At the turn of the twentieth century, Parisians believed they lived in the greatest city in the world.
But Paris came to a halt in January 1910 when the river that provided much of the city’s life quickly became an instrument of destruction. Following weeks of torrential rainfall, the Seine overflowed its banks flooding thousands of homes and sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing for safety and higher ground.
This most modern of cities seemed to have lost its battle with the elements.
But in the midst of the disaster, despite decades of political division, scandal, and deep tensions between social classes, Parisians rallied to help one another and rebuild. Leaders and people answered the call to action in the city’s hour of need. This newfound ability to work together proved crucial just four years later when France was plunged into the depths of World War I. What emerged from the waters, and from the war, was the Paris we know today
Strolls along the beautiful banks of the Seine will never be the same after seeing city’s devastation and endurance. In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, the story of Paris coming from the flood waters stronger than ever provides a powerful tale of hope for cities and people rebuilding their lives in the wake of nature’s fury.
By the time Parisians rang in the new year of 1910, rain had been falling for days. An exceptionally wet summer the year before and now a wet winter led to saturated soil that could not hold any more water. A low pressure system sitting over the English Channel by early January and higher than normal temperatures that turned snow to rain made for exceptionally wet days.
The river rose every winter in Paris, but this year it swelled with great speed beginning on January 21. Several towns upstream from Paris hadalredy been washed away, but as the water arrived in the capital the Seine began climbing up the walls that contain it. But the water did not roll over the tops of the quays. Instead, it started pushing underneath the streets through the heavily saturated soil. Sewer lines that were renovated and expanded in the 1860s would not prove sufficient to carry the water away. Instead, they backed up into basements. Soon water was gushing up from the sewers into the streets from manholes and grates. When the water reached its height of some 20 feet above normal, the statue of the Zouave — the proud colonial soldier who stood on the Pont de l’Alma — was up to his neck of a murky soup that many people described as “yellow.” Rushing at never-before-seen speeds, the frothy Seine carried debris from upstream which often crashed against bridges, sending enormous booms across the city.
Paris Under Water
In areas along the river, and even those farther away, homes soon became uninhabitable. Newly homeless Parisians crowded into improvised shelters in churches, government buildings, schools, and other sites. Red Cross workers, religious organizations, and government officials began distributing aid. In streets where coaches and automobiles had traveled only days before, now only boats could get through. Floating through the flooded zone, police, soldiers, and volunteers picked stranded Parisians from their windows and carried them to safety.
Engineers hastily erected miles of wooden walkways so that Parisians could continue to move throughout the flooded zone. These walkways sometimes connected to an intricate series of ladders reaching up to second-story windows so that people could continue to come and go from buildings surrounded by water.
Throughout the flood, Parisians pulled together to save their city and one another. Police and soldiers conducted a dramatic rescue of patients from the Boucicaut Hospital, carrying them to safety in horse-drawn carts donated by local laborers. Engineers labored day and night to build up the levee outside the Louvre museum to prevent the rising water from overtopping the wall and destroying the valuable treasures inside. The city’s hands-on police chief, Louis Lepine, directed efforts in the street and reported back to the City Council which consistently increased the relief funds. Donations from around France poured into coffers as people, touched by the misery of the city, opened their wallets and their hearts to relieve the suffering.
But not everone in Paris wanted to help. Looters moved into hard-hit areas, especially in the suburban towns, and robbed abandoned houses. In some areas, driven by a growing indignation at the crime, Parisians took matters into their own hands, lynching or beating looters until the police often intervened. As the water rose, so did people’s level of fear.
In the minds of many, the flood was not only a natural disaster but a man-made one. Parisians had trusted in their city’s modern infrastructure to improve their lives in the new century. But much of that technology actually made the situation worse. The Metro, the city’s 10-year old subway system, carried water through its underground tunnels into neighborhoods. In the most dramatic incident, when the Seine infiltrated a Metro line under construction on the Left Bank, the water entered the tunnel, went back under the main channel of the Seine, and re-emerged on the Right Bank, flooding the neighborhood around the Gare Saint-Lazare which sits a great distance from the river’s bank. No one had expected this part of the city to flood.
Paris stank for days, even weeks. The river had brought debris from upstream, including sometimes animal carcasses, and it had washed the contents of the stockyard on the Ile-Saint-Louis into the river. While the water was high, officials ordered throwing the city’s growing piles of garbage back into the Seine since 3 of the 4 incinerators that normally rid the city of waste were out of order. As water fell, stocks of food and other items in warehouses, basements, and store shelves began to rot. The city’s wine supply was destroyed. Fortunately, the central food market Les Halles did not suffer too much damage, and extra food supplies were quickly brought in from the provinces. Paris did not starve but there was much clean-up work to do.
Police chief Lepine directed the disinfection efforts, posting clear instructions around the city about how to fight germs. Every surface touched by the water would be treated with chemical solutions, and any item that could be sacrificed would be burned. Chemicals and smoke added to the city’s stench as the waters receded.
Very few people died as a direct result of the flood, but we will never know how many frightened people suffered heart attacks and died or how many Parisians got sick and later passed away. The flood was not a tremendous human disaster, but the psychological toll can never be truly measured.
Images of the Flood
As the waters rose, photographers fanned out across the city capturing countless images of the rising water and its human effects. Many images appeared in the daily press coverage and in the glossy magazines that featured photography. Postcards of the flood were particularly popular, bought and sold even as the water remained high as if people needed an instant memento of the event to make it seem real. Postcard vendors lined the river and its bridges hawking these photographs, many of which were sent around the world thus spreading the news about the flood.
Forgetting the Flood
Ironically very few scholars have written anything about the flood of 1910, perhaps because the dramatic photographs have substituted for the story. But the flood was quickly overshadowed by other events, particularly World War I. By 1918, the trauma of the war made the flood seem insignificant by comparison. Within a few more years, as city engineers removed any signs of the flood damage, most residents relegated the flood to an interesting footnote in the city’s history.
Today, walking along the Seine, you can see marks carved into the quay walls showing the water’s maximum height. In a few streets, placards on the walls also indicate just how high the water came. But other than these markers and the photographs, little evidence of the flood remains.
About the Author:
Jeffrey H. Jackson is a professor of history at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee with over 10 years experience researching the history of Paris. He is also Associate Director of the Environmental Program at Rhodes.
He has published on a range of topics, beginning with his first book Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris (Duke University Press, 2003).
During the fall of 2007, Jackson was a Fellow-in-Residence at the Columbia University Institute for Scholars at Reid Hall in Paris. Also in 2007, the History News Network named Jackson a “Top Young Historian” in the US, and in early 2008, Jackson’s colleagues nominated him for the Rhodes College Award for Outstanding Research.
Jackson’s articles have appeared in several academic journals, including French Historical Studies (the New York State Association of European Historians awarded this article a prize by for best article of 2002); French Cultural Studies; French Politics, Culture, and Society; Journal of Popular Culture; and Humanities. The editor of the Rhodes College alumni magazine commissioned a piece for general-interest readers about his jazz research.
Jackson received his B.S. in history summa cum laude with High Honors from Vanderbilt University in 1993 and a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in 1999. At Rhodes College, he teaches courses in modern European history, cultural history, French history, and interdisciplinary Humanities. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Historical Association, and the Sinfonia Foundation.