Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 12/3/2010 (2748 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Paris Under Water
How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910
By Jeffrey H. Jackson
Palgrave Macmillan, 262 pages, $32
Forget southern Manitoba and North Dakota.
This is the eventful story of the flooding in Paris of the Seine River in January 1910, and the manner in which people continued living in the Third Republic founded under Napoleon III.
As American historian Jeffrey H. Jackson demonstrates, Parisians' unity was remarkable, considering the many kinds of divisions, political and otherwise, in the population. It was little more than a generation since the city was under siege during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)
Jackson, who teaches at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., tells this story in extraordinary detail. With 10 years working in the Parisian archives, he knows the sources. A previous work, Making Jazz French, led to his contributing to a related project on PBS.
Jackson writes with clarity and confidence. As a reflective historian, he examines the event of 1910 in relation to the present day. He comments on issues of ecology, including effects of the 1997 flood on Grand Forks, (though he does not range north of the American border).
His introduction explains the geographical setting of Paris in relation to the Seine and tributaries. He examines the behaviour of key people, such a the police prefect, a power figure in a city where authority had been taken over by the National Assembly. He takes great pains to reconstruct the behaviour of Parisians in general.
He describes the almost casual reaction of Parisians as the main river rose.
At least in the first couple of days, they reacted in the spirit of their city's Latin motto, Fluctuat nec Murgitur (She is tossed about by the waves, but does not sink). After all, the Seine had been known to rise in the winter before. They even built wooden walkways (passerelles) to facilitate moving about in spite of the flooding.
For a couple of days at least, watching from the bridges as the Seine continued rising was like a spectator sport for a certain element.
But anxiety set in, Jackson explains, when the Seine rose almost overnight to the shoulders of the statue of the Zouave (the colonial soldier) atop one of the main bridges, 5.5 metres above normal.
Water pouring into homes and shops soon changed the City of Light into the city of stink. "Noxious smells filled the air, including rotting food and human waste from overflowing sewers and cesspools."
Suddenly the almost new d'Orsay station, today the museum that houses hundreds of Impressionists works, had its tracks flooded. Dozens of workers, engineers and soldiers worked tirelessly sandbagging the side of the Louvre facing the Seine. Rumours spread that the Eiffel Tower had collapsed (it had not).
Until about the end of January, the police, reinforced by the army, maintained order and rescued people. Paris was nevertheless a scary place for about a week.
Newspapers kept publishing, but they carried daily reports of deaths and near-deaths. Gas street lamps, which had to be lit and extinguished daily by hand, remained unlit. As people had to be evacuated, they feared their homes were vulnerable to looting.
Jackson has a capacity for dramatic description. He is similarly effective in telling of the return to normal in the weeks following the flood.
As he explains, the government commissioned a thorough investigation of the causes of the flood and the resulting reports led to "conclusions about how to improve the city's engineering."
He notes the widespread expression of confidence that a spirit of unity had been encouraged by coping with the flood — a spirit that would serve Parisians well in their next big challenge, the First World War.