What forms today the canal network of central France is the result of an aggregate of canals built throughout the centuries to answer the needs of their time. During the last years of the French Ancien Régime, before the Revolution, there were plans to build a triple junction between the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Channel. Although these plans were not feasible at the time, authorities considered two projects. One would join the Saône to the Loire, the other the Saône to the Yonne. The former was eventually agreed on and became the Centre Canal, then also known as the Canal du Charolais, while the latter had to wait several decades to become reality (the Burgundy Canal).
In 1784, the local government authorized the construction of the Charolais Canal under the supervision of Burgundian engineer and architect Emiland Gauthey. Gauthey’s project seemed more realisable than the Burgundy one. With 114 kilometres and 80 locks, it would be a faster and cheaper build. The only difficulty was ensuring a sufficient supply of water, but Gauthey managed to overcome all these difficulties in a considerably short time. It only took ten years to complete the canal, which became one of the last major construction undertaken before the Revolution. By then, the new government changed its name to the canal du Centre as Charolais was too reminiscent of the names of feudal provinces.
The canal proved to be relatively successful for almost 150 years. From Châlon-sur-Saône to Digoin, barges filled with black coal cruised through Burgundy to join the Loire. However, the completion of the Burgundy Canal in 1832 created a serious concurrence. Mariners preferred the Burgundy route to join the Seine, as navigation was considerably easier and cheaper because the water was better distributed. The Centre Canal went through the major transformations to the Becquey gauge, and then to Freycinet. Today, it links the River Saône to the Loire Lateral Canal, then the Briare and Loing canals to the Seine. It also has a connection to the Canal du Nivernais. Until the second half of the 20th century, it retained an important status as a communication route to deliver goods to the region of Paris, mostly roof tiles and other construction materials. As commercial navigation seriously decreased, the Centre Canal became one of the waterway jewels of France. It is a quiet and peaceful canal leading tourists to beautiful countryside, pretty towns and villages surrounded by vineyards or pastures.
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- Desaunais, A. (1940), « L’utilisation des voies navigables dans le bassin de la Loire » in Géocarrefour, n°16-2, 105-17.
- (s.d.), « Le canal du Centre » in Projet Babel [Online].