs. As for the gaping hole in front of the opera house, Garnier’s chef d’oeuvre was set on a marsh in any case: he’d even dug a reservoir under the building (domicile fixe of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, published in the same year as the flood).

Many arguments were rehearsed as the river rose and fell. Stern city councillors called for martial law and disgruntled editors attacked ‘seductive innovations’, like the Métro, which had turned into water traps. The anti-Republican right, especially L’Action Française, went bravely into battle against a cohort of imagined enemies. Léon Daudet, son of Alphonse and a staunch anti-Dreyfusard, inveighed against everyone and everything, from the government through greedy railmen to democracy itself. The clergy, still smarting from the 1905 law that separated church and state, took the flood as a sign that France should reclaim its right to the faith. Like the dove returning to the ark, the archbishop had this message firmly in his beak as he flapped officiously over afternoon mass in the Sacré Coeur on 30 January.

It was a while before things returned to normal. In February, Proust was complaining about the smell of disinfectant and the noisy works in the basement of his building on the boulevard Haussmann. By March the trains were running into Paris again. In April the Métro opened. Nowadays there are dams and reservoirs placed around the river basin to reduce the effects of a serious weather event. Rises above the normal level are measured on the Pont d’Austerlitz. An increase of 3.2 metres and a statutory flood warning is issued. At 4.3 metres, navigation is brought to a halt. At 6.1 metres, the Métro stations start closing and at 7 metres the phone lines go down. At 8 metres the grid is liable to fail. On 28 January 1910, when the level of the river peaked at 8.6 metres, Paris should have been dead in the water.

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