Paris' 'Little Belt' Tram Line

photo: jm schomburg, rails

J. M. Schomburg's beautiful Paris rails.

And Other Stories

Paris:- Wednesday, 13. December 2000:- The dread phrase, 'flagrant error,' is not one every writer and editor wants to see written by a reader. On the other hand, it is a sign of life from a reader, even if it is one with a nit to pick.

J. M. Schomburg, who I never heard of before now, wrote, "I noticed one flagrant error in your article about the 14th arrondissement." Quite possible, I thought, but 'flagrant?'

He continued - assuming the writer was a 'he,' writing from an organization listed in the email header as 'Coco & Co' - "I suppose I can relay you the correct info. You mentioned that southern Paris had been mined for its 'gypsum,' but this activity only took place in the Chaumont, Beauregard, and the Menilmontant hills of Belleville, and Montmartre - as they were high enough to preserve their gypsum banks from the - late Pleistocene era - freshwater erosion that gave Paris its final hilly form."

Yes, yes, I thought; this is all well known by Paris' dirt fans. What's the 'flagrant' error part? I did not have to wait long.

"The hill of Montrouge is too low for gypsum, but it was extensively mined for its 'calcaire grossier,' a sort ofphoto: petite ceinture, fleche d'or cafe nummulitic sandstone. This deposit exists in three exploitable layers under the eastern 15th, the entire 14th, and the west-to-northwestern 13th arrondissements."

Oh, golly! Like any other harassed editor trying to finish a piece at 10:30 at night, I had neglected to call my magazine's fact-checking department to find out about the exact nature of the dirt under my cellar's dirt floor.

The Petite Ceinture's rails and the Flêche d'Or café. Photo: © J.M. Schomburg

This may sound like a good-enough excuse to you, but my writer's curiosity was piqued enough to wonder what sort of person this J. M. Schomburg might be - other than one who was calling my attention to 'flagrantly' misnamed dirt.

So I wrote a 'not my fault' reply, and this led to persuading J. M. Schomburg to come over to the 14th arrondissement today to explain his fascination with Paris' underground - at the 'scene of the crime,' so to speak.

He - he turned out to be a 'he' - showed up on time 15 minutes late which is dead 'on time' in Paris. J. M. Schomburg became real, in the form of a 30-something tall fellow, with a ponytail.

He told me when he came to Paris about 10 years ago, he kept asking everybody what things were. When nobody knew the answers to questions like 'what is underneath Paris?' he decided that he better find out for himself.

I didn't tell him that if he was a Café Metropole Club member he would well know that Paris is graced by 'ugly dirt,' as was pointed out by a very early member - number three in fact - from Minnesota, which has beautiful red dirt.

While he did fashion photography to hold body and soul together, on weekends he snooped around the city finding out stuff. Some of this snooping took place in Paris' catacombs, and this led to putting up a photo exhibition in 1997 in the Flèche d'Or café and popular funky nightclub.

This show was a big success but it led to more questions about the tracks under the Flèche d'Or, whichphoto: paris only level crossing is in an old train station on the semi-abandoned rail line running around Paris called the Petite Ceinture.

Paris' only level crossing. Photo: © J.M. Schomburg

It was built in the railroad-craze age long before there was any Internet, and it was a long way out of town - out in the suburbs with the truck farms, wheat fields and the windmills that did double-duty as weekend cabarets. The line was kept in service until 1932, then abandoned. After the war, its northwest part was later taken over by the SNCF for part of its 'C' line.

Today there is one group in Paris that wants to turn it into a long, circular gulch of a park, and another group wants to turn it into a long, circular tram line - on account of its tracks I guess. I saw the rails a few weeks ago from the Rue Didot, and it looked very tidy and bucolic, but its photo looked boring so I trashed it.

Anyhow, the enterprising J. M. Schomburg talked a book editor into putting out a volume about it, on the grounds of his 'obsession for Paris' history' as well as being a photographer. The book was mapped out and the photos were shot within a short period of time.

But after all the film was in the can, a research hitch cropped up. The ever-enterprising J. M. Schomburg solved this problem by getting himself a library card for Paris' Bibliothèque Historique and spent a year there blowing dust off volumes that didn't contain much lore about the great railroading days of the Petite Ceinture line.

While talking about the line, J. M. Schomburg seemsphoto: rails at mesnilmontant to have a divided opinion about it - it is either boring, or there simply isn't enough 'story' to it. Not all streetcar lines are named 'Desire.'

However, the rough page proofs he shows me - of the photographs with blocks of garble-text - show that there is more to the Petite Ceinture that one can see from the Rue Didot.

This pedestrian bridge crosses unused tracks at Mesnilmontant. Photo: © J.M. Schomburg

All that is required to finish the book is for the photographer J. M. Schomburg to transform his research into a publishable text, which he is finding is a fair job because he isn't as confident a writer as he is a photographer.

I think he will do okay with it. After he spins a half-dozen fascinating but unrelated yarns about the 'underground people' who either explore the old mines under the city, or even inhabit them, it is clear he can tell stories.

To put a bit of sightseeing into this, we decide go out to look the rails over at the nearby RER 'B' line station. This was originally the main station for the line to Scéaux - which used to be somewhere neat away out in the country, but is now only some vague place between Paris and the city's southern airport at Orly.

There are railings all around the station to keep us from getting too intimate with the tracks, and the day is getting late as well as very grey from the threatening overcast.

The commuter trains are sliding in and out with annoying regularity, so different from the ghost-town state of the Petite Ceinture where nothing at all happens to it except about 280 seasons since the last trains rolled.

On a search for a café, in a maze of a shortcut streets back to the avenue, J. M. Schomburg spots what looks to me like a fairly ordinary manhole cover in the sidewalk.

"This," he says, "Is a 'plaque tournesol!'" This manhole thing with a sort of sunflower design around it, is one of several known possible entries into the underground mines - of 'calcairephoto: rare tournesol manhole grossier' - and for all his research about Paris' catacombs and mines - he's never seen this one before.

J. M. Schomburg finds a rare 'sunflower' manhole.

He suspects it may be one that is welded shut, below its circular stairway. The only way to find out is to have a special belt-buckle to lift the manhole lid to see, because the small stone he drops down through the open slot produces no identifiable noise.

Up a ways, we find the street's name and J. M. Schomburg loads it into his memory while I prudently write it down even though I know perfectly well where it is.

From J. M. Schomburg's extensive lore of Paris' underground life - he snooped deeply into this before getting interested in the rails - one rumor can be laid to rest once and for all. There is no entry whatsoever to the mines or catacombs from the Père Lachaise cemetery.

However, one of my fantasies is apparently true. The sandstone that lies under south Paris - specifically under my very own 14th arrondissement - is, "Basically the compacted shells - calcium - of sea life deposited when Paris was an ocean shore," according to J. M. Schomburg.

Not only this, but apparently all 'cataphiles' - as the underground folks call themselves besides other nicknames - know the location of 'Paris Plage' - Paris' very own underground beach resort.

If it has any palm trees, it might be more of a paradise than my cellar's ugly dirt floor.

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