The idea had been around for a very long time.
It had been discussed by the Roman Emperors Nero
talked about it.
kings François I
, Charles IX
and Henry IV
also discussed the idea.
Even though the idea had been around for at least 1,500 years, it took the determination of Pierre-Paul Riquet
and the support of Louis XIV
to actually make it happen.
Pierre-Paul Riquet was born in Béziers on June 29, 1609.
He first encountered the idea as a child when he attended a meeting of the Council of the Counts of Languedoc with his father (a member of the council).
During the meeting, he saw a presentation of a plan for a canal linking Toulouse with the Mediterranean Sea.
In conjunction with the Garonne River from Toulouse to Bordeaux, such a canal would create a shipping route between the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic coast of France and the Gulf of Lions on the Mediterranean.
Such a route would not only avoid the 3,000 km sea route through Spanish waters, it would also be secure from the threat of pirates on the open ocean.
As an added bonus, it would weaken Spain by depriving her of the toll revenue she collected from ships passing through the Straits of Gibraltar.
The physical obstacle that the canal would have to overcome was the fact that between Toulouse and the Mediterranean the canal would need to reach an altitude of 190 meters.
The technology for building such a canal using a series of locks to raise and lower boats between elevations was well understood by this time.
The key engineering problem that had to be solved before the canal could actually be operated was to find a way to supply the canal system with water.
A canal of the sort proposed is basically a man-made river with flow control devices (i.e. locks) to ensure that the river's current is gentle enough to allow relatively easy water transportation in both directions.
A river, any river, must have a source of water or it will quickly run dry.
The problem of providing the proposed canal with a reliable source of water had rendered futile all previous efforts to build the canal.
Riquet's post as the Controller of the Salt Tax for Languedoc and as a procurer of armaments for the Catalonian army enabled him to build a considerable personal fortune.
The construction of the Canal de Briare in 1642 had demonstrated that it was possible to provide a canal with a water supply by constructing an artificial waterway between watersheds.
An encounter with a water diviner on the Montagne Noire (Black Mountain) provided him with the solution - he would divert a number of streams in the Black Mountains area to the high point of the proposed canal at Naurouze.
On November 16, 1662, he presented his plans for a "Canal de Communication des Deux Mers" (i.e. "canal to connect the two seas") to the French Finance Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert at Versailles.
Colbert agreed to not only provide support for the plan from the Royal Treasury but to also turn over responsibility for the property and administration of the canal to Riquet's family
(Colbert wanted to ensure that Riquet would be properly motivated to develop and operate the plan diligently by virtue of the canal being Riquet's personal property).
Construction of the St. Ferréol reservoir in the Black Mountains began in 1667 with the start of the construction of the first locks near Toulouse in 1668.
The first section of the canal, from Toulouse to Trèbes, was completed by 1672 and financed by Riquet himself.
The second section of the canal, from Trèbes to the Etang de Thau on the Mediterranean near Sète, was financed by the state.
This section was considerably more difficult than the first section as it involved more rugged terrain and included a tunnel under Ensérune Mountain.
The third section of the project was to dramatically expand the port of Sète.
Pierre-Paul Riquet passed away on the first of October, 1680 at the age of 71, with the canal still a few miles from the Mediterranean Sea.
The canal was completed in early 1681 and allowed to fill with water.
Finally, on May 24, 1681, the canal was inaugurated by Corbet.
The opening of the "Royal Canal in Languedoc" (as it was then called) marks the beginning of a new era in French transportation.
Control of the canal passed into the control of the newly formed Republic at the time of the French Revolution.
As with most other things "royal", the name of the canal was changed to "Canal du Midi".
By 1810, the canal was back in the hands of the joint public-private Compagnie du Canal Du Midi.
Gradual silting which interfered with navigation on the Garonne River resulted in a plan to build a canal along the river.
This new canal, built between 1838 and 1856, is called "Canal Latéral à la Garonne" or "Lateral Canal to the Garonne".
It runs along the Garonne River from Toulouse to Castets en Dorthe where it joins the Garonne for the final stretch to Bordeaux.
The pair of canals is today known as "Canal des Deux Mers" or "Canal of the Two Seas".
In 1858, control of the canals was transferred to the railway company which had just completed a competing railway link between Bordeaux and Narbonne.
This led to the canals' decline.
Control of the Canal du Midi passed back to the state in 1898 where it remains today.
Commercial shipping on the Canal du Midi came to an end in the early 1970s although the canal is still in operation today for pleasure craft.
The Canal du Midi and the Canal des Deux Mers were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1996.
- The web site titled Le Canal du Midi located at http://www.canalmidi.com/ (last accessed 2003/04/26)
- The web page titled The Canal du Midi - the Story of Pierre-Paul Riquet located at http://www.franceforfreebooters.com/Article5.htm (last accessed 2003/04/26)
- The web page titled Le Canal du Midi located at http://www.frenchconnections.co.uk/frenchlife/jj2.asp (last accessed 2003/04/26)
- The web site titled Canal des Deux Mers - Canal du Midi - Canal Latéral à la Garonne located at http://www.canal-du-midi.org/ (last accessed 2003/04/26)