Taming the Rhone

The Rhone River is the fastest and most powerful river in France.
It is 812 kilometres long, and often experiences challenging changes in water levels and volume. Yet, the Rhone has been used since Prehistory as a major means of travel.

Invasions and separations in the Kingdoms of the Franks made the Rhone a natural border between France and the Germanic Empire.
One side of the Rhone was known as the “Kingdom” (the right bank), and the other side (the Avignon side or the left bank) was known as the “Empire”.
Disputes over the ownership of the bed of the river were frequent throughout the centuries.
In the 14th century, debates between the Papacy and the Kings of France, who claimed possession of the entire river, gave rise to the “Procès du Rhône” or Rhone Trial. This interminable affair was only resolved after the French Revolution when Avignon became part of France.
There is a bend in the Rhône which was conducive to the establishment of the city of Avignon.  The land is 5 meters above the low water level. The main arm of the Rhone used to be on the Villeneuve side. The water flowed down from the hills in Villeneuve toward the Avignon bank, which was lower except for the Rocher des Doms. In times of low water it was not possible to navigate on the Avignon side of the Rhone. Gravel beds and sand bars formed little islands and banks of willows. Floods and changing water levels caused these islands and banks to shift.

The name of the island, “île de la Barthelasse” is seen for the first time in documents from 1495. Barthelasse Island joined Piot Island in the 19th century.
For many years the Rhone periodically flooded the lower areas of Avignon. Frequent and often catastrophic floods have marked the history of the city.
In the 19th century, a dam was built upstream; diverting the main arm of the river to Avignon, However, in the 20th century, the engineering work done by the Compagnie Nationale du Rhône re-established the main arm of the Rhone on the Villeneuve side.