This post is dedicated with admiration and gratitude to my friend Gilles Thomas, for his knowledge of Paris’ history — and for his generosity in sharing it.
Paris’ history is full of unsung heroes whose names have largely been forgotten. One of these is Charles-Axel Guillaumot.
Charles-Axel Guillaumot, “the man who saved Paris.”
Esteban and I had the privilege of walking in Guillaumot’s footsteps about a month ago, when our friend Gilles led us on a tour of the Cochin quarry (under the Cochin hospital, in the 14th arrondissement).
The Cochin quarry is not far from the official catacombs. But it’s a lot harder to get into: On this Saturday our little group followed Gilles into the hospital, past an underground garage, and through an unmarked door to reach the entrance.
Behind the door was a classroom of all things underground, with maps of tunnels and photographs of the men who dug them. Gilles described the “squirrel wheels” that were used to bring huge chunks of stone to the surface — and the voids those stones left behind.
Sometimes those voids would collapse, Gilles explained, and anything on the surface would fall into them. This happened in 1776 — one week before Christmas — when a quarter-mile-long trench opened on the Rue d’Enfer and swallowed an entire block of houses.
Fearing more collapses, the young King Louis XVI appointed our hero Charles-Axel Guillaumot to be the first Inspector General of the quarries. But ironically, because of bureaucratic delays, Guillaumot didn’t actually start work until April 24, 1777 — the date of the next major cave-in.
A descent into the past
Our heads filled with visions of calamity and collapses, we marched single-file past Guillaumot’s portrait and down a long concrete stairway.
Several of Jérôme Mesnager’s exuberant “white bodies” adorned the walls — a stark contrast to the remnants of a 1930’s civil-defense shelter that greeted us when we reached the bottom. (Pardon the quality of the photos; I took them while walking.)
Like the official catacombs, the Cochin quarries also serve as a museum (restored and operated by the S.E.A.D.A.C.C. association). But unlike the catacombs, the Cochin quarries are not generally open to the public — nor do they contain human remains.
I was anxious about how Esteban would react, because it was his first time underground. (He’s tall, and I worried he would feel claustrophobic from all the hunching.)
But to my delight he seemed as fascinated as I was.
Gilles showed us the tools the quarry workers had used to extract the stone, and one of the wells where they had drawn water to mix concrete.
He also pointed out the markings. Some corresponded to the street names directly above our head. A few were made of soot from the quarrymen’s torches. Others were left by the inspectors, indicating their initials and the date of the inspection.
In the footsteps of Guillaumot
Traces of Charles-Axel Guillaumot were everywhere. (The G in the inscriptions denoted his name, along with the pillar number and the date.)
But traces of the king who hired him were harder to find. Once ubiquitous, now only 10 inscriptions of the royal fleur de lys survive. One was on display near the entrance; another was inaccessible due to flooding from the Seine.
Every engraving had a date, but I saw none for 1789 — the year of the French revolution. That’s in part because Guillaumot was removed from his position and imprisoned due to his royal appointment. Fortunately, he was released in 1794 and given his job back.
There were also some traces of Antoine Dupont, a mathematician who preceded Guillaumot. Dupont built some 100 pillars in areas that showed signs of stress. Alas, the April 24 collapse proved the inadequacy of his efforts.
That’s why Guillaumot decided to shore up the walls, too, in some especially vulnerable parts of the quarry.
But in spite of his valiant efforts the ceilings continue to crack …
… and in some cases, collapse. We passed one active cave-in that was slow enough to be considered stable, but that still motivated us to walk a bit faster.
Esteban and I also hurried past this old patch, just in case.
“Fontis” inscriptions indicated other cave-in sites — like this one, which has long since been reinforced.
In a couple of other spots, we paused to survey the service wells the quarry workers used to bring down supplies. It wasn’t hard to imagine their soot-covered faces gazing at the pin-dot of light, maybe hoping for a better life or thinking about a loved one.
Just as it wasn’t hard to imagine Charles-Axel Guillaumot standing in the same spot, inspecting his work.
He was still the Inspector General of the quarries when he died in 1807 — and it took nearly a century after his death to complete the work he had begun.
Guillaumot was buried in the Sainte-Marguerite cemetery, but was soon lost forever among the hundreds of graves that were transferred to the very catacombs he helped create. Within a few generations, only a handful of people remembered his name.
But he was never completely forgotten. In fact, on October 4, 2017 the city of Paris inaugurated the Esplanade Charles-Axel Guillaumot in his honor at the corner of the boulevard Saint-Jacques and the place Denfert-Rochereau.
“He saved the capital from collapsing,” reads the plaque. But the epitaph Charles-Axel Guillaumot truly deserves is, “He saved Paris.”
“Le mal des carrières est celui de plusieurs siècles ; il ne peut donc pas être réparé dans un petit nombre d’années. Ni moi, ni mes coopérateurs n’en verront la fin. D’autres auront cet avantage ; mais j’ai lieu de croire que nous leur avons frayé la route, et qu’ils n’auront rien d’essentiel à changer au système que j’ai adopté.” — Mémoire sur les travaux ordonnés dans les carrières sous Paris, et plaines adjacentes; et exposé des opérations faites pour leur reparation, par C. A. Guillaumot
“The problem of the quarries goes back many centuries; it therefore can not be repaired in just a few years. Neither I nor my colleagues will see the end of it. Others will have the opportunity; but I have reason to believe that we have paved the way for them and that they will not need to make significant changes to the system I have adopted.” — Memoir on the ordered works in the quarries below Paris, by C. A. Guillaumot