The Washington Post
Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910by Jeffrey H. Jackson
In the winter of 1910, the river that brought life to Paris quickly became a force of destruction. Torrential rainfall saturated the soil, and faulty engineering created a perfect storm of conditions that soon drowned Parisian streets, homes, businesses, and museums. The city seemed to have lost its battle with the elements. Given the Parisians' history of
In the winter of 1910, the river that brought life to Paris quickly became a force of destruction. Torrential rainfall saturated the soil, and faulty engineering created a perfect storm of conditions that soon drowned Parisian streets, homes, businesses, and museums. The city seemed to have lost its battle with the elements. Given the Parisians' history of deep-seated social, religious, and political strife, it was questionable whether they could collaborate to confront the crisis. Yet while the sewers, Métro, and electricity failed around them, Parisians of all backgrounds rallied to save the city and one another. Improvising techniques to keep Paris functioning and braving the dangers of collapsing infrastructure and looters, leaders and residents alike answered the call to action. This newfound ability to work together proved a crucial rehearsal for an even graver crisis four years later, when France was plunged into World War I. On the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the flood, Jeffrey H. Jackson captures here for the first time the drama and ultimate victory of man over nature.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
“A tight, concentrated tale of adversity and survival . . . Evenhanded, at once pragmatic and inspiring.” Caroline Weber, The New York Times Book Review
“[This] riveting account of the great flood of 1910 and the city's benevolent response is fascinating and inspiring. . . . surprisingly gripping.” Minneapolis Star Tribune
“It's hard to imagine a more thoroughly researched history of the Paris, France, flood of 1910 than Paris Under Water by Jeffrey H. Jackson. With the national debate roaring on whether post-Katrina New Orleans should be rebuilt, Paris Under Wateroffers the definitive answer of yes. A truly first-rate book.” Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge:Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast
“Jeffrey Jackson's meticulous account of the great Paris flood is harrowing history told in gripping detail but also a stark warning as waters rise everywhere.” Mort Rosenblum, author of Secret Life of the Seine and Chocolate
“Paris Under Water is a riveting account of a natural catastrophe that struck Paris in 1910. Going far beyond the boundaries of environmental or urban history, it draws on an exceptionally wide array of sources to offer the reader a meticulous, yet rich and personal, reconstruction of what the great flood felt like to contemporaries, what it revealed about social tensions and solidarities, and what it signified on a broader historical scale. Jackson has succeeded masterfully in telling a fascinating story in a way that any reader will find utterly irresistible, while applying insightful and erudite scholarly analysis in a way that sheds light on a great city's social, economic, and cultural life. A tour de force of scholarship and brilliantly creative craftsmanship.” Michael D. Bess, author of Choices Under Fire:Moral Dimensions of World War II
“Fascinating work, important story, beautifully told. Jackson tells us about a little-known flood of a well-known city, Paris. He weaves seamlessly together the political and cultural significance of the flood, all while engaging the reader with stories about what the flood meant for everyday life. A fine achievement.” Lee Clarke, author of Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination
“Before New Orleans, there was Paris. The Great Paris Flood of 1910, which paralyzed the world's most modern city and caused over a billion euros (by today's standards) worth of damage, provides a fascinating study of physical and social devastation and human survival. Jackson blends the vivid details of the flood--exploding sewer covers, disintegrating streets--with the wider historical context, from the Commune of 1871 to World War I, and the psychology of disaster. Modernization itself contributed to Paris's destruction. But, as Jackson concludes, in the end Paris survived the flood because it was a functioning human community, not because it was a modern metropolis. Any student of history or lover of Paris will want to read this book.” Sarah Smith, The Knowledge of Water, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year
“Narratives of natural disasters often show swift and all-consuming devastation, but PARIS Paris Under Water is a story of waters rising. Set against the backdrop of the world's most beautiful city, the Seine itself is at the center of the story from its role in making Paris a modern city to the day in 1910 when Parisians stood on its banks and watched it climb several feet a day, carrying debris from flooded towns in the countryside. Through Jackson's deft storytelling and first-hand accounts, we see the terror of watching a disaster slowly, methodically drown a city and a community's fight to survive it.” Molly Caldwell Crosby, An American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic That Shaped Our History
“A spirited look at the Parisian move into "Syst'me D"--crisis mode.” Kirkus
“Stories about Paris have left us with a rich profile of a city at the vanguard of political action and cultural life. Yet Jeffrey H. Jackson's new book muddies these familiar waters. His gripping account of the 1910 flood recounts the highs and the lows of what happened when water "shorted out" the city of light. With a knack for the diversity of human response to disaster and the historian's eye for the telling detail, Jackson draws our attention to how nature interacts with our greatest of human-wrought environments: the metropolis. This book not only is an important tale, worthy of being told but it also will open the door to reconsiderations of the interaction of technology and the environment in ways that are vitally relevant today.” Vanessa R. Schwartz, It's So French: Hollywood, Paris, and the Making of Cosmopolitan Film Culture "
“An engrossing narrative” Library Journal
“Enlivened by period photographs of a flooded Paris, this is a capable, well-researched history of a modern city's battle with nature” Publishers Weekly
“Combining exhaustive archival research and such primary sources as the diary of the city's chief of police, the book creates a compelling image of what at the time was viewed as an epachal event in one fo the world's great cities. It shows, in compelling fashion and with shades of Hurricane Katrina, how a city that has been often riven by divisions managed to come together to face a body blow from nature and how the City of Light managed to shine once again.” Michael Deibert
“Jackson ... has written an agreeably non-academic account of the Seine's rise and fall. He has also put together an excellent Web site -- www.parisunderwater.com -- that includes a number of photographs and a brief explanatory text. It is a useful companion piece to the book as well as a free-standing if brief story of the flood.” Washington Post
Paris Under Water is a riveting account of a natural catastrophe that struck Paris in 1910. Going far beyond the boundaries of environmental or urban history, it draws on an exceptionally wide array of sources to offer the reader a meticulous, yet rich and personal, reconstruction of what the great flood felt like to contemporaries, what it revealed about social tensions and solidarities, and what it signified on a broader historical scale. Jackson has succeeded masterfully in telling a fascinating story in a way that any reader will find utterly irresistible, while applying insightful and erudite scholarly analysis in a way that sheds light on a great city's social, economic, and cultural life. A tour de force of scholarship and brilliantly creative craftsmanship.
Fascinating work, important story, beautifully told. Jackson tells us about a little-known flood of a well-known city, Paris. He weaves seamlessly together the political and cultural significance of the flood, all while engaging the reader with stories about what the flood meant for everyday life. A fine achievement.
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Read an Excerpt
Paris Under Water
How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910
By Jeffrey H. Jackson
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2010 Jeffrey H. Jackson
All rights reserved.
the SURPRISING RISE of the SEINE
The first day of 1910 was unusually sunny and warm. Paris was generally cold and rainy at this time of year, so the mild weather was an especially welcome change. Parisians, along with hundreds of visitors from the suburbs and provinces, had stayed out late the night before, filling the brightly lit boulevards and warm cafés as they celebrated the new year. As the temperature reached 43°, people in the streets wished one another a happy 1910.
Elsewhere in France that day the scene was not as bright. A few hundred miles to the west of Paris, the sea was churning off the coast of a windy and rainy Brittany. A low-pressure system began to move eastward across the English Channel toward Paris, adding more rain to the soil of northern France and the Low Countries, already saturated from several weeks of unusually high amounts of winter rainfall. In villages along the coast, wind began to rattle people's windows and doors.
By the second week of the new year, water from rising rivers began overflowing the banks of the Seine and its tributaries, washing through the small towns and villages upriver to the east and south of Paris. The water's full destructive force was unleashed on Friday, January 21, in the small mining town of Lorroy, 50 miles southeast of Paris on the Loing River. New rains engorged the Loing, one of the many waterways that feed into the Seine, causing it to run faster and stronger than most people could remember. The mines that undercut the region's rocky terrain had already destabilized the earth, and now the surging water weakened it further.
The men of Lorroy made their living digging coal from the hill just outside the town. Workers then loaded the coal into boats that floated down a man-made canal to the Loing River, eventually reaching Paris and beyond. Canals like this one were important to the economy because they allowed for the quick and easy transport of this valuable commodity. Under the rainy conditions, however, the canal had filled to overflowing and, according to press accounts, was adding more and more water to the drenched town and the land around it.
Each day these miners, black with coal dust, went home around one o'clock to join their families for lunch. On January 21, they trudged through wet and muddy streets, rain pelting them the entire way. While they were eating, without warning, the village began to shake violently. Plates and cups rattled on tables, and furniture slid across rooms. Screaming with fear, children scrambled to hide beneath the tables.
A huge mass of saturated soil on the hillside was dislodged by the strong pull of water and gravity, and it roared down the slope, bending over the trees in its path. No one had time to react as the avalanche tore downhill, crashing into several village homes with families still inside. Smashed by the force of mud and rock, wood and glass went flying, and doors were blown off their hinges.
When the terrifying landslide was over, the residents of Lorroy whose homes had been spared ran outside to inspect the damage. They gazed at their neighbors' ruined and half-buried houses, unsure whether the people trapped inside were alive or dead. The hillside above, previously covered with plants and trees, was a muddy gash in the landscape.
Local police and firefighters raced to the scene to join the victims' friends and families in the search for survivors. Hundreds of bystanders sobbed as rescuers shouted orders to one another about where to dig. They furiously scraped away the mud with picks, shovels, and bare hands, stopping only to listen for cries for help. Soldiers stationed at a nearby army base heard reports of what had happened, grabbed their equipment, and rushed to join the rescue efforts. Everyone labored throughout the rest of the cold, rainy day, refusing to rest until they recovered as many townspeople as they could. At nightfall, the rescuers lit bonfires and torches and pointed the headlights of cars at the mountain of rubble and soil so that the work of digging out the dead and wounded could continue.
In the middle of the night of January 21, while the people of Lorroy were still digging in the rubble by firelight, the residents of Troyes, an ancient Roman-era village located some 100 miles upriver from Paris on the Seine, heard the river's churning waters roll over its banks and pour through the streets. The rushing water and cries of danger wakened most people from their sleep. Many leaped from their beds, half-dressed, and fled through the black night for higher ground. They stood by, powerless, as the Seine washed away their homes. When dawn came, the people of Troyes gathered around what remained of their town and stared in disbelief. The force of the water had ripped away the walls and roofs of many homes and shops, leaving some buildings barely standing.
Back in Lorroy, as daylight returned on January 22, residents could see that the landslide had reduced these modest miners' homes to little more than ramshackle piles of timber. The people of Lorroy foraged through what remained of their belongings, scraping the mud off anything they found intact. The powerful force and weight of the avalanche had crushed seven people to death and wounded many more. The winter weather and raging floodwaters of 1910 had claimed their first victims from among some of France's most vulnerable citizens.
As the frantic digging and rescue efforts continued throughout the following day, men from the Paris newspapers arrived, asking questions and jotting down descriptions of the scene. Photographers carrying box cameras moved through the rubble, finding good spots to unfold their tripods and set up their equipment. Their shutters clicked hundreds of times, capturing the nightmarish landscape. The photographs they took could not show the extent of the destruction and suffering, but they would at least carry a fragment of the shocking story back for Parisians to see. The caption under one group of photographs that appeared in the popular weekly magazine L'Illustration said it all: "The total annihilation of the hamlet of Lorroy in Seine-et-Marne."
Meanwhile, downriver in the capital, Parisians had been going about their daily business, largely unconcerned by reports of flooding in the towns and villages upriver. On Friday, January 21, as on most days, the banks of the Seine were bustling. Pedestrians marched down the quays, umbrellas raised, on their way to offices or to make social calls, or just out for a walk even on a rainy January morning. They sloshed through the puddles that day, as the smell of smoke from charcoal and wood fires wafted in the brisk air. In the January chill of short, gray days and long, cold nights, Parisians had been hunkering with their families by their fireplaces or stoves, trying to keep warm.
Since the middle of January, they had read in their newspapers about the rising water upriver. Those who took the time to think about the news must have realized that the surge of water wreaking havoc in the villages miles away would soon reach the capital.
Most Parisians, however, had plenty of other things on their minds. The year had barely begun, and the twelve days of Christmas were just finished. The National Assembly had resumed its session on January 11 to continue a heated debate about the secularization of the schools as part of the official separation of church and state declared in 1905. Arrangements for legislative elections were well underway, and political parties were preparing their lists of candidates to present to voters. Most people paid less attention to politics than to the steady flow of sensational stories published by the mass press, especially ones about criminals infiltrating the army or murdering policemen. On January 14 many of the city's children and their parents were thrilled by the opening of the Victor Hugo skating rink on Rue Saint-Didier, not far from the Arc de Triomphe.
In the midst of all this activity, the Seine in Paris was already rising. Even those Parisians who noticed the swelling waters were not likely to have been alarmed. The river always climbed at this time of year. In fact, by mid-January the Seine had already risen and fallen twice. As a result of the especially rainy winter, the river had ascended several feet above its usual height at the beginning and again at the end of December 1909. The Seine's level began descending just after that sunny New Year's Day, and any danger from these small floods seemed to have passed. Since the December floods had not created a problem, no one was too worried now. A cartoon in L'Illustration captured the mood of January 21. It shows a comfortable bourgeoisie gentleman and his wife reading the newspaper. "The Seine is rising," she tells him. "Eh bien," he retorts flippantly. "Let it rise." Accustomed to winter rain and snow, most Parisians continued with their ordinary business.
Those who took a few moments on that rainy Friday, January 21, to lean over the bridge railings and watch the river below would have observed teams of engineers hard at work, something that newspapers were also beginning to report. The Seine was again making its way up the quay walls, and by the third week in January, the river had reached several feet above its normal level. Inspectors walked along the length of the quays, looking up to examine the walls and reinforcing them with stone and sand where necessary. They viewed this largely as a precaution. A portion of the Quai de Valmy, which borders the Canal Saint-Martin on the Right Bank, had sunk the day before, according to the daily police log, collapsing part of the sidewalk and leaving a gaping hole several feet deep. From time to time, Parisians had witnessed such cave-ins, especially in areas built over one of the many passages running underneath the streets. City engineers and police had been quick to arrive on the scene, and by January 21 everything was under control. Parisians had faith that their city's infrastructure would protect them.
Paul W. Linebarger, an American federal judge who left Paris that day for Le Havre to catch a ship back to the United States, later remembered Parisians eyeing several crews of busy workmen along the river's edge as they inspected and shored up the various quay walls. "They watched with an idle sort of interest that showed they had no idea that the overflow of the river would be so great as it has turned out to be." Similarly, Mrs. M. L. Nuttall of New York, on her way to catch the same ship back to America, saw how Parisians reacted to the rising water. "As a matter of fact, the concern of the people was so slight that many of them appeared to treat the activities of the government engineers in strengthening the river banks as something like a joke." She remembered how the Parisians who gazed at the rising water even teased each other about not getting their feet wet.
When Parisians wanted to know the level of the Seine, they went to the Pont de l'Alma to look at the enormous stone statues, some twenty feet tall and standing on pillars attached to the bridge, of four soldiers, two facing upriver and two downriver. These soldiers seemed to watch over the city, ready to defend against danger from either direction. One of them was a Zouave, a proud colonial soldier in uniform with his cape flowing behind him, holding his rifle by its barrel tip. He stuck one foot forward as he stared watchfully across the Seine, his bearded chin pointing upward, as if poised to spring to action. By January 21 the water was lapping against the ankles of his boots, about six feet above its usual level. But Parisians knew that the quay walls through the city's center were much taller, reaching to a height well above his head.
Anyone who lingered a few minutes longer on the banks examining the Seine that day would have witnessed some ominous signs. The water was moving at an extremely high speed, much faster than usual, approaching fifteen miles per hour. The powerful eddies traced strange patterns on the surface that foamed white in places. The normally busy river became strangely empty as river traffic, from barges to transports to tugboats, gradually came to a halt. Newspapers were reporting that navigation was clearly unsafe. Even stranger were the large quantities of debris charging down the swollen river. As the Parisian daily paper Le Matin described it: "Planks, boxes, barrels, beams, debris from barges, tree trunks come at an indescribable speed shattering against the bridge supports." The occasional loud crashes could already be heard far from the banks, like small explosions echoing through the city.
Even as Paris went about its busy day, some city engineers who sensed the danger started to pick up the pace of their work along the Seine. As fast as they could, they used sandbags to build up the walls in the Auteuil neighborhood on Paris's western edge. Despite their efforts, during the afternoon several sewers in that district began backing up, silently overflowing into basements in streets like Rue Félicien-David, which runs parallel to the river. It was the first sign that the renowned engineers of Paris might finally have met their match.
The task of keeping order in the city fell directly to one man, the prefect of police. His jurisdiction extended far beyond simply combating crime. The prefect managed public health issues, oversaw city cleaning, fought epidemics, and ensured that Paris had adequate food supplies. He also directed the fire department, regulated street traffic, and monitored the movement of trains. Under his direction, the police regularly spied on political groups suspected of engaging in seditious acts and labor organizations planning strikes. Given the breadth of his job, the prefect of police was one of the most powerful men in the entire city, second only to the prefect of the Seine, the position that Haussmann had occupied. As a result, most prefects of police served a very short time since they were potential rivals to elected officials. Of the 78 prefects who had held the job since its creation in 1800, only three served for more than ten years. In 1910 the man in that post was Louis Lépine.
Born in 1843 in the provincial city of Lyon, Lépine was studying law in Paris at the outbreak of the Franco–Prussian War. Joining the fight, Lépine served as a sergeant-major at the city of Belfort, southwest of Strasbourg in the Alsace region. The French army defended Belfort against numerous attacks and survived a Prussian blockade for months. Once the peace treaty was signed, Lépine and his fellow soldiers who had protected Belfort were forced to surrender it to the Germans, along with the rest of Alsace and the neighboring Lorraine region. Lépine earned a medal for his valor.
After the war, Lépine completed his training as a lawyer and entered government administration, working his way up through the ranks. His first appointment as police prefect in Paris lasted from 1893 to 1897. Then for less than a year, he served as the governor general of the French colony in Algeria. Lépine was a man who refused to tolerate disorder of any kind, including in Algiers where Muslim–Jewish tensions, in Lépine's view, required a firm hand. A short time later, Lépine was recalled to Paris and took up his old job.
As the head of the police force from 1899 until his retirement in 1913, Lépine kept his finger on the pulse of the city, developing a reputation as a hands-on leader and earning the nickname "the prefect of the street." This was especially true during an emergency, but even on a daily basis he was out and about in the city, observing people and making himself familiar to Parisians. Lépine was a small, wiry man, with a large forehead, steely eyes, and a stern gaze. A thick mustache and goatee framed his pursed lips. He displayed stoic calm when facing down crowds of strikers—whose angry protests in the streets became more and more frequent in the late nineteenth century—with only an umbrella to defend himself.
At the time Lépine first became prefect, the police had become infamous for corruption and mediocrity, and few of the city's residents liked or respected them. Lépine wanted Parisians to love their police, starting with him. He wrote in his memoirs: "A prefect who no one knows, whose silhouette is not familiar, whose face no one recognizes in the cartoons in the newspaper, with whom no one rubs shoulders in the street, with whom no one exchanges ideas, this prefect can have all the qualities in the world, but for the Parisian, he lacks the most important one: this is not his man." Lépine wanted Parisians to see him as their man, the one who could keep them safe.
In his fierce dedication to his duty, Lépine was Victor Hugo's reallife Inspector Javert, from his famous novel Les Misérables. Like Javert, Lépine was unyielding as he enforced his vision of the law single-mindedly with the same the military rigor he had learned during the war. Lépine sought to make Paris safe and proper, but only on his own terms. He sent his troops into the streets to fight prostitution, panhandling, vagrancy, and moral offenses. In the ten years between 1902 and 1912, the police would arrest more than 46,000 vagrants, nearly 2,300 beggars, and over 3,000 unlicensed peddlers. In 1907, Lépine unleashed a war against obscenity. His agents seized photographs, cards, engravings, newspapers, films, and numerous other items deemed to be pornographic or an offense to public morality. The prefect made Paris more orderly, but only at the cost of many people's personal freedom.
Excerpted from Paris Under Water by Jeffrey H. Jackson. Copyright © 2010 Jeffrey H. Jackson. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jeffrey H. Jackson is Associate Professor of History and Director of Environmental Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, and has worked in the Parisian archives for ten years. He was recently honored as one of the top young historians in the United States and was a consultant for the documentary "Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story" on PBS. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.
Jeffrey H. Jackson is Associate Professor of History and Director of Environmental Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, and has worked in the Parisian archives for ten years. He is the author of Paris Under Water. He was recently honored as one of the top young historians in the United States and was a consultant for the documentary “Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story” on PBS. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.
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