Jun 17, 2009

Paris Sewer Museum

The curious underground history of keeping Paris clean

"Paris has another Paris under it; a Paris of sewers; which has its streets, its crossings and roads almost the same as the upper view sans traffic

In 1805, before the advent of the modern sewers, Pierre Bruneseau, an adventurer of sorts, decided to map the ancient and aging sewer system. Although even the police were afraid to enter the sewers, Bruneseau did so, and along the way found lost medieval dungeons, jewels and the skeleton of an escaped orangutan. Bruneseau finished his survey in 1812. The ancient system was described by his friend Victor Hugo in Les Miserables as "fetid, wild, fierce . . . nothing could equal the horror of this old, waste crypt, the digestive apparatus of Babylon." Bruneseau was lauded by Paris as "the most intrepid man in your Empire" and "the Christopher Columbus of the cess-pool."

In 1850 Baron Haussmann and engineer EugËne Belgrand designed the modern Paris sewer system. By 1878 the sewer system was over 373 miles long and today the network extends 2,100 kilometers beneath the streets of Paris, or greater than the length from New York to Miami. Hugo said of the new system "The present sewer is a beautiful sewer; the pure style reigns there..."

The Parisian sewers are a kind of mirror to the streets above. All are large enough to accommodate a person and one could rather easily navigate their way around the entirety of Paris through the sewer system. Each sewer "street" has its own blue and white enamel street sign, and each building's outflow is identified by its real street number. The Parisian sewers have always fascinated tourists and the sewers were opened to the public during the World Exposition of 1867. Tourists were originally given tours on a small locomotive drawn wagon, and then, up until the 1970s, in boats, floating down the wide Parisian sewer canals - a sort of Parisian answer to the gondola. Today the Parisian sewer system is closed to all but the 800 egoutiers or sewer workers, with the exception of course of the Les Egouts de Paris, the sewer museum of Paris.

One of the more intriguing displays in the moderately odorous museum is a giant iron ball. The sewers are regularly cleaned using large wooden or metal spheres just smaller than the systemà­s tubular tunnels. The buildup of water pressure behind the balls forces them through the tunnel network until they emerge somewhere downstream pushing a mass of filthy sludge. Keep an eye out for packages whooshing through the "Pneu" or pneumatic tube system that still runs throughout the Parisian sewer.

Resources from:

Paris Sewer Museum
Pont de l'Alma
Place de la Résistance

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