Arques boat elevator under a sunsetL'Ascenseur à bateaux des Fontinettes

The Fontinettes boat elevator

A unique industrial heritage in Arques

“There is a place where trains pass under barges…” (Re)discover, l’Ascenseur à bateaux à Arques, this landmark of the Pays de Saint-Omer’s industrial heritage.


on the Boat Lift

In Arques, at a place called Les Fontinettes, the Canal de Neuffossé falls 13.13 meters. For many years, this drop was then redeemed by a ladder of 5 locks which made it possible, depending on the day of the week, to ascend or descend this difference in level. But by the end of the 19th century, barge traffic on the canal was becoming denser, and boat traffic jams were becoming increasingly severe. The idea of doubling the locks was considered for a time, but soon a new idea made its way into the minds of the engineers of the time: a boat elevator.

The idea was not unprecedented; a model existed in England, in Anderton to be precise, and it was this work that was to serve as a reference.


The inauguration

of the Ascenseur des Fontinettes

Building work began in 1883, and it took no less than 4 years and many twists and turns to complete the project, which was the talk of the town in France at the time.

The boat elevator was inaugurated on July 8, 1888, in front of a crowd stunned to see the ferries containing multi-ton barges move with such ease. The physical principle is simple: it’s that of communicating vessels and Archimedes’ thrust – all you had to do was think about it!

It takes around 22 minutes for a barge to travel up or down the elevator, and it can hold 2 barges at a time. This is a far cry from the days of waiting in single file on the canal in the days of the 5-lock ladder.


of this industrial heritage site

The structure is unique in France, and still fascinates passers-by with its unique industrial heritage.

After its final shutdown in 1967, the elevator was abandoned for many years. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when it was threatened with destruction, that an association was founded to save it. A museum since that time, it closes again in 2017 for a major renovation and restoration project with the aim of welcoming visitors again, starting this year, in a new modern and immersive scenography that will plunge the curious back into 1967. On this visit, it will be possible to learn more about the history of the place, its operation but also the atypical lifestyle of bargemen on barges.

Did you know?

Present at the inauguration of the elevator on July 8, 1888, Alexandre Ribot, then deputy of the Pas-De-Calais, said, “Science today finds the hydraulic apparatus of the Fontinettes remarkable, but who can say that in a hundred years, our grandsons won’t have found something better? In the end, it would take less than 100 years for history and the evolution of technology to overtake it. It was replaced in 1967 by the larger, more modern and more efficient Fontinettes lock.