The Fontinettes boat lift in Arques

A XNUMXth century industrial structure unique in France!

To see around St-Omer

Visit the Fontinettes boat lift

The Fontinettes lift is the last boat lift in France still standing!

This monument testifying to the great hours of the Industrial Revolutions of the 4th century is located on the Neufossé canal in Arques, in the place called Fontinettes. Either on the edge of the Audomarois marsh and 13,13 kilometers from the quays of the Makers of Boats. This ingenious device for the time made it possible to raise the barges or to lower them in order to help them overcome XNUMX meters of altitude difference.

Inaugurated in 1888, the Fontinettes boat lift operated until 1967 before being replaced by a more efficient lock. When it was closed, the structure was put out of operation. Fortunately, its heritage importance was recognized. Wasn't it the only building of this type in France? For this reason, the Fontinettes lift was listed as a historical monument by an order of October 7, 2013, then classified by an order of February 28, 2014.

Today, the site, fully restored, houses a museum dedicated to this river structure and its history.

Visit the Fontinettes lift and its museum

Closed since 2017, the lift museum has had a facelift! Today, it is unveiling its new collections as well as a completely redesigned visit.

With family, group, or friends, come and discover:
– The operation of the hydraulic lift and its installations,
– The repair shop,
– The towpath
– A Freycinet barge with, on board, an exhibition on the life of the sailors of yesteryear.

Fontinettes Arques

Book a visit to the Fontinettes lift


2 Chem. from the Digue du Smetz, Arques, France


Tel: +07 81 47 08


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History of the Fontinettes boat lift

The construction of the Fontinettes lift took place between 1881 and 1887, with an inauguration on July 8, 1888. The role of this extraordinary work was essential. In order to develop river traffic on the Neufossé canal, this hydraulic lift had to replace a series of 5 locks in order to overcome a drop of 13,13 meters. Note that the Neufossé canal, made navigable in the XNUMXth century, was a strategic axis for local trade. It linked the Aa canal and the Lys canal and, through this junction, linked Lille to the North Sea (Lille-Dunkirk).

It should be noted that the alternating traffic of barges uphill and downhill using the lock ladder was becoming too slow in a rapidly accelerating world. Due to traffic jams, it was sometimes necessary to wait several days to get on and off, and these operations took an hour and a half and an hour and ten minutes respectively.

A solution was found: the construction of a boat lift inspired by Anderton's work in England. A high-tech system for the time, built a few years earlier. To do this, the specialist engineer in the field, Edwin Clark, collaborated with the Ponts et Chaussées, the Cail establishments for the metal parts and the architect Georges Penin.

The inauguration

The boat lift was inaugurated with great fanfare in 1888. A revolutionary work, it stirred passions throughout France!

The deputy of Pas-de-Calais Alexandre Ribot, attended the event in the front row. As a visionary, he congratulated the technological prowess during his speech… while stressing that 100 years later, it would be very likely that the work would be replaced by something more efficient. History will prove him right. Indeed, the Fontinettes lift will be supplanted by a high-fall lock 80 years later!

The old scale of 5 locks

During the 80 years of operation of the Fontinettes lift, the lock ladder has been kept for use during lift maintenance periods. This installation was not destroyed until 1963, a few years before the shutdown of the hydraulic lift.

The end of the Fontinettes lift

In the 60s, it was clear that the Fontinettes lift had had its day.

Progress allowed new feats and the cost of maintaining facilities became prohibitive. Above all, the canal passed to the upper gauge during these years. Since the Freycinet gauge, the barges had grown a lot!

To replace the lift, a large lock (with high head) was built upstream, at the location of the lock ladder. The aptly named "Fontinettes lock", put into service on August 16, 1967, proved to be much more efficient. It makes it possible to cross the drop of 13,13 meters in about twenty minutes and to pass six barges of the Freycinet type in a single passage, compared to two for the lift.

The operation of the elevator

This lift is made up of two water-filled tubs, also called airlocks, designed to transport barges of Freycinet gauge. The latter, capable of carrying 350 tonnes, were 38,50 m long, 5,05 m wide and 2 m draft.

Its operation is entirely hydraulic. One tray descended while the other ascended using pistons. To do this, a certain amount of water had to be added to the upper pan.

Fontinettes elevator barge lock

The Fontinette Museum

After being preserved from demolition thanks to a local association created in 1979, the Fontinettes lift became a museum in 1984. The annexes of the lift have since been available to visitors. This visit includes a room presenting the history of the lift, the Neufossé canal, the Fontinettes lock and the towpath. The entirely preserved repair workshop completes the visit with videos showing the structure in operation in 1967.

Active until 2017, the museum temporarily closed its doors for works. 6 years later, on August 1, 2023, a completely redesigned and restored museum reopens its doors.

This one adds to his journey the discovery of the way of life of the sailors of yesteryear in a barge, as well as a few surprises!

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In summer, from May to September, the site is served by the Aa Valley Tourist Railway (CFTVA), offering a fifteen kilometer excursion between Arques and Lumbres. A unique ride in a steam engine or Picasso railcar!