If the actual construction of the Burgundy canal began in 1775, it already had a long history of debates, disputes, and unsuccessful planning. In 1511, the King of France Louis XII received a request to build a canal in Burgundy to connect the Yonne and Saone rivers. Instead, he approved the partial canalisation of the Ouche river, which will become one of the major water sources of the canal on the Saone side. A century later, King Henri IV, keen on improving waterways and other communication routes after the Wars of Religion took further steps to concretise this idea of a canal. He passed a law to raise a new tax on wheat intended for bakers to fund a lateral canal of the Ouche from Dijon to Saint-Jean-de-Losne and the Saone. From there, studies promoted a route heading southward to the actual département of Saône-et-Loire. Aside from improving the prosperity of the realm, an objective of these plans was to improve the supply of the capital city to prevent revolts. The King wished Dijon to become a more important commercial centre able to import and export goods from all four corners of France. However, the necessary funds could not be gathered, and Henri’s project was abandoned after his death in 1610.
There was a wave of studies during the 17th century. In the 1670s, Riquet, who was busy building the Midi canal, thought about several possible paths for a canal in Burgundy. From then on, no one disputed the necessity of a canal in Burgundy, but what route it would take became the centre of debates and arguments. To join the Yonne, the canal would have to pass through the mountain range of the Morvan, a natural obstacle presenting many engineering challenges. The marquis de Vauban, famous for his fortification, was primarily a naval enthusiast and engineer. He was an advocate of the previous Loire-Saone canal idea in 1696. In 1718, an engineer named La Jonchère sent a proposal to the Regency. He argued for the benefits of a canal of the two seas (like the Midi canal) effectively crossing Burgundy through the Brenne valley and the town of Sombernon, perched on a hill and overlooking its surroundings. However, La Jonchère was unable to come up with a solution to supply his canal with water. When asked to defend his idea, he could only propose an interruption of the canal for almost 30 kilometres, between Vitteaux and Sainte-Marie-sur-Ouche. Freight would have to be transported by land. Still, La Jonchère’s plan sparked a lot of interest among engineers who suggested alterations to the delineation.
Sombernon is close to the watershed of the "three seas" at Meilly-sur-Rouvres. There, natural water flows to the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, or the Channel. Most eyes were now set on the surroundings of the watershed, but the Morvan remained problematic. Because of these difficulties, plans had to take into account various arguments from local authorities, property owners and inhabitants who either wanted to be included on the canal route or excluded to avoid expropriations. A local lord named La Loge offered the solution of passing through the town of Pouilly-en-Auxois, based on surveys. Not only would this route pass next to his lands, but it would also, according to him, benefit the local cereal exports and increase trade in wine from Beaune. Compared to other canals, the debates on the route were heated, resulting in several publications defending or arguing against a project. In 1724, the Estates of Burgundy tasked two engineers, Gabriel and Abeille, to present a final study on the best delineation for the canal. Meanwhile, the debates were still raging. Abeille agreed that Pouilly-en-Auxois was the most judicious path, but only if they could lower the summit. Pouilly became the centre of these engineers’ attention, just as the canal was a great topic of interest for the enlightened and local public. The Estates eventually agreed to Abeille’s project and some slight modifications made by Gabriel. The Burgundy canal was to follow the Armançon valley on the Yonne side, then head toward Montbard, then Pouilly and reach Dijon through the Ouche valley. After Dijon, it would be a relatively easy and straightforward way to have the canal empty into the Saone at Saint-Jean-de-Losne. The engineers and authorities finally seemed to have reached the first stage. However, Abeille died shortly after and the disputes over the exact route and the paternity of the canal continued. Furthermore, the Estates were unable to fund this very expensive construction. Discussions, debates and disputes concerning the canal continued for the next 30 years.
In September 1773, King Louis XV, who was to die soon, published an edict authorizing the construction of the canal. The royal government funded the Yonne side, but the Saone side was at the expense of the Estates of Burgundy. Emiland Gauthey was the engineer in chief of the construction. It began on the Yonne side with the construction of the canal between Migennes and Tonnerre. Works on the Saone side began 9 years later. The Prince de Condé, a great nobleman who was governor of Burgundy, placed the first stone. Soon after, the social and political turmoil resulting from the Revolution stopped all work on the canal. It only resumed in 1808. Gauthey had died, so four new engineers replaced him: Sutil and Robillard in the Yonne, Forey and Foucherot in the Côte-d’Or. They rethought the plan of having the summit of the canal at Pouilly-en-Auxois but eventually pursued the idea. By then, the major problem was that all the money was gone. The successive two decades of war had drained the funds and the canal was far from being constructed. The segment between Saint-Jean-de-Losne and Dijon opened in December 1808, but this was the easy part of the canal. It still had to be dug in the valleys and hills. In 1822, the government voted a new credit of 25 million francs, a huge sum necessary to complete the work.
The construction continued with relative speed during the next decade. The Pouilly-en-Auxois summit was the last great remaining obstacle. Forey made all the plans for the tunnel in 1823. The entrepreneur Guillemot was in charge of the actual construction between 1827 and 1831, but he never truly cared about overseeing the building site. The engineers Bonnetat and Lacordaire oversaw the end of the construction. The soil was very rocky and required extensive and difficult work to build. It was very difficult for the workers who had to do everything manually. Some prisoners of war and convicts were also used alongside the professional workers. Around 200 of them perished. From Pouilly to Créancey, the tunnel is 3.333 metres long and, at the deepest section, there are 48 metres of soil above the tunnel. 32 wells were ventilating the tunnel (only 14 remain), which is 5.80 metres wide and the ceiling height above the water level is 3.25 metres. The width only allowed one barge to pass at a time. To cross the tunnel, barges were pulled by manual labour because it is not wide enough to use horses. A mariner needed to hire six men to help him pull the barge through the tunnel with hooks. It took up to ten hours or more. Although an impressive structure, the tunnel was inadequately adapted for the barges. As railroads developed, it was feared that the Burgundy canal could not compete with trains, mostly because it took too long to cross the canal. In 1867, the tunnel was equipped with a steam-boat to pull the barges, and it was later replaced with an electric tug (toueur) in 1893. It has been preserved and is exhibited at the port of Pouilly-en-Auxois.
Despite being a remarkable construction, the canal suffered from too many flaws to be a commercial success. The main reason for this failure was the tunnel that slowed traffic. Despite slight modifications over the years, the size of the tunnel could not be changed when the canal was modernized to the Freycinet gauge. It could not compete against the railroad and later road transportation. Commercial traffic slowly decreased, leaving space for leisure cruising.
Inspiring writers and filmmakers, the canal de Bourgogne is an asset to local tourism. Running through both hilly and flat landscapes, rural areas and towns, the canal is bordered by castles and ancient churches and villages. Among the many sights in the section from Migennes to Pouilly-en-Auxois, Saint-Florentin and Tonnerre are must-sees. At Saint-Florentin, which is reached by crossing a water bridge, there is a beautiful church hosting a rare example of rood screens. At Tonnerre, a city with many medieval and early modern features, the gothic Notre-Dame church, the Saint-Pierre church, and the 13th-century Hotel-Dieu (hospice for the poor), are just three of the many beautifully preserved historical buildings. Wine amateurs will be pleased to see that they are stepping into the production area of Bourgogne-Tonnerre wines. Upstream of Montbard, the small village of Buffon is the home of the Grande Forge, a foundry built by Georges, Comte de Buffon. The Count was a renowned mathematician and naturalist who had a long-lasting influence on natural history. His foundry, which at some point employed 400 workers, was a pioneer in industrial development. With several historical monuments, the Grande Forge is well-worth visiting. Once the Pouilly-en-Auxois tunnel is crossed, the canal flows through the Ouche valley. At Vandenesse-en-Auxois, a small village with a beautiful port, the landscape is dominated by the medieval fortress of Chateauneuf. After several pretty villages and towns, the canal reaches Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, once home to its famous dukes. From there, the last kilometres of the canal cross the charming Saone valley, before it empties into the river.
The entire canal is now adapted to leisure cruising. There is also a cycling road "Velo Route" which has replaced the original tow path alongside most of its course, which offers a perfect occasion to explore both the canal and its surroundings on land.
- Desaunais, A. (1928), « Le canal de Bourgogne et son trafic » in Géocarrefour, n°4, pp. 115-156.
- Chardonnet, Jacques (1998), « La destinée du triangle navigable de Basse Bourgogne » in Revue Géographique de l’Est, n°38, pp. 89-101.
- Inguenaud, Virginie et al. (2020), « Tunnel de Pouilly (canal de Bourgogne) » in POP : la plateforme ouverte du patrimoine [Online].
- (s.d.), « Le longue genèse du canal de Bourgogne (le difficile choix du seuil de partage) » in Projet Babel [Online].