The Petite Ceinture of Paris


I was not alone for this eight-day promenade, I was guided by my dear friend Serguei Fillipov. He and I go back a long way, to the my first days as a publishing photographer: I think it was in 1992, while I was filling in the still-image part of a photo/film project, that our search for a vista of abandon for one of the principal scenes brought us, at our ‘anti-fashion model’ Jerome Lechevallier’s suggestion, to the Petite Ceinture. Already it was love at first sight: from the bridge carrying the rue du Charonne over the path of the former railway, I could see rails and quays and extinct signals that looked as though they hadn’t been touched in decades. We had some time to kill before the light got to the same level as the precedent day’s shooting, so Jerome suggested that he ‘take us around’ to see a friend of his. We in fact had to go around, over a fence, down a ladder, through a tunnel under a former station for the railway, up another ladder, through some brush, which brought us to the oft-welded door of what looked like a former annex to the station we just passed. This, then, was Serguei’s home.

I didn’t see Serguei until I passed the then-under-construction Fleche d’Or Café in the abovementioned abandoned railway station a few years later. We had collected a few friends in common since our first meeting, so we eventually managed warmed up to each other, and of course, what broke the ice was the love for discovery we shared. Though he’d already combed the outside and even underside of the city many times over already, he never tired of it. I began to accompany him, and it is thanks to that that I began to learn about the past of a Paris forgotten by, or perhaps never known to, most of those living in it today.

First a bit of history - The Chemin de fer de Ceinture

The mid-1800’s was a divided era for France. Its fear of the Prussians made it wall its capital to the outside world, but the centralised government wanted to use the latest technological rail developments to contol France’s cross-country commerce through a web of railways that had Paris as a centre. The Petite Ceinture was a compromise between those two ideals.

First, the wall. Paris was half the size it has today when Thiers managed to get his project for a ring of massive fortifications voted into existence on the 1st of February 1841. The capital’s the then limitations were at the high but slim Fermiers-Généraux tax wall (in existence since 1784) which ran almost exactly along the path of today’s metro lines 6 and 2; a traveller leaving the city, once past a ring of noisy tax-free territory profiteering just to the outside of the walls, would find himself in a quiet countryside marred by few constructions.

At the time of the 1848 revolution, the fortifications were completed but most of France’s railways had yet to be built. The new provisory ‘IInd republic’ government found after the revolution that, not only were the country’s coffers almost empty, many of the rail companies under contract with the pre-revolution government to build a ‘star’ of railway across all France were going bankrupt. To make matters worse, the Prussian monarchy had regained the throne in a revolution of their own that year, once again becoming a danger to Republican France, and the Army Generals wanted to ready their fortifications for an eventual war, and that meant supplying it and its outer fortresses in arms and ammunition.

So the government needed a circular railway, but had no money to pay for it. At the same time they noted the lack of rail connection between Paris’ main stations, any merchandise had to pass from one line to another by horse and wagon. Though Paris then had five major stations run by five companies (though then some were failing), they were loath to deal with one another as they thought that they risked losing their monopoly and potential gains over their respective regions. The government tried to get them to pay a share a connecting railway around Paris’ Right Bank fortifications between Rouen (St. Lazare) and Ivry (Paris-Orleans) stations, and tried even coercion and blackmail to do so. They best that the short-lived IInd republic’ government could do was force the companies into merger negotiations and to make private deals against one another.

The real birth of the Chemin de Fer de Ceinture came with Napoleon III’s rise to power on the 2nd of December 1851. Pierre Magne, the new Ministre des Traveaux Publics (minister of public works) offered to build everything for the proposed arc of railway but the stations, engines and rolling stock, and this in exchange for a contribution of 1,000,000 francs from each company participating in the venture. All five (with the state filling in for the bankrupt Orleans company) had signed the concession for the Right Bank arc of rail by the 10th of the same month, but united into a unique ‘Syndicat de Chemen de fer de Ceinture’. Though the ‘cahier des charges’ – a list of requisites to fulfil in order to keep the concession – stated that they should build installations and provide a means of transport fit for passenger traffic, the companies saw interest only in the more profitable exchange of freight.

In a stance (and direction) completely opposite that of the freight-only Ceinture Syndicate, the Pereire-owned ‘Ouest’ company began building a local passenger line from 1852. This line of rail left its Saint-Lazare station to follow the inside of Paris’ western fortifications to the Bourgeoise riverside village of Auteuil to the south. The Paris-Auteuil passenger line was inaugurated on the 5th of June 1854. Although Ceinture Syndicate had inaugurated its length of rail on the 12th of December 1852, it wouldn’t be fully functional until eight months after the Paris-Auteuil line inauguration. It would take another eight years for the government Ceinture Syndicate to provide a passenger service on its arc of rail; this was operational from the 14th of July 1862.

By then Paris had grown to twice its size, and the land to the outside of its former walls, thanks to new immigration brought by the spread of rail transport, was beginning to fill as well, though the Rive Droite still grew as it always had at a much faster rate. This perhaps explains the delay in the construction of a railway to the inside of the southern fortifications. All the same, inspired by the success of its Paris-Auteuil line, the Ouest company agreed to build the arc of rail that would make the Chemin de fer de Ceinture a circle. Also open to passengers only, but made to accept the transport of freight for the 1867 Exposition Universelle construction site at the Champ du Mars, the ‘Chemin de fer de Ceinture Rive Gauche’ line was operational from the 1st of January 1867.

It is here where we will begin our walk around Paris, below the abovementioned antenna of rail to the Champ du Mars by the banks of the Seine river. Gustave Eiffel had yet to place his tower there, as he was still developing his bridge building techniques at the year of that first Universal Exposition, man was still discovering the art of hydrogen balooning (the hydrogen coming from a factory in Javel in the land just near here) so there were still no airfields in Issey to the south. Imagine that we are in the midst of a countryside: to the south all you’ll be able to see is the almost-vertically sloping stone walls of the fortifications, nothing but a plain to the east of this side of the river, but the steeples of the Auteuil village church would be visible to the west on the opposite bank of the Seine. These rails came first, the city after: as we venture eastward and you can better imagine the origins of the buildings you will see around them if you keep this in mind. All aboard!