The excavation of the sewer of Paris has been no slight task.
The last ten centuries have toiled at it without being able to
bring it to a termination, any more than they have been able to
finish Paris. The sewer, in fact, receives all the counter-shocks
of the growth of Paris. Within the bosom of the earth, it is a sort
of mysterious polyp with a thousand antennae, which expands below
as the city expands above. Every time that the city cuts a street,
the sewer stretches out an arm. The old monarchy had constructed
only twenty-three thousand three hundred metres of sewers; that was
where Paris stood in this respect on the first of January, 1806.
Beginning with this epoch, of which we shall shortly speak,
the work was usefully and energetically resumed and prosecuted;
Napoleon built--the figures are curious--four thousand eight
hundred and four metres; Louis XVIII., five thousand seven hundred
and nine; 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; in all,
at the present time, two hundred and twenty-six thousand six hundred
and ten metres; sixty leagues of sewers; the enormous entrails
of Paris. An obscure ramification ever at work; a construction
which is immense and ignored.
As the reader sees, the subterranean labyrinth of Paris is to-day
more than ten times what it was at the beginning of the century.
It is difficult to form any idea of all the perseverance and the efforts
which have been required to bring this cess-pool to the point of
relative perfection in which it now is. It was with great difficulty
that the ancient monarchical provostship and, during the last ten
years of the eighteenth century, the revolutionary mayoralty,
had succeeded in perforating the five leagues of sewer which existed
previous to 1806. All sorts of obstacles hindered this operation,
some peculiar to the soil, others inherent in the very prejudices
of the laborious population of Paris. Paris is built upon a soil
which is singularly rebellious to the pick, the hoe, the bore,
and to human manipulation. There is nothing more difficult to
pierce and to penetrate than the geological formation upon which
is superposed the marvellous historical formation called Paris;
as soon as work in any form whatsoever is begun and adventures
upon this stretch of alluvium, subterranean resistances abound.
There are liquid clays, springs, hard rocks, and those soft
and deep quagmires which special science calls moutardes.
The pick advances laboriously through the calcareous layers
alternating with very slender threads of clay, and schistose beds
in plates incrusted with oyster-shells, the contemporaries of the
pre-Adamite oceans. Sometimes a rivulet suddenly bursts through
a vault that has been begun, and inundates the laborers; or a layer
of marl is laid bare, and rolls down with the fury of a cataract,
breaking the stoutest supporting beams like glass. Quite recently,
at Villette, when it became necessary to pass the collecting sewer
under the Saint-Martin canal without interrupting navigation or
emptying the canal, a fissure appeared in the basin of the canal,
water suddenly became abundant in the subterranean tunnel, which was
beyond the power of the pumping engines; it was necessary to send
a diver to explore the fissure which had been made in the narrow
entrance of the grand basin, and it was not without great difficulty
that it was stopped up. Elsewhere near the Seine, and even at a
considerable distance from the river, as for instance, at Belleville,
Grand-Rue and Lumiere Passage, quicksands are encountered in which
one sticks fast, and in which a man sinks visibly. Add suffocation
by miasmas, burial by slides, and sudden crumbling of the earth.
Add the typhus, with which the workmen become slowly impregnated.
In our own day, after having excavated the gallery of Clichy,
with a banquette to receive the principal water-conduit of Ourcq,
a piece of work which was executed in a trench ten metres deep;
after having, in the midst of land-slides, and with the aid of
excavations often putrid, and of shoring up, vaulted the Bievre
from the Boulevard de l'Hopital, as far as the Seine; after having,
in order to deliver Paris from the floods of Montmartre and in order
to provide an outlet for that river-like pool nine hectares in extent,
which crouched near the Barriere des Martyrs, after having,
let us state, constructed the line of sewers from the Barriere Blanche
to the road of Aubervilliers, in four months, working day and night,
at a depth of eleven metres; after having--a thing heretofore unseen--
made a subterranean sewer in the Rue Barre-du-Bec, without a trench,
six metres below the surface, the superintendent, Monnot, died.
After having vaulted three thousand metres of sewer in all quarters
of the city, from the Rue Traversiere-Saint-Antoine to the Rue de
l'Ourcine, after having freed the Carrefour Censier-Mouffetard
from inundations of rain by means of the branch of the Arbalete,
after having built the Saint-Georges sewer, on rock and concrete
in the fluid sands, after having directed the formidable lowering of
the flooring of the vault timber in the Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth branch,
Duleau the engineer died. There are no bulletins for such acts of
bravery as these, which are more useful, nevertheless, than the brutal
slaughter of the field of battle.
The sewers of Paris in 1832 were far from being what they are
to-day. Bruneseau had given the impulse, but the cholera was
required to bring about the vast reconstruction which took place
later on. It is surprising to say, for example, that in 1821,
a part of the belt sewer, called the Grand Canal, as in Venice,
still stood stagnating uncovered to the sky, in the Rue des Gourdes.
It was only in 1821 that the city of Paris found in its pocket
the two hundred and sixty-thousand eighty francs and six centimes
required for covering this mass of filth. The three absorbing
wells, of the Combat, the Cunette, and Saint-Mande, with their
discharging mouths, their apparatus, their cesspools, and their
depuratory branches, only date from 1836. The intestinal sewer
of Paris has been made over anew, and, as we have said, it has
been extended more than tenfold within the last quarter of a century.
Thirty years ago, at the epoch of the insurrection of the 5th and 6th
of June, it was still, in many localities, nearly the same ancient sewer.
A very great number of streets which are now convex were then
sunken causeways. At the end of a slope, where the tributaries
of a street or cross-roads ended, there were often to be seen large,
square gratings with heavy bars, whose iron, polished by the footsteps
of the throng, gleamed dangerous and slippery for vehicles,
and caused horses to fall. The official language of the Roads
and Bridges gave to these gratings the expressive name of Cassis.
 From casser, to break: break-necks.
In 1832, in a number of streets, in the Rue de l'Etoile, the Rue
Saint-Louis, the Rue du Temple, the Rue Vielle-duTemple, the Rue
Notre-Dame de Nazareth, the Rue Folie-Mericourt, the Quai aux Fleurs,
the Rue du Petit-Muse, the Rue du Normandie, the Rue Pont-Aux-Biches,
the Rue des Marais, the Faubourg Saint-Martin, the Rue Notre Dame
des-Victoires, the Faubourg Montmartre, the Rue Grange-Bateliere,
in the Champs-Elysees, the Rue Jacob, the Rue de Tournon,
the ancient gothic sewer still cynically displayed its maw.
It consisted of enormous voids of stone catch-basins sometimes
surrounded by stone posts, with monumental effrontery.
Paris in 1806 still had nearly the same sewers numerically as stated
in 1663; five thousand three hundred fathoms. After Bruneseau,
on the 1st of January, 1832, it had forty thousand three hundred metres.
Between 1806 and 1831, there had been built, on an average,
seven hundred and fifty metres annually, afterwards eight and even
ten thousand metres of galleries were constructed every year,
in masonry, of small stones, with hydraulic mortar which hardens
under water, on a cement foundation. At two hundred francs the metre,
the sixty leagues of Paris' sewers of the present day represent
In addition to the economic progress which we have indicated
at the beginning, grave problems of public hygiene are connected
with that immense question: the sewers of Paris.
Paris is the centre of two sheets, a sheet of water and a sheet of air.
The sheet of water, lying at a tolerably great depth underground,
but already sounded by two bores, is furnished by the layer of green
clay situated between the chalk and the Jurassic lime-stone; this layer
may be represented by a disk five and twenty leagues in circumference;
a multitude of rivers and brooks ooze there; one drinks the Seine,
the Marne, the Yonne, the Oise, the Aisne, the Cher, the Vienne
and the Loire in a glass of water from the well of Grenelle.
The sheet of water is healthy, it comes from heaven in the first
place and next from the earth; the sheet of air is unhealthy,
it comes from the sewer. All the miasms of the cess-pool are mingled
with the breath of the city; hence this bad breath. The air taken
from above a dung-heap, as has been scientifically proved, is purer
than the air taken from above Paris. In a given time, with the aid
of progress, mechanisms become perfected, and as light increases,
the sheet of water will be employed to purify the sheet of air;
that is to say, to wash the sewer. The reader knows, that by "washing
the sewer" we mean: the restitution of the filth to the earth;
the return to the soil of dung and of manure to the fields.
Through this simple act, the entire social community will
experience a diminution of misery and an augmentation of health.
At the present hour, the radiation of diseases from Paris extends
to fifty leagues around the Louvre, taken as the hub of this
We might say that, for ten centuries, the cess-pool has been the disease
of Paris. The sewer is the blemish which Paris has in her blood.
The popular instinct has never been deceived in it. The occupation
of sewermen was formerly almost as perilous, and almost as repugnant
to the people, as the occupation of knacker, which was so long
held in horror and handed over to the executioner. High wages
were necessary to induce a mason to disappear in that fetid mine;
the ladder of the cess-pool cleaner hesitated to plunge into it;
it was said, in proverbial form: "to descend into the sewer is to
enter the grave;" and all sorts of hideous legends, as we have said,
covered this colossal sink with terror; a dread sink-hole which bears
the traces of the revolutions of the globe as of the revolutions
of man, and where are to be found vestiges of all cataclysms from
the shells of the Deluge to the rag of Marat.