Little Bits of History

February 13

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 13, 2017

1867: Brussels, Belgium begins to bury a river. Brussels has historically been a Dutch-speaking city, but the emphasis has shifted since the late 19th century and today it is mostly French-speaking. It was first settled when Saint Gaugericus built a chapel on an island in the Senne River around 580. The official founding of the city was in 979 when it was sanctioned by the Duke’s presenting relics to the chapel. The Senne was a major waterway at the time. For the Dutch speakers, it was called Zenne. The river grew ever more polluted as the city grew and presented health hazards to the citizenry. It became less navigable as it was filled with garbage and decaying organic matter (offal from butchering). It flooded frequently and usually displaced working class families who lived in the neighborhoods close to it.

There were many options for trying to fix the problem. Jules Anspach, the mayor of Brussels, selected a design by Léon Suys in which the river was covered and a series of grand boulevards and public buildings were erected on the new land. This plan faced a great deal of opposition for two major reasons. The first was cost; the second was the displacement of those same working class families who were often flooded out. These objections were overcome and a British company was contracted to implement Suys’s design. After a great deal of embezzlement and other issues, the government took control over the completion of the project.

The contracts for the project were signed in June 1866 and work began on this day. Part of that time was used to expropriate the first 1,100 houses so building could commence. There were to be two sewers built, one upriver and one down, in adjacent suburbs and 1.4 miles of the river was to be covered. There were to be two 20 feet wide tunnels made of bricks and running parallel to each other with two lateral drainage pipes taking waste water away from respective sides of the street. Brussels geology caused some issues but were not insurmountable and were less daunting than some engineers had feared. The embezzlement scandal also slowed construction. Finally, on November 30, 1871 the sluice gates were ceremoniously opened and the project was complete.

Over the next two years, the boulevards created by the project were opened to traffic. The four streets offered a more efficient way to travel into the lower town and helped to revitalize the area. Part of this was due to the plan to create public buildings to attract other investment. Suys had the Brussels Stock Exchange built there, a remarkable example of metallic architecture. It replaced the often unclean open air markets and attracted private investment into building there. The plan was successful in cleaning up the river and flooding issues in the city. Other areas were still stuck with a still polluted river and flooding. Later projects were instituted to help with these problems and it is hoped the Senne River will soon be purified.

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one. – Khalil Gibran

What is a fish without a river? What is a bird without a tree to nest in? What is an Endangered Species Act without any enforcement mechanism to ensure their habitat is protected? It is nothing. – Jay Inslee

I know the joy of fishes in the river through my own joy, as I go walking along the same river. – Zhuangzi

You drown not by falling into a river, but by staying submerged in it. – Paulo Coelho


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