The Canal du Nivernais saw daylight in 1784. In this period and for more than 200 years up until this point, the neighbouring woods of Le Morvan had been used for providing Parisians with wood for heating. The reason for constructing a waterway was to increase the quantity of wood being supplied to the capital.
The Canal du Nivernais in fact links two downstream basins: the Loire basin and the Seine basin. The route of the canal opened up tremendous prospects in terms of the transportation of different goods and materials, particularly wood but also coal.
The construction work was to last 57 years. The architects who designed it and especially the numerous workers from all trades who succeeded one another along its long route of 174 km built major monuments. They have given us the famous tunnels of Collancelle (the subterranean section of the canal that allows the crossing of the watershed), the 16 consecutive locks of Sardy les Epiry or also the Pont Canal de Mingot and the locks of Chavance.
The transport of goods started on the day the canal was inaugurated. Wooden boats, which were maximum 30 metres in length and passed through 116 locks from Saint Léger des Vignes to Auxerre to rejoin the Yonne and then the Seine, were used initially. The daily life of the sailors was tough. The course of the canal was long and meandering, dotted with numerous locks. The boats, which had a capacity of around 100 tonnes, were towed, i.e. they were drawn by horses, donkeys or mules but at times also by men in the most dangerous passages.
Barely 40 years after the opening of the waterway, the winds of change started blowing across the Canal du Nivernais.
The Parisian demand for wood for heating purposes continued to grow. It was at this time that the waterways of northern France were opened to permit the transport of coal.
A little later around 1880, a railway line was set up along the course of the Canal du Nivernais, thus enabling the much more rapid transport of local goods.
In the end, it was at a national level that the reorganisation of the waterways led to tremendous upheaval. In 1880, the Minister of Bridges and Roads, Mr Freycinet, decided to establish a standard according to which boats with a length of more than 38.50 m could use the French waterways network.
The negative aspect of this development was that the outstanding construction work which had been carried out became a real pitfall for the modernisation of the Canal du Nivernais. The cost and materials required to change the passage clearance at the locks were enormous while the traffic volume was already decreasing.
This tendency did not change. Between 1965 and 1970, traffic was virtually non-existent and there was talk of closing the waterway.
It was in this rather unfortunate context that the Canal du Nivernais, which was in its last throes, happened to impress a waterways enthusiast, Mr Pierre Zivy. This gentleman was one of the pioneers of waterways tourism in France. He crossed the Canal du Nivernais at a time when it had been virtually abandoned and was overgrown with vegetation. He was captivated by the civil engineering works and the beauty of the countryside he encountered. Thanks to his know-how and his contacts, he saved the Canal du Nivernais just as it was about to be decommissioned and opened the first company for hiring pleasure boats at the very same place where AQUA FLUVIAL is now based.
The powerful waterway had been saved. The rare commercial boats gave way to tourists from all over the world. These tourists have been welcomed here for more than thirty years by a succession of various professional enthusiasts who are still proud of spending time on one of the most beautiful canals of the world.
Author: Sandrine BOUTON