Linking the Northern waterways to the Seine basin, and thus Paris, was a long wanted wish of varying authorities controlling these regions. In 1679, France annexed several cities in the South Hainaut and Flanders, such as Saint-Omer, Cambrain, Maubeuge or Valenciennes. With this new territorial organization, merchants and political entities such as cities sought to link the Scheldt and the Oise rivers. Several projects and attempts were made to create a canal that would first link the Somme to the Oise. A wealthy plantation and slave owner named Antoine Crozat bought the first company building the canal in 1727. In 1738, the canal was opened between the Somme (at Saint-Simon) and the Oise (at Chauny). It had proven a difficult project to flesh out and a poor financial investment for Crozat. Further enlargements were not made. Concretely, what was known as the Picardy Canal was a good asset for merchants who could transport wheat, coal and other goods more easily. It was also an important strategic waterway to move troops north quickly. The next stages for the canal happened decades later. In 1776, Chauny was linked to Saint-Quentin. Finally, in 1809, the canal was completed under the orders of Napoleon who attended the inauguration. It joined the Scheldt River at Cambrai. One of the technical highlights of the waterway was the construction of the 5,6 kilometres long Riqueval tunnel which remains the longest tunnel in service to this day. The Saint-Quentin canal is one of the oldest and most important waterways that link the Seine basin to the industries of the North of France and, ultimately, to the other Northern European waterways.
Like other northern waterways, the Saint-Quentin canal was prosperous during the next two centuries, thanks to the coal, textile and wheat imports. A testimony to this success is the 20th-century double gate locks that were needed to sustain the heavy traffic. The Northern waterways, as well as those in Belgium, played an important part during the First World War because they were physical obstacles. In the late stages of the war, in September 1918, US and Australians forced won an important victory against Germany, leading to the capture of thousands of soldiers. The Saint-Quentin Canal’s history followed that of others. It remained prosperous until the 1960s. The Nord Canal linking the Scheldt to the Lateral Canal of the Oise opened in 1964. Its purpose was to make the journey to the Seine and Paris and more traffic could navigate on its waters. Thus, commercial traffic on what was already an old canal in terms of infrastructure.
Today, the Saint-Quentin Canal offers an excellent way of cruising through the Aisne and Nord départements. The grand Riqueval tunnel is a must-see and makes for a great cruising experience. There is plenty of opportunities for history and architecture amateurs to explore battlefields, military cemeteries, century-old abbeys and churches like the Abbaye de Vaucelles which will certainly catch your eyes as you cruise on the canal near Cambrai. The construction of this abbey began in 1132. As such, it is a pathway to a historical trip of 1,000 years, through all the great events that affected the region, France, and even the world.
- Pugin, Michel (1982), L’histoire du Canal de Saint-Quentin, mémoires, tome XVII, pp. 43-60 [Online]
- Thbaut, Louis (1979), « Les voies navigables et l’industrialisation du Nord de la France » in Revue du Nord, n°240, pp. 149-163
- Tilly, Pierre (2016), « Fleuves et canaux dans la zone franco-belge entre 1814 et 1914 : vers une redéfinition des espaces ? » in Association Revue du Nord, n°416, p. 577-99.
- (s.d.) « Visite du lieu » in Abbaye de Vaucelles website [Online].