The Morvan regional park, in Burgundy, has long been an important source of wood to heat the capital city of Paris. For centuries, woodcutters would use natural waterways such as the Yonne for timber rafting. As the demand increased considerably during the 18th century, especially after the 1783 winter, there were studies on the possibility of creating a small canal to bring the large quantity of wood to the Seine. The need was also felt because timber rafting was taking a lot of space on the already existing waterways, thus disturbing navigation and transportation of other goods. In 1786, mathematician Nicolas de Condorcet and surveyor Charles Bossut were considering extending this small canal to a larger structure joining the Loire to the Seine through the river Yonne. This decision was motivated by the need to find and transport wood from slightly further South as the forests of the Morvan were shrinking. The Bazois forests, between the Morvan and the city of Nevers, were ideal. While construction started in 1784, its scale was increased two years later to become the canal we know today. Authorities also debated the use of the canal: for rafting or navigation? They decided on the latter.
By the time of the French Revolution, the first section of the canal was completed between Châtillon-en-Bazois and La Collancelle. There lies one of the most remarkable features of the canal: the three tunnels dug deep into a granite mountain, forming the watershed point: Breuilles (212 metres), Mouas (268 metres) and La Collancelle (758 metres). It is immediately followed by another highlight: the Sardy-lès-Epiry staircase. With its 16 locks stretching over 3,6 kilometres, this staircase is the embodiment of what makes the Nivernais canal both an engineering work of art and a heavenly cruise. Like many other French canals, construction was interrupted by the French Revolution and the complicated and tumultuous next two decades. It was finally completed in 1842, as were the other canals started before the Revolution. Elderly engineer Aimable Hageau had to take over where his predecessors had stopped. It was not an easy task because some of the work had been abandoned for years. He found the tunnel at La Collancelle collapsed. Hagueau never saw the end of the construction as he died in 1836.
Although the canal had a very positive impact on the local economy, its overall success was mitigated. Local mining resources and wood found their way to the Seine and Paris, but mariners never liked navigating on the Nivernais canal. They sometimes had to deal with rafting timber, and then navigate on tricky sections of the Yonne after the canal. Moreover, when many canals in France were enlarged to the new Freycinet gauge in the 1880s, the Nivernais canal was not. Like the Berry canal, it retained its Becquey gauge (30 metres by 5,20) except for lock n°1 at Baye. The Nivernais was left with its one Freycinet lock, thus forbidding access to 300 tonnes barges. Mariners deserted the canal and it was left to decay over the years. By the 1960s, many people feared it would be entirely abandoned, but it was saved by the actions of local figures advocating for the development of tourism.
The Nivernais canal lacked the potential for commercial navigation because it was not adequately modernized, but it was an unused marvel for tourism. The successive authorities owning the canal developed it with the necessary infrastructures to welcome leisure cruises. From majestic forests abundant in fauna and flora to ancient villages and the beautiful city of Auxerre and its cathedral, the canal du Nivernais offers a unique journey across one of the most peaceful and charming regions of France.