In Nobody’s Boy, Hector Malot already had his Rémi walk along its banks. Victor Hugo also described the Bièvre in his poetry collection Atumn Leaves. These idyllic stories from the 19th century are like echoes of a bygone era.
However, the history of the Bièvre goes back much further and starts at the origin of the city, some time around 200 BC. The river of 36 kilometers originates in the wooded Yvelines, the department of the Palace of Versailles. It still leads to the Seine, near the current Gare d’Austerlitz.
In the ancient times, the Romans built an aqueduct on its shores to lead the water to the city. Monks of the abbey of Saint-Victor, not far from the Seine, used the water for their grain mills from the 11th century on. Later in the Middle Ages, they even made two channels perpendicular to the Bièvre. Finally, the construction of dikes led to the emergence of two river arms. The original stream became the Bièvre Morte (Dead), the second was called the Bièvre Vive (Alive) Eventually, all this human intervention paved the way for the rise of industrialization.
The founder of that development was dyer and merchant Jean Gobelin. Mid-15th century, he started a dye-house near the river. Soon other artisans followed: from tanners, shoemakers and weavers to laundry workers, butchers and brewers.
Late 19th century, tanners working along the Bièvre near Rue Saint Nicolas-Houël in the neighbourhood of Jardin des Plantes, 5th arrondissment.
Photo: Charles Marville (1813-1879)
With the explosive growth of industry, activity expanded further along the Bièvre in the direction of Saint-Marcel, the current 13th arrondissement. However, the pollution and stench of the river led to increasing health problems. Early 19th century, parts of the river were channeled further and pieces were covered, but this did not cut it, as it turned out.
During the urban renewal of Haussmann late 19th century, there was a rigorous intervention. By 1912, Bièvre had completely disappeared from the cityscape; it was either incorporated into the sewer system or buried under concrete.
All that remains is copper medallions and plates in the sidewalks of the 5th and 13th arrondissements, marking the former course. The rue Bièvre in the 5th follows the course of one of the disappeared channels. Since 2001, the Lézarts (lizards) de la Bièvre, a group of artists keeps the memory of the river alive with an open atelier trail each year. For a charming Bièvre valley, you have to go outside the city though.