Few canals in France had so much hardship to see the light of the day: the authorities’ unwillingness to take the risks, engineering and financial complications, as well as war, have all delayed the completion of this long-wanted waterway. From the 18th century onward, there was a great interest in creating a network of waterways to connect the North to the South, more precisely from Dunkirk to the Mediterranean Sea. Connecting the Marne to the Saone would allow goods to reach the Rhone basin faster than by other routes. Today, it remains a link between the South and French and European northern waterways.
The first steps in the construction of this canal, however, were less ambitious. While previous plans were never accepted, by the 1830s the region surrounding the city of Saint-Dizier (Haute-Marne) was calling for better communication routes because it was isolated. Indeed, Saint-Dizier became an important industrial centre producing steel, and its importance was increasing continuously since the last century. But, the Marne was not an effective river to transport goods and needed serious development or the construction of a lateral canal. While it was an auspicious time as the government was financing the construction of many canals, it was also a period of rapid growth for railways and there were many hesitant voices on how judicious a canal would truly be for the country. Still, in 1835, it was agreed to build a canal between Vitry-le-François and Chamouilley, a little eastward of Saint-Dizier, but the work did not start. A decade later, a plan was accepted to extend this canal to Donjeux, some 30 kilometres to the South, but discussions on funding and technical specificities never ceased until 1862. That year began the construction of the first segment to Chamouilley, which was completed in 1866. The work for the second segment, to Donjeux, began two years later but was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. It was only resumed in 1879. It roughly took 45 years to build this 73 kilometres long waterway then known as the Haute-Marne canal.
The final step to create a canal of great national importance remained to be started. It probably was the most difficult because to join the Saone river, the canal had to pass through the Langres plateau and be dug inside hilly and rocky terrain. This was also the period of the Freycinet law and the subsequent program to standardize both old and future canals. While the Vitry-le-François to Donjeux segment was slowly updated, the construction of the remaining 150 kilometres began. It would take 27 years, in part because work stopped due to a lack of funds. The great difficulty was the crossing of the watershed. At Balesmes-sur-Marne, a small village now part of the Saints-Geosmes commune, perched 340 metres high. In 1880, engineer Emile-Marie Carlier build the Balesmes tunnel. This impressive great work of engineering is 4,820 metres long, making it the fourth-longest tunnel on a French canal today. Finished in 1888, this tunnel goes straight under the source of the Marne and starts the descent to the Soane. In 1907, the junction to the Saone river, at Maxilly-sur-Saone, was opened. From there, boats can navigate towards the Rhone and Lyon, then farther South, or access the Rhone-Rhine and Burgundy canals. The Marne-Soane canal is a crucial link in the waterway network of North-East France.
Despite its difficult and long construction, the canal was a successful commercial route. Freight only truly declined in the 1990s, and today there are still commercial barges navigating on the canal. At the same time, leisure cruising increased, and the canal changed its name to Canal between Champagne and Burgundy as a way of promoting tourism in these two regions, although it also crosses through Lorraine. Since the latest regional reforms, the canal only passes through two regions: Grand-Est and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté.
The canal has two faces, almost separated by the watershed. On the Saone side, the canal cuts through a very rural landscape, bordered by small villages and towns. Relatively flat at first, the landscape becomes hillier as the canal reaches the plateau of Langres. On the Marne side, from Chaumont onward, the area is more populated and industrial as the canal goes through larger towns until reaching Vitry-le-France. This city is a waterway crossroad as it also has a connection with the Marne lateral and Marne-Rhine canals. It is a great gateway to further explore the traditional Champagne region, renowned for its beautiful countryside, vineyards and rich history.
- Cholley, André (1926), « La voie navigable Méditerranée-Alsace » in Géocarrefour, pp. 181-86.
- Degoy, Bertrand (2015), « L’alimentation en eau du canal de Champagne en Bourgogne », in Chemins de l’eau [Online].
- Desaunais, A. (1936), « Le trafic actuel de la Saône » in Géocarrefour, pp. 98-100.
- (s.d.), « Le canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne » in Projet Babel [Online].
- (s.d.), « Tunnel de Balesmes-sur-Marne » in Structurae [Online]