Joining the rivers Rhone and Rhine is an ancient idea that even the Romans pondered on. However, it was only during the 18th century that prospects were truly envisioned for the creation of a waterway from the Saone, a tributary of the Rhone, to the Rhine. Geographically and politically, this was then possible because France firmly held the province of Franche-Comté since its annexation in 1678. Indeed, the river Doubs, whose course largely runs in the region, was essential to making this connection.
There were several major stages to completing this long canal. The first one began in 1783 with the segment from Saint-Symphorien to Dole. Construction occurred during the last years prior to the French Revolution. It was a development program simultaneously happening throughout the country, with other constructions such as the Centre and the Nivernais canals. One of the administrative difficulties consisted of the canal falling under the jurisdiction of several authorities, namely the provincial parliaments of Burgundy and Franche-Comté for the first 17 kilometres part of the canal. Emiland Gauthey, the engineer behind the canal de Centre, played a key role in the construction of the Burgundy part of the first section. As for the other part under the authority of Franche-Comté, the chief engineer was Philippe Bertrand, who also was a skilled surveyor. This duality in the bodies governing the canal was a recurrent issue throughout the history of the canal.
At its request, the city of Dole was connected to the Saone thanks to this section. This also meant that the river Doubs was connected to the Saone. The Revolution and the following complicated years prevented further advancement of the canal until 1808, the year generally considered as the beginning of the construction of the Rhone-Rhine canal. In 1832, the canal was finally completed. The beginning of the canal at lock Saint-Symphorien is located on a waterway crossroad with the Burgundy canal. At Dole, the canal merges with the Doubs, interweaving with the river as it is meandering through the valley. This second section is the longest, and perhaps the most beautiful as boats cruise through the woody and hilly landscapes of Franche-Comté. Shortly before Montbéliard, at Voujeaucourt, the canal runs along the Allan River as it winds its way towards Belfort, and then Alsace. At Mulhouse, until the 1960s, there was a branch leading to Strasburg. However, this part of the canal is no longer navigable and, instead, boats join the Rhine and the Alsace canal at Niffer.
The Rhone-Rhine canal was deeply impacted by the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. The peace treaty amputated Alsace and Lorraine. One major consequence is that the Vosges region found itself completely isolated from the rest of the waterway network, which lead to the construction of the canal de l’Est. The second important consequence of this division of the Rhone-Rhine canal happened during the phase of modernization to the Freycinet gauge. Germany modernized the canal from Strasburg to Mulhouse, and the French from Deluz (upstream of Besançon) to Saint-Symphorien on the Saone. This meant that after the First World War when Alsace was once more part of France, 300-tonne barges could not navigate on the entirety of the canal. From 1919 to 1921, it was decided to remedy this problem. Finally, the Rhone-Rhine canal was truly a link between Northern Europe and the Mediterranean Sea.
However, this canal was never the most pleasant and easier canal for commercial barges. As there are many sections of the canal running on the course of the Doubs river, mariners must deal with the annual rise in the water level and occasional floods. Several solutions were contemplated, such as the creation of a lateral canal to the Doubs, because at this state the canal was deemed as not serving French interests enough but, instead, those of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. There was a gap between the amount of freight transported in the Alsace region and downstream of Mulhouse. Furthermore, the Rhone-Rhine canal was different from other waterways and commercial navigation seriously decreased facing the concurrence of railways.
The development of the canal to a larger Rhine gauge was discussed for several decades. The segment between the Rhine and Mulhouse was transformed in 1992 between Niffer and Mulhouse, as well as in Montbéliard in front of the Peugeot factory. But, in 1997, the project was abandoned by the French government. The transformation of the canal was a very heated debate in France, between advocates and opponents of this project. One of the fears of opponents concerned the ecosystem of the Doubs valley. While it is true that the decision to abandon the transformation to a large gauge was negative to the pursuit of commercial navigation, it is a blessing for leisure cruising as the Doubs valley is one of the highlights of the canal.
From the flat areas of the Saone, The Rhone-Rhine canal winds its course to the Doubs valley. There lies the Franche-Comté region, renowned for its gastronomy, yellow ones, and beautiful fauna and flora. The canal and river are shaded by oaks and willows and are the home to grey herons, kingfishers and wild ducks. Bordered by pretty villages, two cities are must-sees in the region. Dole, the hometown of Louis Pasteur, is known for both its architectural heritage and the natural beauty surrounding it. To the East of the city is the forest of Chaux, the fifth-largest in France. Further upstream, the city of Besançon, the capital of the region, has an ancient history going back to the Gallic tribe of the Sequani. The seat of the impressive Vauban citadel towering the city, Besançon is also the capital of clockwork, the birthplace of Victor Hugo and the Lumière brothers. There is also an important industrial heritage along the canal, as the canal runs through the Peugeot factory in Sochaux-Montbéliard. There, the gates to Alsace are not far. The forests and hills are slowly replaced by more agricultural landscapes and villages and cities of a very different cultural heritage. The historic city centre of Mulhouse makes for a beautiful contrast to Burgundy and Franche-Comté architecture. It is also renowned for its Musée de l’Automobile and its botanic park.
- Cholley, André (1926), « La voie navigable Méditerranée-Alsace» in Géocarrefour, n°2, pp. 181-86.
- Demangeon, Albert (1930), « Rhin et Rhône. Rivalité de fleuves et projets d’aménagement» in Annales de géographie, n°219, pp. 225-243.
- Woessner, Raymond (2010), « Le projet de canal à grand gabarit entre le Rhône et le Rhin : un conflit sans fin entre ses promoteurs et ses opposants ? » in Territoires européens : régions, Etats, Union (Ressources de géographie pour les enseignants) [Online].
- (s.d.), « Le canal du Rhône au Rhin » in Projet Babel [Online].