Two major canals follow the West-East axis in this part of France. If the Ardennes canal is a great opportunity to discover a more rural setting, the Marne-Rhine canal offers a cruise that crosses both cities and the countryside. The original purpose of this canal, and the other nearby waterways, was to serve the different industrial centres scattered near rivers across the region. From the 19th century on, metallurgy was the primary industry. Similar to the Ardennes canal, a project to link the Marne to the Rhine was put together in the 1780s. This grand and very old idea was to connect the East of France to Paris. However, the eruption of the French Revolution and the political and military turmoil prevented any progress.
In 1826, engineer Barnabé Brisson was tasked to plan the construction of the canal. Brisson was a skilled and well-known engineer who had previously worked on the Saint-Quentin and Rhone-Rhine canals. He also had experience in developing and restoring the war-torn Northern regions of France. Brisson prematurely died two years later, but he had the time to plan the foundations for this connection between the Seine and Rhine basins. From Vitry-le-François to Strasbourg, the canal is 317 kilometres long. It flows through no less than five basins (the Marne, Meuse, Moselle, Sarre and, finally, the Rhine) and the engineers had to deal with fluctuating landscapes made of hills, valleys and plains. As such, the Marne-Rhine canal is a jewel of engineering that required aqueducts bridges, lakes, tunnels, and lock staircases built over almost two centuries. Construction began in 1839 and it was completed in 1855. Navigation became more difficult after the war of 1870 between France and Prussia, which resulted in the French loss of the Alsace and the Moselle regions.
Near the first summit after navigating from the West, the canal goes under the second-longest tunnel, at Mauvages. It is 4,877 metres long. Two other tunnels follow before reaching Toul. The canal often had to be dug hillside in rock. There were many consequent improvements and modifications to the canal from its opening to this day. The locks were initially built with the Becquey gauge (34,5m to 5,20m). Today, locks are of the Freycinet gauge except for the last segment of the canal in Strasburg, which can support larger and longer boats (125m x 13,50m). To overcome height differences along the course of the canal, lock staircases were constructed, but they were replaced in the 1960s by two impressive infrastructures that, to this day, form two canal highlights. At Réchicourt-le-Château, boats go through the 16-metres high Réchicourt lock. Completed in 1965, this monumental lock replaced 6 previous locks and reduced the necessary time to go through them from 6 hours to a small 30 minutes. It was the highest Freycinet lock in France until 2010. Crossing through the Vosges mountains range was one of the most difficult parts of the construction of the canal. Near the Saverne Pass, engineers had built a staircase of 17 locks over just 4 kilometres. Although it makes for a beautiful journey in a lovely area, it was a long and tedious process for mariners. Navigating through this segment required almost an entire day, one boat at a time, and all locks had to be staffed by a lockkeeper. Thus, the Saint-Louis-Arzviller inclined plane, built-in 1969, allows the lifting or lowering of boats over a height difference of 44 metres in 20 minutes.
The Marne-Rhine canal is a perfect cruising destination to discover both countryside and cities. The region it crosses has a beautiful duality. First, in its landscapes made of plains and hills. Second, the decidedly Germanic influence that can be felt in Alsace slowly fades as you cruise westwards. The gastronomy, the wines, and the architecture with its distinctive castles, windmills and home facades, cannot be found elsewhere in France. Many small towns, and cities, along with or close to the canal are to be found and explored. On the edges of France, Strasburg is the heart of the European Union and a goldmine for everyone interested in architecture and history. Further Wester, it is possible to follow the footsteps of the dukes of Lorraine in Lunéville with their palace, or in Nancy where the mark of Duke Stanislas always shines on the great central square.
- Créton, H. (1932), « Les voies navigables de l’Est de la France » in Annales de géographies, n°234, pp. 583-599 [Online].
- Tarbé de Saint-Hardouin, F. (1884), Notices biographiques sur les ingénieurs des ponts et chaussées, Paris, Librairie Polytechnique, p. 124.
- (s.d.), « Canal de la Marne au Rhin » in Projet Babel [Online].