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Milan, Italy

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Venice, Italy

The Flooded Crypt of San Zaccaria

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The 19th-Century Iron Balls Still Cleaning the Paris Sewers

by Allison Meier / 22 Sep 2014

article-imageOld postcard of Paris sewer workers (19th century) (via Claude Shoshany/Wikimedia)

When the sewers of Paris get clogged with putrid waste, they're sometimes cleaned the same way they were over a century ago: with a giant, rolling ball.

Models of these iron and wood "boules de curage" are on display at the Paris Sewer Museum (Musée des Égouts de Paris), which is a working sewer station that lets visitors explore the evolution of this hidden infrastructure. The museum is accessed through a rather unassuming stairwell at the Quai d'Orsay, something which almost vanishes into the waterfront not far from the Eiffel Tower and the Jean Nouvel-designed Musée du Quai Branly with its pristine gardens by the Seine. 

Reading museum placards while you walk on grates above a river of sewage (the smell isn't as bad as you might think) may seem unusual, but people have been touring the Paris sewers since the 19th century, including during the Exposition of 1867 when boats rode through the tunnels. This municipal-sponsored tourism wasn't just a pungent curiosity — the city really wanted to show off its subterranean half. Baron Haussmann, the city planner so influential with the broad boulevards we know Paris for today, worked with engineer Eugène Belgrand in the 1850s to modernize the formerly haphazard array of tunnels into something that would accommodate the city's booming population. (A similar problem was being addressed at the same time in London to combat its "Great Stink" of 1858.)

Sewers of Paris (1861) (photograph by Nadar)

article-imageDifferent shapes of sewer tunnels (1906) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

But despite the vast improvements, the over 2,100 kilometers of centuries-old sandstone tunnels were far from uniform, and while dredging boats, and even people who raked the muck, helped to keep the flow, sometimes it was out of their reach. Enter the sewer balls, measuring between three to five meters in diameter, an idea dating to Belgrand's day. Sort of like a drain snake for a kitchen sink clog, the metal and wood balls of varying sizes to fit the assorted old tunnels would be given velocity and then bowled through the blocking sludge.