Thomas Jefferson's trip along the Canal Du Midi

The Canal Du Midi's first tourist perhaps?


Before becoming the third president of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson spend a few years in France.  His title during this time was Minister to France, and as such he was responsible for establishing trade agreements with America.


In 1787 he dislocated his wrist in a fall, and is sent to Ax-en-Provence to take thermal baths.  After a few days of thermal baths he decides he has better things to do with his time and makes his way to the Languedoc region of France. He wants to study the workings of the Canal Du Midi, which at this time was still called the Canal Royal en Languedoc.   The Canal de la Jonction was just being opened as can be read in his personal diary: One link to the sea is "at Narbonne, by a canal they are now opening."


He wrote extensively about these few days in his diary.   He traveled from Sete to Toulouse on a rented barge.  His personal carriage was placed upon this barge after having its wheels removed.  Thomas Jefferson used this carriage as his office during the journey.  Due to the barge's slow speed of "two to three geographical miles an hour" (it was pulled by one horse) Thomas Jefferson would often walk the canal's towpath.  Thus if you are cycling along, take a few moments to picture Thomas Jefferson walking here as well.



Thomas Jefferson


May 12.  Cette (Today spelled as Sete).  "There are in this town about ten thousand inhabitants.  Its principal commerce is wine" Thomas Jefferson writes in his diary.  He wisely notes that only Sete has a "deep sea-port, because the exit is there by a canal, and not a river."


May 13.  Agde.  Thomas notes that there are currently talks about constructing a new road along the sea connecting Agde to Sete.  He notes that the river Herault "has but five or six pieds of water at its mouth."  [pied = foot = 30 cm].  This is why Sete was chosen as the end point of the Canal Du Midi, and not Agde.  The river in Agde was not deep enough for sea-faring ships to enter.


May 14.  Beziers.  He notes in his diary that there are olives, vines, and mulberries growing along the canal.


May 15.  Beziers, Argeliers, Le Somail.  He notes that the Pyrenees are covered in snow, as is usual during this time of the year.  He takes meticulous notes about everything he sees, including the lengths of the boats, the depths of the canal, the cost of wine.  He notes that the barges are "drawn by one horse, and worked by two hands, one of which is generally a woman."  On this same day he also writes that all the work usually done by men in America is done by women, and the work usually done by women in America is done by men along the Canal Du Midi.  His diary continues: "The locks are mostly kept by women, but the necessary operations are much too laborious for them.  The encroachments by the men, on the offices proper for the women, is a great derangement in the order of things.  Men are shoemakers, tailors, upholsterers, stay-makers, mantua-makers, cooks, housekeepers, house-cleaners, bed-makers, they coeffe [hairdressers] the ladies, and bring them to bed.  The women, therefore, to live, are obliged to undertake the offices which they abandon.  They become porters, carters, reapers, sailors, lock-keepers, smiters on the anvil, cultivators of the earth."


His rented barge "took one hour and thirty-three minutes" to pass all the locks at Fonserannes in Beziers.  He sees an "abundance of carp and eel" in the canal's waters.  Today the waters are much murkier, due mostly to barges no longer being pulled by horses but rather being propelled by diesel engines whose props constantly disturb the mud on the canal's shallow bottom.


May 16.  Le Somail, Marseillette.

May 17.  Marseillette, Carcassonne.


May 18.  Carcassonne, Castelnaudary.  The Canal Du Midi does not yet pass through Carcassonne. (Canal Du Midi Carcassonne diversion created in 1810).  He writes in his diary that "opposite to Carcassonne, the canal receives the river Fresquel, about thirty yards wide, which is its substantial supply of water from hence to Beziers."  He also noted down that other water sources for the canal are the river Orb in Beziers and the river Herault in Agde.  In fact, he notes that the river Herault can also supply the canal with water going upstream all the way to the Portiragnes lock.


May 19.  Castelnaudary, Naurouze, Villefranche, Baziege.  Thomas Jefferson crosses the highest point of the Canal Du Midi and is very interested in studying its water source here.


May 20.  Thomas Jefferson notes that the original wooden screws to open the water doors in the locks are "excessively slow and laborious."  He calculated that "five minutes are lost at every basin by this screw; and of course if a method of lifting the gate at one stroke could be found, it would reduce the passage from eight to seven days [along the entire lenght of the Canal Du Midi]."  Thus he suggest the French to use "a quadrantal gate, turning on a pivot, and lifted by a lever like a pump handle" to speed up the process.


Contrary to today, the canal was drained of its waters in summer.  Thomas Jefferson wrote "the canal is navigated ten and a half months of the year; the other month and a half being necessary to lay it dry, cleanse it and repair the works.  This is done in July and August, when there would, perhaps, be a want of water."


May 21.  Baziege, Toulouse.  The Canal Du Midi reaches it end in Toulouse.  The Canal Latéral de la Garonne is not yet build, and Thomas Jefferson writes that "the communication from the western end of the canal to the ocean is by the river Garonne.  It has been proposed to open a canal that far, from Toulouse, along the right side of the river."


Thomas Jefferson continues his journey to Bordeaux, as not only is he interested in engineering, he also has great interest in wine.  His research was used to build similar canals in the USA, for example the Erie Canal whose construction began in 1817.


"Of all the methods of traveling I have ever tried this is the pleasantest.  I walk the greater part of the way along the banks of the canal, level, and lined with a double row of trees which furnish shade.  When fatigued I take a seat in my carriage where, as much at ease as if in my study, I read, I write, or observe.  My carriage being of glass all round, admits a full view of all the varying scenes thro' which I am shifted, olives, figs, mulberries, vines, corn and pasture, villages and farms.Thomas Jefferson to William Short, May 21, 1787, On the Canal Du Midi



"I write to you, my dear Patsy, from the canal of Languedoc, on which I am at present sailing, as I have been for a week past, cloudless skies above, limpid waters below, and on each hand a row of nightingales in full chorus."  Thomas Jefferson to his daughter, May 21, 1787,  On the Canal Du Midi.



Thomas Jefferson memorial along canal du midi

Photo.  Sign along Canal Du Midi in France, thanking Thomas Jefferson for his friendship with France.



1. Thomas Jefferson on Wine.  By John R. Hailman.

2. The writings of Thomas Jefferson.  By Thomas Jefferson.

3. Thomas Jefferson: A Chronology of His Thoughts.  By Thomas Jefferson, Jerry Holmes.


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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson memorial along canal du midi


Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson memorial along canal du midi


Thomas Jefferson memorial along canal du midi