Les Sources du Nord

II – Water for Paris / i - les Sources du Nord

Water From the Earth

The clay bank that protected Belleville's gypsum deposits also had another purpose. Clay is waterproof when humid, and when under the earth in the right conditions, can create the phenomenon of sources. The "glaise vert" clay banks in both Belleville and Montmartre were capped by, at their peaks, about forty metres of soft calcaire and Fontainbleau sand. The latter deposit allowed rain and other precipitation to filter downwards until the waterproof layer, above which it would spread in an even layer. Some tight-grained sandstones force water to collect upon it as well, but fissures in these banks sometimes opened to softer deposits below it that sometimes created underground canals. As all mineral banks are exposed through the cut of the hillside, the earth would seemingly spout water from the slope above the clay bank.

Paris has known smaller sources of the latter type in Grenelle, Montrouge, Charonne, Montmartre, Batignolles, Passy and Auteuil. The largest, of the first "clay-retained" type, were in lands of higher elevation around Belleville and Menilmontant. The sources from these hills were even the origin of small rivers: one stream led westwards from Belleville across the north of late 18th century Paris to empty into the Seine at Chaillot under the name "Rû de Ménilmontant," and a second series of sources in Menilmontant, after gathering in a pool called the "Etaing de Launay," formed a river called the "Rû de Montreuil" that exited today's Paris towards the south-east, but returned south of Saint-Mandé to zigzag across Bercy and empty into the Seine below La Rapée.

Early Exploitation

The Romans, again, were the first to tap the water from the hills. The sources of Belleville and Montmartre were closer to the Capital than that brought by aqueduct from Rungis, but were on the wrong side of the river from the Roman city centre on the Left Bank. It is more than likely that Belleville had a few residences in those times, but it is absolutely certain that Roman temples and villas topped Montmartre. There is uncertainty as to the first use of Belleville's source water because no remains of Roman conduits were ever found there, but some historians think that it was the restored vestiges of the Roman system that served the hill's ecclesiastic institutions from around the 7th century.

Third-century aqueducts collected source water from aboveground basins and troughs that led to a 'collector' basin. A later and more efficient system, it is unsure from when, collected water in underground conduits of un-mortared stone called "pierrées" and directed it to a collector "regard." This building served as an accumulator for all pierrées in the area, and held a basin that redirected the collected source water into an aqueduct. Other regards further along the conduit's path either added the product of other pierrées, redirected water between two or more destinations, or divided water in measured shares into smaller conduits connected to private properties, but some regards fulfilled two of these purposes, and sometimes even all three. There were four collection and distribution systems around the hill of Belleville: Pre-Saint-Gervais, Belleville, Saint-Martin (or "Savies"), and l'Hôpital Saint-Louis. The latter three were later joined under the name "les eaux de Belleville," but all together formed "Les sources du Nord."

L'Eau du Pré-Saint-Gervais

The monastery Saint-Laurent built (or renovated) the eastern hill's first known aqueduct around the 8th century. They ruled a large fief to the northeast of Belleville then, and probably built the aqueduct to serve their feudal manor in the village of Le Pre-Saint-Gervais.

In its first version, the aqueduct arced eastwards from its fountain-regard "prise des eaux" in today's place de la Mairie in Pre-Saint-Gervais. There were eleven other regards along its path through the Les Lilas and Romainville regions, each contributing the product of the pierrées around them. The regard "trou-Morin," still existing today at the corner of the rue Edouard Valliant and the sentier des Cornettes in Le Pre-Saint-Gervais, was the last regard along this chain before the prise-des-Eaux. Another series of five regards on the northern slope of Belleville, probably built in a later time, fed the prise des Eaux fountain through their own aqueducts. Those within the limits of today's Paris were: "Ruelle des Bois," once near the corner of today's boulevard Serrurier and rue des Bois; "les Maussins" was once where the reservoir des Lilas stands today but was moved upon its construction; "les Bernages" is lost under the right side of Paris' boulevard peripherique. The last two out of the five, "Olivettes" and "Pont-Carre," were to the south from there near the town of Pre-Saint-Gervais.

The Priory Saint-Lazare had taken over much of the Saint-Laurent fief by 1178. The priory's monastery and leper's hospital was just below today's gare de l'Est, and its monks brought the Pre-Saint-Gervais water there through a pottery conduit which ran around the hill of Belleville's northern face along (roughly) today's rue Petit and Avenue Jean-Jaures. The above date precedes the Parisian aqueduct's construction, as it is mentioned on contracts with the landowners whose properties their conduit crossed; the monastery gave them a right to a share of the aqueduct's product, but in exchange received permission for its construction and had free access to the aqueduct for maintenance purposes. Philippe-Auguste bought a large share of the aqueduct's output in 1182 to feed Paris' first public fountain in its then newly-established les Halles quarter.

Les Eaux de Savies

As already mentioned, the "ferme de Savies" became the property of the Abbey Saint-Martin-des-Champs from 1069. It was probably soon afterwards that they laid their aqueduct; though its pierrées covered was the smallest area of all the other source water systems in the eastern hills, they were the most productive.
The Templar monastery blocked the path of an aqueduct that led from Savies to Saint-Martin's abbey in central Paris, so the two agreed to divide the task of building and maintaining an aqueduct and its resulting output. They built only two regards: the main collector regard, "Saint-Martin," still standing on the corner of the rues des Cascades and Savies; and the secondary "petites rigoles" not 50 metres away at #47 rue de l'Hermitage. The main aqueduct extended from the Saint-Martin regard both to the west towards the city and to the east to tap the product of a few other pierrées, and petites rigoles added its debit into Saint-Martin through pottery tubing. The aqueduct to the city centre was also in pottery, and extended from Saint-Martin to the rue de Belleville that it followed (as the rue du Faubourg du Temple) to regard on the Templar property near today's rue Saint-Maur. The source water finished its voyage westwards to the Abbey Saint-Martin through lead piping.

An extension of conduit from Abbey Saint-Martin to central Paris also served a public fountain in the time of Philippe-Auguste. The fountain "Maubée" stands today on the corner of the rue de Venise and rue Saint-Martin, but was moved there because of changes to the quarter. Its original form is unknown, as well as the year it was erected, as this fountain underwent many renovations over the centuries.

The plaque fronting the regard Saint-Martin commemorates, in Latin, its creation and renovations: "Fount spouting with the intention of the shared use of the monks of Saint-Martin-de-Cluny and their neighbours the Templars. After being neglected, not to say scorned for over thirty years, it was retraced and reclaimed with shared expense and great care from the source and little rivulets. Now, finally, with the insistence and animation that is needed for such a project, we have restored it and brought it more than its original elegance and splendour. Resuming its original destination, it spouted once again in the year of our Lord 1633, not less to our honour than to our commodity. The same work and expense was undertaken together once again, as it is said above, in the year of our Lord 1722."

Les Eaux de Belleville

The date of the first version of this aqueduct is unknown. It was reconstructed from the 15th century from its origin at sources collected from pierrées are centred around the regard "de la Lanterne" at #207 rue de Belleville. The Abbey Saint-Denis once ruled a large landholding to the east of Savies, as well as the Saint-Merry chapter whose church and Coventry was just to the east of Les Halles. It is certain that the first version of the aqueduct extended from its pierrées until a distributor regard at the south end of the rue de la Mare, and that the latter institution owned in later centuries.

This aqueduct went through many periods of abandon and renovations through the centuries, especially during the period of the 100 years' war. The inner wall of the regard de la Lanterne holds a commemorative tablet that cites a hasty reconstruction of the aqueduct in 1457, and another larger black marble tablet on the opposite wall commemorates the construction of the regard itself between 1583 and 1516.
The Lanterne regard is the most massive of all those in the Sources du Nord network, and was probably rebuilt at the same time and in the same spirit as the aqueduct itself, that is to say on a scale ten times larger than necessary. Seemingly half-buried in the middle of a park today, it is a round stone construction topped with a dome, also in stone, which in turn is topped with a rotunda-like "lanternon" which gives it its name. A stout wooden door at the top of a set of stairs opens onto a landing above twin stairways that descend to a basin below; the black marble tablet is between the ramps below the entryway, and the older tablet is mounted on the opposite wall.

There were many other regards along the aqueduct, but few remain today. The main conduit head north-west from La Lanterne, then turned 90° left after 50 metres towards the rue de Belleville which it turned to follow until a point below the rue des Fetes, then turned southwards to head in a straight line to the corner of the rue des Cascades and the rue de la Mare and followed the latter street until the distribution regard "Prise des Eaux" above the church of Nôtre-Dame le la Croix. There were four other regards along this line: "Beaufils," below the corner of the rues Belleville and des Fetes, was a simple stone house building holding a stairway down to the aqueduct for inspectors; the aboveground part of "Les Cascades," at the north-eastern corner of the place created by the meeting of the rues Levert and Envierges, is gone today but its foundations are still accessible through a manhole - the sound of rushing water can still be heard from twin gratings which lie below the stairway up to the rue des Couronnes; "La Chambrette," an old inspection access, is gone today but once stood at #44 rue de la Mare; "La Planchette," near the corner of the rues Henri-Chevreuil and de la Mare, also an inspection access, exists no longer.
There were many regards along two secondary branches of aqueduct that collected water from the north-west and south-east of the main line. All of those along the north-western branch are gone, but they emptied into the main aqueduct through the regard "Les Cascades." There were only three to the south-east, but two exist: "La Roquette," today in a wasteland at #37 rue de Cascades, collected water from local pierrées, served as a distribution regard, and emptied its water into the main line through La Chambrette; "Les Messiers," at #17 rue des Cascades, of the same type, emptied its water into "La Planchette." The third, "grandes Rigoles," which once stood at #85 rue des Rigoles, collected water from pierrées and sent it to the main aqueduct through a secondary conduit under the same street.

It is thought that the Saint-Merri chapter at first used their sources for their fief of Mesnil-Maudam (Menilmontant), but later built a pottery conduit that extended to their Coventry to the east of Les Halles. It is known that Philippe-Auguste claimed a share of this water for Paris' public fountains, and it is certain that it also served a few private properties in the Marais quarter from the 14th century. The regard "Prise des Eaux" had a reservoir that captured the excess of the Eaux de Belleville and sent it to two regards before their Coventry, "Decadaire" at #3 rue de Menilmontant, and "Roulette" at #104 rue Saint-Maur, both gone today.

The Sources du Nord for Paris

Paris' public fountain multiplied from the time of Philippe-Auguste, and after the management of the city’s water was passed to the Prévôt des marchands from 1364. The ecclesiastic institutions preserved a major share of the source water from then, but the Prévôt "expropriated" the remainder for the city and private clients. Two fountains along Paris' then main street, the rue Saint-Denis, tapped the Pre-Saint-Gervais sources: "Ponceau," at the corner of the street of the same name, gone today; and "Grenata," again at the corner of the street that bears its name - only one face of this fountain still exists as the corner of a building built at a later date. As for the Eaux de Savies, it only served the already-mentioned fountain "Maubée" until the early 18th century.

The prévôts also devised a new system of dividing the water debit into shares: each property owner who bought a share of aqueduct water would sign a contract with the city, and each contract had a silver ring attached to it. The diameter of this ring dictated the size of the pipe in the basin of the distribution regard - since both the Prévôt and client had copies of the contract, this eliminated the possibility of fraudulent modifications.
A distributor regard divided water between its different clients from a collector basin with pipe outlets. These, as one might think, weren't arranged horizontally in the basin, but vertically, which gave the lowest the priority in case of drought. This position was most usually reserved for royalty and ecclesiastic institutions.

L'Eau de l'Hôpital St. Louis

The Hôpital Saint-Louis, in the same place as the hospital of the same name today, was only a temporary measure for plague victims upon its construction in 1609. It gained in importance soon after it’s opening, and its constant need for fresh water motivated a search for new sources. These were found at today's Place des Fetes in 1611, and were brought to the hospital through an aqueduct that followed the rues des Fetes and Belleville until the rue Rebeval, where it turned north-west towards the hospital.
This aqueduct had only two regards, the "Chambre de Chirurgien" or "regard Saint-Louis," and "Esmocouards." The first stood at the corner of the rue des Fetes and Belleville as collector regard. The second was probably built at a later date, but served the same role just to the north of today's square Bolivar as the centre of a system of secondary pierrées that emptied their source water into the main aqueduct at a point mid-way along today's rue Generale Lasalle. The combined output of the two series of pierrées was not enough for the hospital, which led the city Prévôt to donate a share of its fountain water. Since the regard Saint-Louis was only 8 metres to the west of the Belleville aqueduct, the latter waterway made its contribution through an extension of conduit there.


The first mechanical pump to raise water from the Seine, the "Samaritaine," graced the Pont-Neuf from around 1605. Its water went only to the Louvre palace and the Tuileries, but its installation marked the birth of a new technique in water alimentation.

Paris' population had outgrown the amount of water available to it then - the output of all three sources was only 350 cubic metres by day, one tenth the needed volume. Paris' water situation had grown so precarious by 1672 that Louis XIV ordered the construction of a second mechanical pump by the Seine. The fountains des Innocents and Maubée distributed river water from then, and source water was reserved for royalty and hospitals. The output of the more northerly fountains remained unchanged until around 1717, when the Priory Saint-Martin gave its aqueduct to the city in return for a share of river water. A new fountain appeared that year, "Vertbois," at the corner of the street of the same name and the rue Saint-Martin, but it spent only a few years in service distributing Saint-Martin sources. The Pre-Saint-Gervais aqueduct had a new fountain from 1718 where the rues La Fayette and Faubourg Saint-Martin cross today - a rich butcher had donated it to the city, so it took his name, "du Chaudron."

Various Uses

The city considered the Saint-Martin sources as "undrinkable" by the early 18th century. They were joined to those of Belleville under the corner of the rues de Cascades and de la Mare in 1737, and the old pottery conduit to the Priory Saint-Martin abandoned. The reunited sources then entered service from the regard Roulette for the service of "Grand-Egout de Ceinture." From that year the Vertbois fountain distributed Pre-Saint-Gervais water from an extra length of conduit connected to the fountain Ponceau.

The "Grand-Egout" deserves an extra mention: it began as the "Rû de Menilmontant" stream mentioned at the beginning of the chapter. Its natural path followed the ancient bed of the Seine across northern Paris to Chaillot, but its slow current had made it a cesspool by the 18th century. Much like the Bièvre, it was transformed into an open canal, but in an arc between the Bastille and Chaillot. It was operational from 1740, from when Sources du Nord water, after being accumulated in a reservoir near the rue de Filles du Calvaire, was freed to "flush" its contents out its other extremity into the Seine. One can imagine the quality of the riverwater there afterwards.

The united Sources du Nord had their final role from 1773. The Hôpital Saint-Louis was almost in a state of ruins then, but a royal decision to transform it into the city's central health-care centre led to the decision to combine all of the Sources du Nord, excepting those of Pre-Saint-Gervais, for the service of the hospital. From that year the sources Saint-Louis emptied into the Belleville aqueduct, and the rest of the conduit, including the regard Esmocouards, was abandoned.
Les Sources du Nord spent 59 years as the hospital's only source of water. The canal de l'Ourcq provided another option from 1809, but the Administration des Hospice wouldn't consider it until its source water began to diminish and become polluted by the population growth on the hills. The hospital traded its aqueduct against a share of canal water in 1832, and sold its land containing its sources to the commune of Belleville. This act created its public place and market "place des Fetes."


The city used only the sources of Pre-Saint-Gervais from then. They served the fountains Chaudron, Saint-Julien (near Ponceau), Ponceau, and Vertbois even after the construction of the fortifications from 1842, during which its engineer had even reserved an opening for passage of the aqueduct. All fountains continued their service until 1861, the year from when they were progressively abandoned; the annexation of 1860 combined with Belgrand's work made them irrelevant, and the aqueduct was cut at the level of the fortifications in 1868. The Pre Saint-Gervais water filled a ditch until they were united one year later with the sewer along the boulevard Serrurier.

The aqueduct de Belleville had been cut since the construction of the Petite Ceinture in 1852, and its water emptied into the sewer under the rue des Cascades. The Eaux Pre-Saint-Gervais was returned to their original form from 1907, that is to say for the service of the town of Pre-Saint-Gervais. The length of aqueduct to the west of the regard Prise des Eaux, closed well to the outside of the fortifications, served as a reservoir for the regard's fountain from then.

The vestiges of the former source water system still standing today are; on the Pre-Saint-Gervais series: the regard/fountain Prise des Eaux, the regards Trou-Morin, Bernages, and Maussins, and the fountains Ponceau, Grenata, and Les Innocents (but the latter has been moved to a different location); on the Savies series: the regard Saint-Martin and the fountains Vertbois and Maubée; in the original Belleville series: The regards La Lanterne, La Roquette, and Les Messiers. Most of these are protected under the Historical Monument classification, but the regard de la Roquette is in the centre of one of the only undeveloped plots of land in its quarter. One hopes that it well not share the same fate as the rest of the above system - destroyed in favour of real estate prospectors that find (especially today) the history of a quarter to be more of a hindrance than an importance.