A 200 year-old canal was drained for the first time in years and some surprising discoveries were made

When you think of Paris, what first comes to your mind? Maybe it is the romance of the place or the French patisseries and the delicious bread and cheese. Maybe it is the lights of the Eiffel Tower or striking French women in berets. Whatever it is that first comes to your mind, no one would think of garbage when they thought of the most romantic city on Earth. However, as you will find from this story, you may have to change your opinion.

Paris is one of the oldest cities in the world and it was inhabited since the middle of the third century BCE. As a result, the city has a rich history and many famous landmarks that tell the tales of the past. One of these landmarks is the Canal Saint-Martin, which was commissioned to be built by Napoleon himself in 1802. This waterway was created with the intention of supplying the residents of Paris with fresh water. However, as was discovered not so long ago, the intended result was not achieved.


The canal is itself is beautiful to look at and is often used for tourist purposes, as many passenger boats glide along the canal to show off the city to its visitors. There are also many popular cafés and restaurants along the canal, so it is a shame that the canal has not been taken care of by Parisians and tourists alike.

Unfortunately, the canal that spans around 4.5 kilometers is thought to be one of the dirtiest parts of the city. As such, the local authorities have demanded that it be cleaned out periodically. As such, in 2001 the canal underwent a cleaning process, at which time workers discovered over 40 tons of garbage and debris in the process.

In 2017, it was cleaned out again and this time, a lot more than just bottles and garbage were found. The items range from the unpleasant to the downright strange and they made us wonder – what is going on in Paris?

Some of the items discovered during this process we truly unbelievable and it prompted the residents of Paris to rethink how they were treating the canal. They also discovered that they were not only hurting themselves but also the wildlife that had set up their homes in the Canal. But what could have been discovered in this Parisian waterway that got the whole world talking?

History of Saint-Martin

In 1802, the construction of Canal Saint-Martin was ordered by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. The canal was multi-functional and was designed to be both a waterway for commerce and a source of freshwater for the residents of Paris. To pay for the construction of such a large project, a tax on wine was issued that we can imagine Parisians were not too pleased with. And yet, it paid for the endeavor, and the Canal Saint-Martin was subsequently carved out.


Here is a picture of what the canal, located in Paris looked like before all of the water was drained. As you can see, it was a picturesque sight and it added another layer of beauty to the already magnificent streets of Paris. But as you may also notice, the water in the canal was an odd color, which is due in part to the remnants found deep underneath all of the water.

The drainage begins

Before the water could be drained from the canal and the cleaning could go ahead, a dam had to be placed in a section of the waterway. A giant crane was needed to lift the heavy metal piece into place, which created a lot of excitement amongst the residents of Paris. In addition to keeping more water from entering the canal, such a blockade would also keep some of the canal’s more feral residents alive.

Walk on water

After the Canal was drained, it was so low that workers could practically walk across the waterway. This was a highly unusual sight for the people living in Paris as they are used to seeing the canal filled with boats of passengers. It also prompted many residents to gather on the bridges overlooking the canal so they could get a closer look at what was lying underneath all of the green-colored water. It was truly a sight to behold.

Fish friendly

Before the workers could drain the canal to excavate it, the fish living in it needed to be removed so that they would not be harmed. It took the workers a full three days to track down the trout, carp, and bream in the canal and move them into another nearby part of the waterway. Although it was a tremendous amount of work, it needed to be done to preserve the wildlife and the ecosystem in the canal.

Man power

Finding all the fish in the canal required a large amount of manpower. Had the team used a boat and a fishing net, they would have done more harm than good, as most of the fish would have died. This meant that individuals had to wade in the water with hand nets and buckets of water to ensure that the fish would not be harmed while being transported to the water-filled part of the canal.

Finding Nemo

After hours and hours of collecting all of the fish (who were most likely very hard to catch) they placed in buckets and moved to the dammed off part of the waterway. Dozens of onlookers gathered to watch the canal workers hand carry each fish from their buckets to the wall of the dam. They were then placed in the water and swam freely away. This was painstaking work as everyone needed to be careful not to harm the fish.

Keeping track

However, before the fish could be set free, the workers had to take an account of them. Each fish had to be identified for its species and weighed so the workers could keep track of how many fish there were in the canal and what types. This was obviously not a comfortable experience for the fish as they had to briefly be out of their wet environment but don’t worry, they were quickly put back into water after the process.

Coming to the surface

As the fish were being taken out of the canal and accounted for, some new animal faces were showing up in the canal. If you have ever been to the beach, you likely saw a bunch of seagulls going near the water. This was no different with the partially drained canal and a group of them even helped discover items as they are pictured here around an abandoned suitcase. We’re guessing the lack of fish was more than a bit concerning for these little guys.

Undiscovered stories

Once the fish were safely removed, the remaining water in the canal was drained on January 7th. It was the first instance in 15 years that the mysteries of the canal were uncovered for all to see. Tons of residents, passersby and tourists flocked to the bridges overlooking the canal to catch a glimpse of the mysteries underneath the waterway. It was truly a monumental project, but what did the crew working on it unearth?

Mountains of trash

The first thing that was discovered in the canal was something that you might expect. Garbage. Unfortunately, many passersby used the canal as a trash can leading to what looked liked mountains of garbage to pile up over the years. Among the uncovered trash were shopping bags, glass bottles and even traffic cones. Several of the items were so unusual that it prompted the locals to ask how they ended up in the canal in the first place.

Table talk

Additional strange items to be discovered were a number of discarded tables. We cannot really imagine why anyone would throw a table away in a canal if they wanted to get rid of it. However, it was starting to become clear that people may have been using the canal for their own personal uses rather than simply admiring its beauty. This was just the start of more discoveries to be made.

Bike lane

One of the most commonly found objects and the bottom of the canal were bicycles. Though there were all kinds of bikes found all through the waterway, In particular, there were a number discovered from the Vélib hire system, which was launched in 2007. This program brought over 14,000 new bikes for the residents of Paris, however, it seems that many of them ended up in the canal instead of being put to use.

Army of bikes

One witness explained that when they drained the canal, it was as though a submarine had stumbled upon a treasure trove. He said that he could not, “Believe the quantity of Vélibs in there.” He went onto say that they must have first been stolen and thrown into the canal after they were used. Finding a large amount of bikes was odd enough but there were many more strange items discovered as the search went on.

Heavy discoveries

While the bicycles were odd enough items to find in water, the crew was even more surprised when they stumbled upon a couple of motorcycles. But how could such expensive and heavy items have made their way to the bottom of a canal? However they got there, we hope that the owners had insurance. Although one might think that this would be the end of it, the findings only got weirder from there…

A time capsule

Although most of what was uncovered was litter and people’s unwanted trash, the workers felt that the canal was a sort of time capsule. There were many unusual objects found and even relics of the past such as this old boombox. While we cannot imagine why someone would toss an expensive piece of equipment into the canal, it was have been interesting for the cleanup crew to find these items that the world has long forgotten.

Electronic store

The further the workers went into the canal, the more they discovered that the waterway resembled an abandoned electronic store. Electronic items such as this very old looking camera were discovered and it prompted people to think of the stories about how it ended up in the canal. While a bike seemed like an odd item to throw in, one could certainly imagine a tourist trying to get a good shot of the city on a bridge and their camera accidentally falling in without hope of retrieval.

When you gotta go…

By now, the crew was realizing that unfortunately, many residents of Paris were using the canal as a garbage dump. And they were tossing out expensive items that might be challenging to even get into the canal. Over time, weird items began to be recovered from the mud including suitcases, shopping carts and chairs. However, none of these items could compare to the toilet that was found floating along the remaining water in the canal.

A wasteland

As the canal was cleaned, onlookers were stunned to see what had been thrown away in the supposedly beautiful canal. A Paris resident named Bernard even declared, “That’s Paris for you.” Although he may not have been surprised, others could not believe how polluted the canal was and that the people who lived in Paris would treat their city with such disregard. One Parisian believed that it was the youth of the city who were using it as their dumpster.

Looking ahead

Although people may have littered and mistreated the canal in the past, there is still hope for the future of the canal. Now that the truth has been uncovered for everyone’s eyes to see, local authorities have decided to make public statements about the issue. The deputy mayor even said that if everyone stopped throwing trash into the canal that people may even be able to swim in it in the future. Although this sounds like a wonderful idea, it would require every Paris resident to refrain from littering.

Drinks all around

Amongst the trash that was found beneath the canal’s surface was heaps of wine bottles. Which makes sense for Parisians who rarely sit at bars like the tourists do but rather wine and dine along the canals of Paris with a date or some friends and are always accompanied by a bottle of wine. It seems as though most of these empty bottles ended up in the canal rather than in their rightful place in recycling.

Artifacts galore

The Parisians and even the tourists stood by the canal watching what would be dug up next. It was like a live reality television show. “The unearthed secret lives of the Parisians” was playing right before their eyes and they were loving it. Some interesting artifacts from World War One were found in the canal including coins, an unexploded shell, and even a car! The Canal Saint-Martin held so many hidden treasures that were centuries old.

Keeping it clean

This over 200-year-old canal is one of the main pride and joys of Parisian history. Celia Blaue who is the deputy mayor that is in charge of this endeavor and of the environment said that “If everyone mucks in and avoids throwing anything in the water, we might be able to swim in the canal in a few years, as in numerous other European cities”. It is so important to keep France’s history alive and it all starts with not polluting or littering.

Clean waters

The Canal Saint-Martin is actually drained ever 10 to 15 years and has always been a fascination of the Parisians who enjoyed watching what they will dig up next. Most excitingly, a pistol was actually recovered from the waters! Fascinatingly enough, the canal was first built in order to create an artificial way to supply water to Paris. The clean water was necessary in 1802 in order to prevent diseases such as cholera or dysentery. Now it is obvious that no one would ever drink from these waters. Ever.

Tourist attraction

The Canal is a popular tourist attraction that gives boat rides and cruises to excited tourists who want to get a different view of the city. Students tend to hang out with the many popular bars and restaurants alongside the canal making it one of the central hubs of Paris. The Napoleonic era Canal was once a way to supply grains, wood and other materials to Paris. Now it has become more of a public hang out and a place to sightsee. Nevertheless, it is a part of Paris’ rich history.

Hurting wildlife

We truly hope that the residents of Paris learned something from this endeavor as they discovered how polluted their beautiful canal really was. Pollution such as this not only harms the aesthetic of the city, but the animals living there too. Waterway pollution kills over one-hundred thousand marine animals each year and it costs cities and countries billions of dollars to clean. This money could be put to good use for some other cause if people would just keep the water litter-free.