The history of the Roanne-Digoin canal is tied to that of the development of railways in the 19th century, and then the history of leisure cruising in the second half of the 20th century. Roanne lies on the river Loire and the city has always tried to take advantage of this geographic advantage. Its name, shared with several French rivers, is closely linked to watercourses as it comes from a Celtic language and means “flowing water”. For centuries, Roanne’s main waterway was the Loire, which has always been a navigated river, albeit in difficult conditions on many sections. Documents attest to the existence and importance of its port in the 13th century. The city had the right to collect a toll, proof of the prosperity of navigation in this region. Goods were transported from upstream Roanne to Paris, making the city a relatively important commercial centre. This is why there were many discussions and ideas on how to improve navigation upstream and downstream of Roanne. However, technical complications and the covetousness of the involved parties prevented significant improvements. In the late 16th century, a period marked by violent civil wars, the provincial authorities even paid for serious studies to be made, but this money mysteriously disappeared. When the Briare canal opened, the connection between Roanne and Paris became easier, and several kings and princes used the route to travel south. But, the Loire remained a treacherous river and its floods regularly damaged local infrastructures and interfered with navigation. There were talks and ownership conflicts regarding how to develop the Loire to ease navigation and allow greater tonnage. It was even among the grievances and demands of the local merchants and authorities at the onset of the Revolution.
30 years after the Revolution, in the 1820s, the French royal government began a vast program of waterway development in Central France: the Burgundy, Berry, Nivernais, and Loire lateral canals were built during the following years. The solution to unclog navigation on the Loire near Roanne, and to facilitate coal transportation, was to build a canal from Roanne to Digoin where it would connect with the Centre and Loire lateral canals. The engineer selected for this endeavour was Louis Marie Pascal, then a relatively obscure engineer who needed to prove himself. Construction began in 1831 and lasted 7 years. The canal more or less followed the course of the Loire, acting as a lateral canal. Construction was difficult and suffered many setbacks. Once operational, the Roanne-Digoin canal was not a financial success. The progress made by the railroads upstream of Roanne and the need for greater transport capacity made the company owning the canal run into bankruptcy. In 1863, the State bought the canal and certainly saved it by connecting the railroad directly to the Roanne port. That way, goods would be transported by train to Roanne, and then follow their course up north on the canal.
Starting in 1899, the canal was modified to the Freycinet gauge. To perfect this modernisation, engineer Léonce-Abel Mazoyer, the man behind the famous Briare aqueduct, rebuilt the river Oudan bridge. This aqueduct, also sometimes called the Pisserot bridge, has the particularity of carrying the river. Thus, boats navigating on the canal go underneath the Oudan river. It remains a marvel of engineering to this day. The Freycinet gauge allowed the canal to remain competitive, and commercial navigation was steady at least until the 1960s. The port of Roanne was essential for commerce in the centre of the country and furthered the importance of the Loire basin. It was the central point of the Roanne-Digoin canal. As with the many other canals, railroad competition and the outdated Freycinet gauge for the new commercial standards in the 60s and 70s precipitated the abandonment of the canal. There were talks of simply destroying the canal to turn it into a road. In 1992, the Roanne port ceased its commercial activities. However, as tourism was slowly and increasingly taking over navigation, it was transformed to welcome leisure barges.
Although it is a relatively small canal, it enjoys a great reputation for its quiet waters running through a beautiful traditional region called the Brionnais. It is a rather scarcely populated area, but the villages and small towns along the canal offer a great taste of the French countryside. Roanne, the largest city along the canal, has a history going back to prehistorical times and a rich cultural and architectural heritage. On the other end of the canal lies Digoin, the crossroad of many waterways, and its museum dedicated to the Loire and the canals.
- Bouron, Suzanne (1932), « Les voies navigables françaises de Bourgogne et du Centre » in Annales de géographies, n°230, pp. 188-96.
- Desaunais, A., Simond, P. (1935), « Roanne et la Haute Loire navigable », in Géocarrefour, n°11, pp. 39-52.
- (s.d.), « Le canal de Roanne à Digoin » in Projet Babel [Online].