A History Of The Sewers
Of Paris

The history of the sewers of Paris and that of the city are intimately linked. The evolution of one has direct influence on that of the other, and vice versa. By the end of the 18th c., the sewers become a cloaca, as the capital is invaded by disease. Over the course of the 19th c. and with technical advancements, the sewers are turning ever more agile, deftly winding under the city into a unitary, gravitational, and visitable network, as Paris begins to breathe and evolve.
They stand as the flagship of France’s industrial heritage, as they play the role of a channel for the hygienic sanitation of the capital and assist in raising the productivity lever of agriculture for a time period. Furthermore, they were used as a source of inspiration for artists: painters and writers alike began to send heroes and villains through the gutters of this endless underground network. 

Today, the sewers represent an additional tool for the increase of Paris, the green city, reflecting the ecological concerns of our time.

"The sewer is the conscience of the city. Everything there converges and confronts everything else.”

( Victor Hugo, The Intestine of Leviathan )

“At the beginning of this century, the sewer of Paris was still a mysterious place.”

(Victor Hugo, The Intestine of Leviathan)

At the beginning of the 19th c. a sewer existed under Paris. But up until that moment, it had not yet fulfilled its proper function as the digestive organ of the city: in 1800, only 16 km of sewers had been built for 550,000 inhabitants.

In 1806, the sewer service of Paris was entrusted to the engineers of the Bridges and Causeways.

In 1833, the first sewer system was developed with the target to collect rainwater, as well as street water, diverted from the fountains. The new sewer system allows water to flow below a city, which is simultaneously breathing and evolving. All of Paris’ waste is gradually drained by this underground network, liberating the city of its waste fluids, which are sent to the plantation fields to fertilize crops outside of the capital. 

1865: Fresh water captured at the source is distributed through the network to the city, as well as non-drinking water for the parks and cleaning streets.

In 1867, during the World’s Fair, the public was permitted to visit the sewers in galleries whose height had been increased to facilitate the chores of workers.

In 1894, the final sewers of Paris become a complete network, carrying now solid waste with liquids and sewage too. Wastewater irrigation had been on the rise until 1909, after which it began to decline.  

At the beginning of the 20th c.  in addition to wastewater streaming together with stormwater into the main spoon, the sewers also begin to accommodate drinking water pipes, non-potable water, pneumatic letter: even some of the regular mail is transmitted through it! Today, the sewers house 141,259 km of fiberoptics, providing Parisians with very high-speed Internet.

“All the miasms of the cesspool are mingled with the breath of the city”
(Victor Hugo, The Intestine of Leviathan)

Since the 18th c., mortality rates in Paris were the highest in France and by the beginning of the 19th c., the capital suffered seriously from a lack of hygiene. The sewers would often overflows, as Victor Hugo described in:“At times (…) the cloaca flowed back into the gull of the city, and Paris had an aftertaste of its own sewage.”  The writer recalls, for example, the flood of 1802: “The manure overflowed on the place des Victoire, where he statue of Louis XIV stands and continued through the two manholes of the Champs-Elysées towards Rue Saint-Honoré.” 

In Paris, cholera epidemics followed one after the other in the years 1832, 1849 and 1884. Interpretations were linked to “air corruption” due to industrial activities, or a high dense population, or even the “miasms” stagnating in the streets as a result of accumulated rubbish, as well as the increase of deprived populations in unsanitary buildings. 

Drinking water became unhealthier due to the contamination of table water and wells from the sewage discharged in the streets or in the Seine. The function of water in the transmission of diseases however was not yet clear at the time, while some began to suggest new ways on how to clean the streets, as doctors began to recommend that contaminated water be discharged in the sewers. This was the beginning of a profound transformation of the underground network.

“An obscure ramification ever at work; a construction which is immense and ignored.”
(Victor Hugo, The Intestine of Leviathan)

Many researchers have investigated the sewers for its historical past, from its first cloacal state and as it turned into a sprawling network. Medical health officers such as Alexandre Parent du Chatelet and engineers Henri-Charles Emmery and Adolphe-Auguste Mille where among them.

But out all those who have shaped the Paris sewers, Eugène Belgrand holds a special place. This polytechnical engineer from the grande Ecole of Ponts et Chaussés was passionate about hydrology and was appointed by the prefect Haussmann to take over the water service of Paris in 1854. So starting 1865, the engineer set up spring water catchments that fed Paris, with the aim of providing the city with pure water at all times. This new system also passes through the sewers, just like non-drinking water for watering Parisian parks, gardens, and streets.

His achievements do not end there, as he insured that this pure water is distributed and then recovered once again after its use. In 1867, Eugène Belgrand was appointed head director of the Waters and Sewers of Paris

Belgrand also develops machined to ensure the proper operation of the sewers, such as cleaning apparatuses: a valve boat to cure large collectors, wagons for small collectors and a machine injector for the basic sewers. These mechanical means of sewer purification are still in use today.

Within the bosom of the earth, it is a sort of mysterious polyp with a thousand antennæ, which expands below as the city expands above. “
(Victor Hugo, The Intestine of Leviathan)

As the sewers dig their paths below the city, the streets on the surface are changing their faces. The evolvement of one has impact on the other, and vice versa. 

As early as 1833, even before the beginning of Haussmann’s major works, the pavements, which were split into two traditional streets, started to give way to the first curved pavements. These are equipped with two side streams, which collect water from the streets, discharged twice a day by more than a thousand fountains. At the same time, the first coherent sewer system arose under the city, whose task was to recover both this cleaning water as well as rainwater. 

“If our gold is manure, our manure, on the other hand, is gold. What is done with this golden manure? It is swept into the abyss.”
(Victor Hugo, The Intestine of Leviathan)

Early on, wastewater was considered a resource that should be exploited. Victor Hugo, who refers to organic materials collected from Parisian homes as “human fertiliser”, “the most fertile and most efficient fertilizer”, believed that throwing this “manure gold” into the water is a loss. He was not alone in his ideas: From 1868 until the beginning of the 20th c., agricultural irrigation using sewage water was practiced, allowing the treatment of wastewater, while fertilizing the land: In the process, the yield began to increase, and the Parisians were fed.

As more and more buildings were equipped with their own sewerage, however, the volume of wastewater to be transported to the surrounding fields increased drastically; meanwhile the surface area of these fields rapidly decreased with the rise in dense urbanization. Furthermore, health risks were addressed by hygienists, considering the competitiveness of chemical fertilizers. As a result, watering of the outer fields was gradually abandoned during the 20th c.

Alternatives were sought after, such as biological purification processes. Sewage treatment plants were built, whose residues are recovered and treated. This sewage sludge is still used in agriculture today.

Book your ticket

To save time, you can buy your ticket online