Special Report: The Secret Beneath Notre Dame

Few People Realize That Paris, France, Is A Mining Town.





Rock Products’ Community columnist Thomas Roach was recently in Paris, France, and dispatched this report on the tragedy of the Notre Dame cathedral fire and the history of the stone that built it. – Ed.

It’s a rainy gray spring in Paris, France. Tourists with blue and pink souvenir shop umbrellas step over puddles in the cobblestone streets. Pigeons cower under bridges and in the arched stone doorways. And Notre Dame smolders above the Seine.

Paris is the Jerusalem of Western culture. Raided by Vikings. Conquered by Julius Caesar. Fortified by kings. Ravaged by Huguenots. Bloodied by revolutionaries. Adorned by Napoleon. Occupied by Nazis. Paris was home to Picasso, the American expatriate writers and Jim Morrison. Today Notre Dame, Disneyland Paris, Sacre Coeur Basilica and the Louvre are four of the top five most visited sites in Europe.

The Seine splits at the heart of the city forming two islands. They were good defensive positions in the Middle Ages, and a castle and several magnificent cathedrals were erected there. Walking along the south branch of the river this spring, approaching the Pont des Coeurs bridge, I could smell the charcoal and ashes of Our Lady of Paris.

Stopping between dark green bookstalls and looking across the river, I felt a sense of relief seeing the walls and magnificent flying buttresses still standing. For a moment the structure seemed to have defied the fire; then my eyes focused on the windows with no glass and up through the matrixed openings to the clouds and sky where once was a roof.

It’s All About the Stone

I recall being initially unimpressed when I visited Notre Dame as a young college student in 1975. Standing near a column I surveyed the interior, the age-worn cracked stone floor, the flimsy wooden folding chairs, and the 19th century woodwork.

Then I looked up in awe at the work of stonecutters and masons. The column next to me was made of layers of hand carved rocks. They were chiseled and mortared to look like one massive sculpted monolith dropped in place by the hand of God, but they weren’t. I was looking at hundreds of limestone bricks cut and put in place by human hands and extending in a perfectly straight line 100 ft. over my head.

Construction of the cathedral began in 1160 and continued for more than 100 years. Notre Dame was abandoned and considered for demolition in the early 1800s until Victor Hugo published The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo called it “the aged queen of French cathedrals.”

He said, “Every face, every stone of the venerable monument is a page not only of the history of the country but also of the history of science and art.” Renewed interest generated by the book and encouraged by the author led to a 20-year reconstruction project starting in 1844.

It was not difficult to replace the stone, because it was mined in Paris. Few people realize that the City of Lights is a mining town.

Paris sits over many abandoned underground mines that once produced Lutetian limestone for building. The area is also significant for producing gypsum used for plaster. The warm grayish pale yellow Lutetian stone contributes to the unique look of the city, and the gypsum mines were so productive that the sulfate mineral is often called “plaster of Paris.”

Mining in Paris

Mining in Paris goes back to Roman times when the city was called Lutetia.

Julius Caesar came, saw, conquered, and built Roman roads with the local limestone. Later Romans quarried the stone and built theatres, aqueducts, baths, and temples. The earliest written record of mining is from the 13th century when there were 18 quarrying operations in Paris.

As underground mines became depleted, the city expanded over them. Centuries passed, and builders lost track of the extensive mining cavities under the city. Paris eventually experienced some major mine collapses. At one point in the 18th century, a city street dropped 100 ft. into the earth.

The Louvre and Notre Dame are built with Lutetian stone.

Nothing equals the enduring beauty of stone. At once substantive and transcendent, stone doesn’t sit on the landscape, it emerges from it. How many glass and steel structures have we seen built and razed in our lifetimes. All over the world we watched in horror, as the great cathedral was engulfed in flames. Yet, here it stands, its towers undaunted, its flying buttresses splayed like spider legs and its color undiminished.

These once were rocks in the ground, and in God’s infinite timeline, they may once again become rubble, but not today. Scaffolding surrounds Notre Dame, and repairs to the roof are already underway. The construction of Notre Dame started in a quarry, and one day, like its builders, the queen of French cathedrals will return to dust, but for now these stones still rise toward heaven, a yet enduring measure of eternity.