People had spent years wondering what secrets lay at the bottom of the canal, and now crowds were waiting to find out and see for themselves.
They knew that what lay beneath was full of muck, but they had how dirty the secret they would find would actually be. It happened so suddenly that the onlookers weren’t entirely sure what they saw.
At 54 years old, Bernard Marc had seen Paris develop into the sprawling city that it was today. He had lived here his whole life and had seen people from all walks of life.
This was the city where he fell in love with the woman of his dreams and where he’d raised his two beautiful children. As such, he wanted the best for them and signed up to clean up the city, but he could never have anticipated what he’d find.
Paris is full of canals. One of the most known is Canal Saint-Martin. It was originally built so more of the city could get clean water. It was also used to carry boats full of essential supplies like food.
But these days, the canal has fallen from grace and isn’t exactly what it used to be.
He noticed over the years that a lot of people disrespected the canal. They would throw away their waste as if it was a trash can. He happily volunteered to aid in cleaning it up and bringing it back to its former glory.
But nothing would prepare him for what he would find once he was down in the canal.
The canal had a rich history and saw many events throughout the centuries. Tourists and locals alike loved to come marvel at the once-great canal.
So people gathered from all around when it was announced that the canal would be drained to clean it out. They wanted to see what had been left in the canal over the centuries.
The canal, which was 4.5kms long, had been built when Napoleon I signed off the plans and gave the construction crew the green light.
The canal’s original purpose was to give the population of 550,000 clean drinking water – however, there was a possibility that the number of Parisians would increase. But that wasn’t all the canal had been built for – it also served a much darker purpose.
Napoleon hoped that access to clean water would help eliminate water-borne diseases – like Dysentery and Cholera – that were spreading like wildfire throughout Paris’ population.
When the canal was completed, it encircled three miles of Paris, so it was also used to transport food and building supplies to the area’s residents.
Within the next two decades, two more canals like Saint-Martin were built with the same purpose in mind. Their predecessor had been so successful that the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Canal Saint-Denis were built.
Canal de l’Ourcq was 3.4 meters wide and a staggering 108 kilometers long – snaking all the way from Bassin de la Villette to Port-Aux-Perches and joining the Canal Saint-Martin. An important detail to remember is that these canals are centuries old.
Of the three canals, Saint-Martin is the most notorious. It flowed silently underground from the Place de la Bastille to the Bassin de l’Arsenal – a place heavily associated with the French Revolution that took place in 1789-1799 when a prisoner was attacked.
Given the canal’s bloody and dark history, the authorities truly had no idea what lay waiting in the murky water.
Today, Wealthy young Parisians are often spotted gathered on the bank or inside popular cafes, while tourists prefer to visit bridges and other landmarks for sightseeing and photo opportunities.
The infamous canal serves not only as a tourist hotspot but also as a place for locals to relax. Bernard is one such local.
Over the years, Bernard had often sat by the canal enjoying coffee with his family. But now he was in a waterproof suit with a hose in his hand, ready for the job to start.
The work started early, at around 6 in the morning. The whole operation to start draining the infamous canal had gone well so far. But that would soon change.
The last 200 years have certainly taken a toll on the old canal. Officials are now making a concerted effort to drain it completely and remove everything that has found its way to the bottom.
They make a huge effort to do this every ten to 15 years. However, things were a little different this time.
Paris, the “City of Lights,” was actually hiding many secrets in the dark waters of the notorious canal. In fact, some items at the bottom of Canal Saint-Martin were so bizarre that they jarred Parisians into watching the spectacle unfold from the banks.
Throngs of people stood rapt as the draining operation was underway. Of course, no one expected what they found.
When the canal was drained for the very first time back in 2001, over 40 tons of waste was removed from the water. But the strangest and most historical finds were gold bullets and bombshells from WWI.
Stranger still was an automobile from the era that was lifted off the sandy bottom as onlookers watched in suspense. What would they uncover this time?
As the water drained from the canal, Bernard was curious to see what it was hiding in its depths. As he looked at the surface of the swirling water, he could swear that something caught his eye.
Something didn’t feel right to Bernard. As the water swirled, something stirred in his chest. Something was wrong.
The water kept being drained until it was only 50cm high. Now the workers, including Bernard, leaped down into the knee-high water clean up by hand.
He put on his gloves, grabbed his net, and waded deeper into the water. It was brown and murky, he didn’t like this. He heard a voice in his mind screaming that something was wrong.
The net he trawled the water with instantly caught resistance as old trash filled it to the brim. He made the mistake of looking at the net and almost vomited in disgust.
He walked over to the huge trash cans to dump the nets-worth of trash inside. But before he got there, he tripped on something in the water and looked back as the surface split into two.
He had no idea what he was looking at. He just knew he needed to get out of there quickly. But before he had a chance to back up, water started to splash violently around him.
Seeing the trouble Bernard was in, a co-volunteer rushed toward him to see what was happening. “Stay still, Bernard!” he cautioned. “Let me get a closer look.”
The man grabbed his net and cleared some of the trash away. What came into view left them both in a state of turmoil.
Bernard could just about make out the shape of the biggest fish he had ever seen. Its eyes were alert with aggression and fear as it tried to break itself free from the astonishing object that was holding it.
Bernard helped the man free the giant trout from a wheel of a vintage scouter that must have cost a very pretty penny once upon a time. They then scooped up the beast in a net and transferred it to a more suitable habitat. It was just the first of many rescues that day.
Bernard and his team fished out more than five tons of carp, trout, and bream and removed more than 40 tons of waste from the water. But that’s not all.
Walking along the shallow depths was like walking on a dumpsite filled with thousands of bikes.
“It’s like some kind of weird submarine treasure,” said a local Parisian onlooker. “I just can’t believe the quantity of Vélibs in there. I guess they were stolen and thrown in afterward. It’s bizarre,” he shrugged.
As the waters were receding with the continuous draining, wheelie bins, mopeds, and bicycles were recovered from the depths of the base of the canal. A toilet came into plain sight in the canal and was recovered as one of the essentials that were decomposing to add to the murk.
That added a pang of humor to the whole endeavor. But what was even harder to believe was how much this operation cost the city.
Paris had to shell out more than $10 million to execute this much-needed cleaning operation. But with the amount of tourist attraction and property development the canal attracts, it’s important to keep it from falling into despair.
An unkempt canal can negatively affect tourist attractions and property pricing around the area. As for Bernard, he had other worries…
“That’s Paris for you. It’s filthy,” Bernard sighed. What’s more, it appears to only be getting worse. Bernard and authorities now know they are dealing with a waste crisis when it comes to the canal.
“The last time [the canal drained], I don’t remember seeing so much rubbish in it. I despair. The youth are using it as a dustbin.”
Even more strange, a pair of motorcycles were also found as the waters continued to drop. How did such expensive pieces of transportation end up dumped in the canal?
The truth may never be known. But the findings get weirder. While much of the rubbish revealed at the bottom of the canal was of the sort that you might expect, some definitely wasn’t.
Items such as glass bottles, shopping bags, and traffic cones – some of it left locals puzzling over exactly how such objects had ever ended up in the water. An office chair was also among the collectibles. Its discovery evoked a level of skepticism.
Was an office personnel missing a much-anticipated party in the 10th arrondissement that the user traveled on the wheels of the chair? Quite ridiculous, right?
Further, as the collection of clean-up staff carried on with the enormous job, they also got to have a peek at a gross suitcase that lay beneath the water.
What was inside? One crew member was left with no other option but to go pick up a traffic cone that bobbed to the surface. However, the government itself is quite aware of the issue of trash finding its way into the canal.
Using the publicity of the draining project, Paris’ deputy mayor Celia Blauel encouraged the populace to stop using the canal as a dump.
“If everyone mucks in and avoids throwing anything into the water, we might be able to swim in the canal in a few years,” she said in an interview. Given the canal’s significance, there’s a good argument to be made for keeping it clean.
After the recovery of these items that could have otherwise remained in oblivion, it is quite unfortunate that Parisians and other migrants had to dig deep into their pockets to pay for homes along the canal’s vicinity.
The prices reach up to a whopping $9000 just for the acquisition of property along the 10th arrondissement, oblivious of the hidden mysteries beneath the highly regarded district.
The Canal Saint-Martin has been a huge part of the Parisian culture from the beginning. It has served as an inspiration for many artists, such as impressionist painter Alfred Sisley, whose works can be admired at the Orsay Museum.
It’s been featured in many movies, including the highly-acclaimed Amélie. Today, the canal hosts many elaborate works of graffiti as well as a large multimedia art space at 104 rue d’Aubervilliers. In order to protect the privacy of those depicted, some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed and are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblances to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.