How the Canal de Bourgogne was built

How the Canal de Bourgogne was built

Changing the power… from horse, steam, diesel to electric power

A view across the water

The history of the Canal of Burgundy is long and complicated, from the first projects in the 17th century to the actual beginnings of construction, the numerous strikes by the construction workers and builders, to recent political decisions concerning the future financing of the canal. Even today there is uncertainty and doubt for the viability and use of the waterway.

In 1607 the first act towards the construction of the Burgundy canal was the tax placed on the local farmers to help the financing of the canal section between Dijon and Saint Jean de Losne. It was not until 1696, when a study realised by Vauban, who considered the 5 possible routes the canal could use to connect the rivers Saône and Yonne. There were many arguments concerning the route of the canal, civil engineers who disagreed, local mayors who desired the canal to pass as closely as possible, for they understood the economical importance of the trade that would arrive, land owners wishing to sell at very interesting prices.

A project by Mr de la Jonchere in 1718, saw the canal with it’s summit at the small town of Sombernon, the States of Burgundy charged Mr Abeille in 1724 with the mission of studying the Pouillenay valley. He conclusions concerning the canal were given three years later. The route of the canal was finally decided and accepted.

At the beginning of the reign of Louis XVI in 1765, the construction of the Burgundy canal began on the side of the Yonne working upstream towards the town of Tonnerre, a few years later the work began on the Saône side towards Dijon. The cost of the construction was assumed by the French state on the Yonne side up to the limits of Burgundy, and the Burgundy state with a subvention financed the rest of the construction.

The Yonne side of the canal fell rapidly behind schedule, and due to poor funding the construction of the canal halted in 1793. The state of Burgundy however, pushed ahead and the canal was completed between the city of Dijon and the river Saône, on the 14th of December 1808 the first barges arrived in the port of Dijon. During the revolution all work was stopped.

Even with the insistence of Napoleon the 1st, difficulties concerning the construction and the continual poor funding of the project, the canal construction could not advance. It was not until 1822, after a loan of 25 million francs, that the enthusiasm and courage came forth to complete the project. On the 28th of December 1832 a barge crossed the summit of the canal via the tunnel, and the Burgundy canal at last connected the north of France to the south, the river Seine connected to the river Rhone.

The final part of the construction of the Burgundy canal was the complicated and impressive tunnel which is at the summit. This tunnel is 3.333 kilometres long in a straight line, you must remember that at these times 90% of the work was manual. At its deepest section there is 48 metres of land above the tunnel. The building of the tunnel began in 1826 and was terminated in 1832, the work was very difficult and dangerous, and quite a few workers lost their lives during the digging. The tunnel is ventilated by 32 wells, which climb to the surface; they were also used to assist in excavating the earth during the digging. the tunnels were added to the construction after a few years of operation, after it was realized that the pollution generated by the steal boat tug was dangerous.

The Burgundy Canal Tunnel is wide enough for only one barge to pass at a time, so a traffic system has always been used, (managed by the lock keepers at both ends). There was no room for a horse to tow the barge, so they crossed over the hill along the tree alley where the wells can still be seen. Meanwhile, until a tug system was developed, the men had to pull on a special cable and using gaffs to haul the barge through the tunnel. The first tug arrived on the canal in 1867, as steam powered vessel continued to pull barges through until 1893 when an electrical tug was installed.