Constructing Southern Burgundy's Canal du Centre

In the heart of the Saône Valley, the Canal du Centre meanders its way through lush green pastures, past fields of grazing Charolais Cattle and sloping patchworks of vineyards. Built in the 18th century largely to facilitate the transport of coal from Montceau Les Mines and firewood from Chalon sur Saône, the canal today is dedicated to leisure craft and is the perfect way to explore this largely unknown and incredibly beautiful corner on southern Burgundy.

Charolais Cattle
Charolais Cattle

A History of the Canal du Centre

Construction of a canal connecting the river Saône to the Loire was first suggested in the 16th century during the time of King Francis I, but nothing more happened until the chief engineer of the Burgundy Canal, Émiland Gauthey obtained the rights to the project in 1783. The first stone was laid the following year and, despite tumultuous flooding that destroyed a new port at Digoin, the canal was completed by 1792. The Canal du Centre brought a new lease of life to the Charolais and within a couple of decades of its opening, many new towns and villages had been settled along its banks. However, since the Loire was often unnavigable, the amount of traffic that could be carried towards Paris was limited thereby necessitating the construction of the Canal Latéral à la Loire in the early 19th century, five years after the establishment of coal mines at Montceau-Les-Mines. The toll income of the canal subsequently tripled and traffic steadily increased until in 1936 more than 1.5 million tonnes of coal was carried on the Canal du Centre.

The canal was modernised at the end of the 19th century as part of the Freycinet plan, in which the Minister of Public Works, Charles de Freycinet sought to standardise the width and length of locks across France’s canal network to 40 x 5.2 metres, facilitating the transport of freight across the country. The canal also promoted the industrialisation of the Dheune-Bourbince depression by attracting to its banks many construction and natural resource companies, of which tiles were the most widespread and ceramics the most emblematic. Moreover, the canal allowed the massive and sustainable exploitation of the so-called Blanzy coal basin in its central paty, where the town of Montceau-les-Mines was founded, as well as the steelmaking centre of Le Creusot.

The Canal du Centre
The Canal du Centre

The Canal du Centre Today

In the early 1960s, it was decided to divert the Canal du Centre to the outskirts of Chalon-sur-Saône, the city which originally marked the start of the canal and which was chosen as such as it was the birthplace of the canal’s designer, Gauthey. The canal was filled in to create the Boulevard Nicéphore Niepce, and a new reach was dug to the north crossing an industrial zone largely occupied by Kodak. Since the four locks needed to descend to the level of the River Saone from Fragnes, a single lock was constructed shortly thereafter to compensate. The great lock at Crissey, rising an impressive 11 metres, may well be one of the most spectacular in France and is certainly one of the industrial highlights on hotel barge Finesse’s cruises.

The canal’s decline began following the Second World War and was accelerated by competition from the nearby rail and road routes. The exhaustion of coal in Montceau-les-Mines marked the definitive cessation of freight traffic in 1993.

Canals that have been abandoned by freight traffic open up new possibilities for tourist and leisure activities, as well as providing unique architectural and industrial heritage. On the Canal du Centre, this is none more apparent than at either end of the canal, at Digoin and Chalon, as well as at the watershed at Montceau-les-Mines.

Our 8-passenger luxury hotel barge, Finesse, plies the waters of the Canal du Centre between April and October, allowing guests to experience this impressive canal and its industrial heritage first hand.

Hotel barge Finesse cruising the Canal du Centre

Cruise the Canal du Centre aboard Finesse

Cruise the Canal du Centre aboard luxury hotel barge, Finesse. For more information delivered to your doorstep, order a free copy of our brochure or perhaps have a no-obligation chat with a member of our team: Contact Form.

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