Projet de tracé, 1666

Other project proposals before the Canal du Midi: from a natural isthmus to Pierre-Paul Riquet's ingenious idea

The idea to link the Atlantic and the Mediterranean was not a new one! A great number of people had given thought to this strategic trade route and put forward (bold) proposals to build a canal between the two seas.

But the various proposals all ran into the same issue: how to supply water to such a canal? In the end, it was Pierre-Paul Riquet with his brilliant idea who found a solution to this problem, and was entrusted the construction of the canal.

The first proposals for the Canal du Midi:
a natural isthmus and construction projects dating back to Antiquity

In the northern Pyrenees, a natural isthmus (narrow strip of land between two seas) links the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Known as the Sillon Lauragais, this strip of land provides a natural passage that was used by various populations who wanted to reach the Mediterranean from the Atlantic or vice versa. It is likely that the people of the Palaeolithic era used this route!

From the Metal Ages (-2300 to -52 B.C.) and up until Classical Antiquity, it is possible that this route was part of the 'tin trade route'. These routes linked the Mediterranean and the south of Great Britain where tin was in abundance. Tin was needed to make bronze!

It was during Antiquity, under the rule of Emperor Augustus, that the idea to create a waterway in the Sillon Lauragais was first put forward. And the Romans excelled in working with water! They created navigation canals and managed to transport domestic water from a high altitude to a lower point using aqueducts!

But this was more complicated when it came to the Sillon Lauragais. Emperor Augustus did not have the necessary skills and technological know-how to transport water from a mountain pass to a canal, so he had a Roman pathway built between Narbonne, Toulouse and Bordeaux instead: the Via Aquitania. 

Successive canal construction projects from the 16th century

Studies carried out under Francis I and Henry IV

The first written proof of studies of canal construction between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean dates back to 1539, during the rule of Francis I.  

In 1598, Henry IV revived the idea of creating a canal between the Aude and Garonne rivers, supplied by the waters from the Ariège river. But, the project didn't see the light of day due to technical and financial difficulties.

1618: Bernard Arribat's proposal

In 1618, Bernard Arribat, with the support of the Duke of Montmorency who was Governor of Languedoc at the time, put forward a similar project to the consuls of Béziers - one of them being Pierre-Paul Riquet's father. Yet again, there was still no solution to the issue surrounding the water supply for the canal, and the project was abandoned! 

This was most likely when Riquet heard about the idea for the 'canal of the two seas' for the first time, and so his dream began to take shape in his mind!  

Etienne Richot's proposal to join the Ocean Sea and the Mediterranean

In 1633, a proposal entitled 'to join the Ocean Sea and the Mediterranean' was submitted in Paris by Etienne Richot, the King's engineer and Antoine Baudan, Royal contractor in Languedoc.

Pierre-Paul Riquet was 24 years old at the time. And his career in the salt trade (a key product for food conservation) was only just starting! Etienne Richot's proposal highlighted the many advantages of a canal between the two seas. One of these advantages was of course that salt trade would be made much easier... This is when Riquet's interest in the construction of such a canal began to grow!

Did you know?

Pierre-Paul Riquet's father was among those who rejected Bernard Arribat's idea to build a canal. It is a rather interesting turn of events that it was his own son who would become 'the father of the Canal du Midi'! 

Pierre-Paul Riquet's ingenious project

The reign of Henry IV may not have witnessed the creation of a canal between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, but he did sign the act for the construction of the first summit-level canal: the Canal de Briare. 

Henry IV and his controller-general of finances, Sully, ordered the creation of a canal to link the Seine and the Loire. This type of canal between two river valleys is known as a summit-level canal.  

The Canal de Briare was a major technical innovation! It was lined with locks with chambers (basin) that are key when crossing through areas of differing elevation. The Canal de Briare was opened to navigation in 1642, and was an important source of inspiration for Riquet and his plans for a canal in Languedoc.  

There was still a problem to face though: where would the water come from for such a canal?

Riquet had a revolutionary solution to this problem. His predecessors had suggested diverting the waters of the Garonne or Ariège rivers, but Riquet suggested using the waters of the Montagne Noire to supply his future canal.

That is when Pierre-Paul Riquet's idea became an ingenious one.