Flood 1910

Welcome back to Paname a podcast that likes to poke its nose into the obscure stories form Paris past.

Paris has avoided destruction time and time again in her long history.  Saint Genevieve got down on her knees and as if by miracle Attila and his horde avoided Paris, Vikings came and went, siege, disease and urban planners all reeked havoc on Paris. Both World War I and II threated Paris with ruin. So it was surprising for me to learn that the Seine, the river that runs through Paris, fundamental to the cities identity, providing Parisians not only with the reference of right and left bank but art, military protection, trade, food, water, industry and tourisms very nearly caused its downfall. I’ve known about the great flood of 1910 for a while. You can still see places where it is marked on the walls as to how high the waters rose and if you Google search the flood you can see rather charming photos of Parisians dressed in bowler hats and women with long dresses precariously walking through the flooded streets on makeshift bridges or being rowed through the city. How quaint, I thought it all looked from a distance. How funny to see such well dressed people balancing on chairs as they made their way through flooded parks. There is even footage you can watch on youtube of people rowing boats down boulevards, gazing down from bridges at the water rushing by or down to flooded metro entrances and struggling to get through the city with horse drawn carrage. Familiar sights like the Eiffel tower or the Orsay transformed, surrounded or filled with water. I started thinking about this subject because this years heavy rain meant that the siene nearly flooded and everyone was quite concered so thought I would investigate further to see what happened to paris and the Parisians and the toll it took on Paris. Most of my research comes from the great book ‘Paris underwater’ by Jeffery H Jackson.

Now come with me as we travel back to January 1910 and a very wet winter. Cities have lots of strange traditions and lore. In Paris the river Seine is measured by how high it comes up on the body of the statues under the Pont d’Alma, especially that of Zouave. Zouve himself represents a soldier from the Crimean war he looks very dapper in his uniform, a cape flowing behind him and a gun by his side as he looks contemplatively out Eastwards as if he is ready to leap into action should Paris need him. The water is usually well below his feet, but every winter it rises, sometimes making it to his toes – this year it reached to around his knees meaning that the walkways along the seine were closed and the boats which normally take tourists down the river were not in operation, partly as they were inaccessible but also as they no longer would fit under the bridges. However in 1910  Zouave had his shoulders in the water and Parisians all got their feet wet.


The city of Paris sits in a kind of basin, rising up on the right bank where you can see the Mont saint Genevieve with the Pantheon on top and on the other side the hills of Montmartre and Belleville. The Marias, now a neighbourhood full of trendy boutiques actually means ‘swamp’ as that what it used to be. Paris used to be a much wetter place – and the seine a lot bigger. When the Romans kicked the Parisii out of Paris in the First Centaury it is not surprising they chose to settle in the higher ground of the right bank. The very word the Roman used for Paris Lutetia, likely comes from the Latin world Lutum meaning mud. The seine river, although vital for life in Paris has always been tricky and would often flood. But by the turn of the 20th centaury people thought they had finally managed to tame it. How wrong they were. As with most disasters it was not one thing but rather a catalogue of events which saw the terrible flood occur in 1910.


January 1910 had been, like this year, cold and rainy. In fact 1909 had seen a lot more rainfall than usual and groundwater was very high as was the Seine, Zouve’s toes were already wet by early January 1910, But unlike other years the water was rising faster than usual and the sodden ground was not absorbing it. Paris engineers were aware that there was a problem, a town upriver from Paris had been flooded and they were working to reinforce the banks. Edmond Maillet an gifted engineer working for the Hydrometric Service and was in charge of monitoring the seine – but for personal reasons, on the 16th of January, just when he was most needed he had to abandon his post, leaving a less experienced person in his place. This was especially bad timing, as the data system in place to let Paris know of rising water levels had been knocked out by the, well, rising water. Edmond, with 11 years of experience may have been able to predict the disaster that was coming – although to be fair this probably would have made little difference to the final outcome.


On the 21st of January at precisely 10,53pm Parisians, as well as engineers saw the first worrying sings that all was not well. The city’s clocks stopped. Paris had a rather ingenious compressed air system that ran amongst other things, the post service, elevators, provided ventilation and moved factory motors – it also ran the clocks. But by the evening of the 21st of January the factory that ran this had been flooded. In one night the seine had risen nearly ten feet above its normal level. Zouve’s knees were now wet.


Paris is a city that is both above and underground. Most buildings have basements, in 1900, just 10 years earlier the metro opened its doors enabling Parisians to whizz around the city with speed and ease. There are the catacombs there is even an underground river, the Brèvre – once above ground but covered due to pollution and an underground lake under the Opera Garnier and most important the sewers. Napoleon III came to power and, with his prefect Baron Haussmann, promised to make Paris cleaner and greener. Of Haussmann’s many building projects the much needed sewers were less visible but very important – you can still visit them today at the sewer museum and one of Paris perhaps least known museums. So key were they to modernising Paris that they even feature prominently in the great tome of Victor Hugo’s ‘les Miserables’ when Jean Valjean saves Marius by carrying him through the sewers.  But in 1850 there were fewer than 100 miles of sewers that ran below the 260 miles of streets, they were out-dated and overrun. Disease such as cholera and typhoid were a real threat. In 1832 eighteen thousand perished in a cholera outbreak and then another sixteen thousand died in the 1849 epidemic – fresh water and the removal of waste was essential and by the time Haussmann had left office he had quadrupled the number of miles of sewers. All this was well and good in normal times but now this underground world was flooding and on the 22nd of January Parisians were horrified to find water bubbling up through basements, sewers and metros. The seine was not coming over the walls but under them. And the rain kept coming.


Now Parisians are a resourceful lot and they quickly found ways to get about the city constructing improvised walkways, which rose as high as six feet or more above the ground in places and led people to ladders leading to first story windows. People that had boats ferried people around, out of the goodness of their heart or maybe for a fee and the lively bustle of the city continued despite the rain and rising water. By January 24th it had reached Zouave’s thigh.


Despite their industriousness it was not just the flooded areas that were suffering. The cities infrastructure was so interlinked that the whole of the capital was in trouble; so even areas not directly hit by floodwater were still effected. Paris may be the city of light but in 1910 the gaslights, which lit the streets, were illuminated each night by hand. As the waters rose this task became impossible and many of the flooded areas were plunged into darkness leaving people feeling frightened and reminding them of the not too distant siege of 1870 when fuel had run low and Paris had also been left in the dark. Train tracks flooded and transport in or out of the city became impossible, telegraphs shut down, the post stopped; the city was effectively being cut off from the rest of the world. People, information and goods were unable to get in or out of the city.


Stores that kept dry goods in basements as well as businesses like butchers, bakers and other such merchants often lost the whole of their stock. Flooding in farms that surrounded Paris destroyed crops that supplied Paris with fresh food and there was real fear that rationing and food shortages. Again people were reminded of the horror of the 1870 siege and the food shortages they had endured. Even worse for Parisians, Bercy where a lot of the wine merchants kept their stock was flooded. The merchants were horrified to see barrels of wine being washed away – and quite a few Parisians risked life and limb in an attempt to fish them out of the fast moving waters!


The entire infrastructure of the city was being undermined by the floods. By the 25th of January Zouave was waist deep in water and  the city faced a new problem. The rubbish collection and treatment plants had had to close and refuse, which normally would be burnt, began piling up in filthy rotting heaps. Officials finally ordered it to be thrown into the Seine – causing more misery and disruption to towns and villages downriver from Paris who were even less equipped to deal with the flood. The Seine itself was also full of debris that it was causing structural damage to bridges and there was concern that the walls of the Ils saint Louis might crumble and the houses be washed away.


People had to be evacuated, many lost possessions, livelihoods and precious, irreplaceable items. And as business and factories flooded people found themselves simultaneously homeless and out of work.


A curfew was imposed and the police patrolled Paris hoping to keep any opportunistic thieves and looters at bay. They were instructed to shoot on sight anyone looters they caught.  Although most people banded together in times of trouble there was a real fear in Paris at the time of the ferocious gangs known as the Apaches. This incongruous names comes from the native American ‘Apache’ tribe made famous by Gustave Aimard in his novels – depicting them as fearless savage warriors – it was then the tabloid press which popularised this expression looking for sensational headlines in an effort to sell newspapers to describe these gangs of outlaws.  But the Apache’s deserve their own episode.


Januarys was exceptionally cold and snow began to fall and things were looking very bleak indeed.  Parisians huddled in makeshift emergency housing in hospitals and churches. Cold and miserable. People worried about their homes, about looters and about disease.  France appealed for help and aid came from all over the world, Czar Nicholas II sent 100,000 roubles, the Pope sent 30,000 francs and his prays, La Scala in Milan donated all the proceeds from their performance of Samson and Delilah to the victims, groups from New Orleans and the US chamber of commerce gave generously. Within Paris there was an appeal for a more equal division of funds. Paris is divided into 20 artt those that were better off were encouraged to help the poorer neighbourhoods rather than each art supporting its own people; but the water continued to rise.


By the 28th of January the water was up to Zouave’s neck - twenty feet above its normal level. Although closed to the Parisians the water took full advantage of the metro; flooding the underground network and traveling along the tracks to emerging far from the Seine and flood areas and neighbourhoods which usually would have escaped unharmed. The Gare Saint Lazare, Opera and the departments stores all found themselves in trouble. Buildings and streets only recently finished in Haussmann’s recreation of the city looked in real danger of collapse. Sinkholes opened up and cobbles that should have cover the street lifted off.


At the Hotel de Ville the civil servants worked hard to empty the basements of important documents for fear of losing them, on the other side of the rivers at the Palais du Justice prisoners were moved from the cells and further up the river inside the Louvre they worried how they might protect the priceless pieces of art should the museum flood. Outside men worked hard to reinforce the banks of the river to stop them bursting and plug manholes in an attempt to stem the water from bubbling up through them. The army was called in to help. Food prices rose, bread was rationed, and the snow melted and added to the rising water.


Not only people but animals suffered too. The animals in the zoo of the Jardin des plantes were not doing well. The crocodiles tried to escape and rumour in Paris had it that they did, adding perhaps a certain frisson as Parisians picked their way through the city. the bears were left stranded, a giraffe died when it refused to move onto a rescue platform, and an elephant got rheumatism. The zookeepers tried their best to save as many as they could. To be fair things had been worse for the animals during the 1870 siege when they had were eaten by hungry Parisians.


Finally however, on the 29th of January the weather cleared and the sun came out. Hope was restored. Slowly the water receded leaving behind filth and debris. Peoples, once treasured possessions littered the streets. It was time to start cleaning but the very process was hazardous – many were concerned that the weakened foundations of buildings would crumble once the pressure from the water which had essentially been holding them up was pumped out. Likewise engineers worried that the downward pull of the receding water would create a vacuum and carry off the streets with it. Thankfully this did not happen. But there was plenty of damage: trees had fallen, cobblestones, had lifted off, houses were full of mud and rubbish and sewage, rubbish was all over the streets but thankfully the water was finally going. The long cleaning and repairing process could begin.   

The emphasis was on cleaning and disinfecting – any building that served food had to clean thoroughly and anything damaged by water thrown away. There was real fear of an outbreak of disease, but fortunately despite many people’s fears, the very volume of water meant that even though the sewers had flooded and the water was pretty foul it was so diluted that disease-causing bacteria was not spread.



Although the government put a system in place to compensate families affected by the flood, it was needles to say complicated and difficult to implement. Around 20,000 buildings had ben wrecked and 200,000 people made homeless. Of the 20 arrt 12 were flooded. With an estimated bill of, in todays money, 1bn euros of damages. And of course, as always,  the poor came off the worst. It must have been devastating to loose so much which for the poorest perhaps could never be replaced.


The legacy of the flood is complicated.  In 1910 Paris was reeling from a number of political dramas which all had left their mark on the city and people causing social and political divisions. The Franco Prussian war, which ended in French defeat following a devastating siege of the city and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. The Paris Commune a radical socialist revolutionary government ruled for a couple of months before being brutally brought down and by the 3rd Republique. And the Dreyfus Affaire, a complicated political scandal where Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly accused and framed as a traitor due perhaps to the fact that he was Jewish which lead to Emile Zola’s publication of J’accuse where he publicly reproached the army of injustice. In Jeffery Jackson’s book, which is really interesting and you should definitely read if you want more details he puts forward the idea that the flood in some way brought Paris and Parisians together, creating a sort of ‘dress rehearsal’ that would be needed for world war I. how to eve acute people, where they could be housed, how to get relief, medical supplies out in cases of emergency. During the flood the Red Cross played an important role and this experience in coordinating emergency relief would be vital for them during WWI. It showed Parisians that despite fear and mistrust of the government and army they could count on them in an emergency again, pretty important during a war.


You can still see the plaques marking where the waters came to, you can visit the Sewer museum, and there are some rather fascinating interactive maps on line showing what streets would be flooded if the waters rose again. You can of course see the footage on YouTube.  Of course following the flood the banks and quays were reinforced and the sewers improved so floods became less likely although, as this year showed, there is always a risk – Parisians have not completely forgotten the power of water. The Seine river runs centrally through Paris and is central to Parisian identity. The very symbol of Paris is not as many might think the Eiffel tower but rather a ship, with the motto beneath ‘She is tossed by the waves but does not sink’.