From the train station of Maintenon there are two streets leading into town. The most direct one is the Avenue du Général de Gaulle, which runs straight downhill towards the town center and the château. The other street, going off to the left, is a bit longer but much more interesting, since it runs parallel to the ruins of the Aqueduct of Maintenon.
These picturesque overgrown ruins are all that is left of one of the greatest boondoggles of the seventeenth century, a huge construction project that was never finished and never transported a drop of water, sort of like Stuttgart 21, the Berlin Airport and the Hamburg Philharmonic all rolled up into one.
The purpose of this gigantic aqueduct was to transport water from the Eure River to the Royal Palace at Versailles, because Louis XIV had taken it into his head that for the greater glory of himself and his kingdom it was absolutely necessary to have the fountains in his palace gardens running day and night, even when no one was watching.
Another river, the Seine, was much closer to Versailles, but it was unfortunately at a lower level than the palace. To bring the water up, a huge machine was constructed, the Marly machine, which made use of water power from fourteen gigantic paddle wheels to move water up the hill. The Marly Machine was completed in 1684 and was used off and on — when it happened to be functioning properly — for the next 133 years. But it was notoriously unreliable, so the even more gigantic project to bring in water from the Eure was begun in 1685.
The château’s website describes the ruins as “The Aqueduct of Vauban”. But Vauban himself advised against building an aqueduct across the swampy valley of Maintenon. He proposed a different way of getting the water to Versailles, using a ground-level siphon which he called a “creeping aqueduct” (aqueduc rampant).
In his book on Vauban, Daniel Halévy quotes at length (pages 58-60) from a curious correspondence between Vauban and Louvois, the government minister in charge of the project, in which Louvois rejected Vauban’s proposal on technical grounds. This was unusual because Louvois was an administrator, not an engineer, and he rarely questioned Vauban’s judgment on engineering matters.
Vauban responded with a treatise entitled “Problem of the weight of water in subterranean aqueducts”. This forced Louvois to come out with the truth of the matter, namely that the king was determined to have a large above-ground aqueduct that would dwarf anything the ancient Romans had ever built, such as the Pont du Gard in the South of France.
At this point Vauban gave up trying to prevent the building of the aqueduct, but he did manage to reduce it from three levels of arches to only one. He supervised the construction for a while, and saw to it that the arches were firmly anchored in the swampy ground of Maintenon, before leaving to resume his endless journey inspecting the fortifications around the borders of France.
Strangely, Vauban never seems to have questioned the necessity of bringing more water to Versailles for the fountains. But he was unhappy about the fact that up to 40,000 soldiers, practically the entire French army at the time, had been ordered to Maintenon to build the aqueduct. These were the men who had successfully besieged the city of Luxembourg under his direction, and he felt they deserved better than to be slogging around in the mud carrying huge stones for unnecessary arches.
Another problem, which Vauban apparently did not foresee, was that the swamps of Maintenon were an extremely unhealthy place to work. It was rumored that the French army sustained more casualties from disease at Maintenon than from the fighting during the siege of Luxembourg.
Louvois had no problem with this, at least not if we can believe the quotation attributed to him: “Let them die, said he, by digging the earth before a fortress of the enemies, or by digging it in the plains of Beauses. Where is the difference? They die in the service of the king.” (Quoted by Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle in his Memoirs for the History of Madame de Maintenon and of the Last Age, Volume 3.)
This modest, narrow and sluggish canal seems to be the very opposite of the grandiose aqueduct of Maintenon, but it was part of the same project. The purpose of this section of the canal was to transport building materials and equipment to the construction site of the aqueduct.
This sign at the Maintenon train station informs visitors about the aqueduct, the canal and the chateau, and about Vauban and Louis XIV. There is a similar (or identical) sign on the highway D18 (Route de Gallardon) where it passes under the arches of the aqueduct just south of the town of Maintenon.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: The Château of Maintenon