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Future Progress

Digging the sewerage of Paris was no small task. The last ten centuries have toiled at it without being able to finish, any more than they could finish Paris. The sewer, in fact, receives all the counterstrokes of the growth of Paris. It is in the ground a species of dark polypus with a thousand antennæ, which grows below, equally with the city above. Each time that the city forms a street, the sewer stretches out an arm. The old monarchy only constructed twenty-three thousand three hundred metres of sewers, and Paris had reached that point on Jan. 1, 1806. From this period, to which we shall presently revert, the work has been usefully and energetically taken up and continued. Napoleon built—and the figures are curious—four thousand eight hundred and four metres; Charles X., ten thousand eight hundred and thirty-six; Louis Philippe, eighty-nine thousand and twenty; the Republic of 1848, twenty-three thousand three hundred and eighty-one; the present government, seventy thousand five hundred: all together two hundred and twenty-six thousand six hundred metres, or sixty leagues, of sewer,—the enormous entrails of Paris,—an obscure ramification constantly at work, an unknown and immense construction. As we see, the subterranean labyrinth of Paris is, at the present day, more than tenfold what it was at the beginning of the century. It would be difficult to imagine all the perseverance and efforts required to raise this cloaca to the point of relative perfection at which it now is. It was with great trouble that the old monarchical Provostry, and in the last ten years of the eighteenth century the revolutionary Mayoralty, succeeded in boring the five leagues of sewers which existed prior to 1806. All sorts of obstacles impeded this operation; some peculiar to the nature of the soil, others inherent in the prejudices of the working population of Paris. Paris is built on a stratum strangely rebellious to the pick, the spade, the borer, and human manipulation. Nothing is more difficult to pierce and penetrate than this geological formation on which the marvellous historical formation called Paris is superposed. So soon as labor in any shape ventures into this layer of alluvium, subterranean resistances abound. They are liquid clay, running springs, hard rocks, and that soft and deep mud which the special science calls “mustard.” The pick advances laboriously in the calcareous layers alternating with very thin veins of clay and schistose strata incrusted with oyster-shells, which are contemporaries of the Pre-Adamite oceans. At times a stream suddenly bursts into a tunnel just commenced, and inundates the workmen, or a slip of chalk takes place and rushes forward with the fury of a cataract, breaking like glass the largest supporting shores. Very recently at La Villette, when it was found necessary to carry the collecting sewer under the St. Martin canal without stopping the navigation or letting off the water, a fissure formed in the bed of the canal, and the water poured into the tunnel deriding the efforts of the draining-pumps. It was found necessary to employ a diver to seek for the fissure which was in the mouth of the great basin, and it was only stopped up with great difficulty. Elsewhere, near the Seine, and even at some distance from the river, as, for instance, at Belleville, Grande Rue, and Passage Lunière, bottomless sands are found, in which men have been swallowed up. Add asphyxia by miasmas, interment by slips and sudden breaking in of the soil; add typhus, too, with which the workmen are slowly impregnated. In our days, after having hollowed the gallery of Clichy with a banquette to convey the mainwater conduit of the Ourque, a work performed by trenches ten metres in depth; after having arched the Bièvre from the Boulevard de l’Hôpital to the Seine, in the midst of earth-slips and by the help of trenching often through putrid matter, and of shores; after having, in order to deliver Paris from the torrent-like waters of the Montmartre, and give an outlet to the fluviatic pond of twenty-three acres which stagnated near the Barrière des Martyrs; after having, we say, constructed the line of sewers from the Barrière Blanche to the Aubervilliers road, in four months, by working day and night at a depth of eleven metres; after having—a thing unknown before—executed subterraneously a sewer in the Rue Barre du Bec, without trench, at a depth of six metres, the surveyor Monnot died. After arching three thousand metres of sewer in all parts of the city, from the Rue Traversière St. Antoine to the Rue de l’Ourcine; after having, by the Arbalète branch, freed the Censier-Mouffetard square from pluvial inundations; after having constructed the St. George sewer through liquid sand upon rubble and béton, and after having lowered the formidable pitch of the Nôtre Dame de Nazareth branch, the engineer Duleau died. There are no bulletins for such acts of bravery, which are more useful, however, than the brutal butchery of battle-fields.

The sewers of Paris were in 1832 far from being what they are now. Bruneseau gave the impulse, but it required the cholera to determine the vast reconstruction which has taken place since. It is surprising to say, for instance, that in 1821 a portion of the begirding sewer, called the Grand Canal, as at Venice, still stagnated in the open air, in the Rue des Gourdes. It was not till 1823 that the city of Paris found in its pocket the twenty-six thousand six hundred and eighty francs, six centimes, needed for covering this turpitude. The three absorbing wells of the Combat, la Cunette, and St. Mandé, with their disgorging apparatus, draining-wells, and deodorizing branches, merely date from 1836. The intestine canal of Paris has been re-made, and, as we said, augmented more than tenfold during the last quarter of a century. Thirty years ago, at the period of the insurrection of June 5 and 6, it was still in many parts almost the old sewer. A great number of streets, now convex, were at that time broken causeways. There could be frequently seen at the bottom of the water-sheds of streets and squares, large square gratings, whose iron glistened from the constant passage of the crowd, dangerous and slippery for vehicles, and throwing horses down. The official language of the department of the roads and bridges gave these gratings the expressive name of Cassis. In 1832 in a number of streets,—Rue de l’Étoile, Rue St. Louis, Rue du Temple, Rue Vieille du Temple, Rue Nôtre Dame de Nazareth, Rue Folie Méricourt, Quai aux Fleurs, Rue du Petit Muse, Rue de Normandie, Rue Pont aux Biches, Rue des Marais, Faubourg St. Martin, Rue Nôtre Dame des Victoires, Faubourg Montmartre, Rue Grange Batelière, at the Champs Élysées, the Rue Jacob, and the Rue de Tournon, the old Gothic cloaca still cynically displayed its throats. They were enormous stone orifices, sometimes surrounded with posts, with a monumental effrontery. Paris in 1806 was much in the same state as regards sewers as in May, 1663,—five thousand three hundred and twenty-eight toises. After Bruneseau, on Jan. 1, 1832, there were forty thousand three hundred metres. From 1806 to 1831 seven hundred and fifty metres were on the average constructed annually; since then eight and even ten thousand metres have been made every year in brick-work, with a coating of concrete on a foundation of b£ton. At two hundred francs the metre, the sixty leagues of drainage in the Paris of to-day represent forty-eight million francs.

In addition to the economic progress to which we alluded at the outset, serious considerations as to the public health are attached to this immense question,—the drainage of Paris. Paris is situated between two sheets,—a sheet of water and a sheet of air. The sheet of water, lying at a very great depth, but already tapped by two borings, is supplied by the stratum of green sandstone situated between the chalk and the Jurassic limestone; this stratum may be represented by a disc with a radius of twenty-five leagues; a multitude of rivers and streams drip into it, and the Seine, the Marne, the Yonne, the Oisin, the Aisne, the Cher, the Vienne, and the Loire are drunk in a glass of water from the Grenelle well. The sheet of water is salubrious, for it comes from the sky first, and then from the earth; but the sheet of air is unhealthy, for it comes from the sewer. All the miasmas of the cloaca are mingled with the breathing of the city; hence this bad breath. The atmosphere taken from above a dungheap, it has been proved scientifically, is purer than the atmosphere taken from over Paris. Within a given time, by the aid of progress, improvements in machinery, and enlightenment, the sheet of water will be employed to purify the sheet of air, that is to say, to wash the sewer. It is known that by washing the sewer we mean restoring the ordure to the earth by sending dung to the arable lands and manure to the grass lands. Through this simple fact there will be for the whole social community a diminution of wretchedness and an augmentation of health. At the present hour the radiation of the diseases of Paris extends for fifty leagues round the Louvre, taken as the axle of this pestilential wheel.

We might say that for the last ten centuries the cloaca has been the misery of Paris, and the sewer is the viciousness which the city has in its blood. The popular instinct has never been deceived, and the trade of the sewer-man was formerly almost as dangerous and almost as repulsive to the people as that of the horse-slaughterer, which so long was regarded with horror and left to the hangman. Great wages were required to induce a bricklayer to disappear in this fetid sap; the ladder of the well-digger hesitated to plunge into it. It was said proverbially, “Going into the sewer is entering the tomb;” and all sorts of hideous legends, as we said, covered this colossal cesspool with terrors. It is a formidable fosse which bears traces of the revolutions of the globe as well as the revolutions of men; and vestiges may be found there of every cataclysm from the shells of the Deluge to the ragged sheet of Marat.

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