With the exception of a crossing of the Willebroek Canal, which continues the Charleroi Canal on to Antwerp, and some artificial lakes such as those in the Bois de la Cambre and the Royal Estate at Laeken, there was very little water on display during today’s team time trial. However, the name “Brussels” comes from the Old Dutch for “Home on the Marsh.” What marsh does that refer to, and where did it go?
Brussels was founded around a chapel built by Saint Gaugericus on an island in the Senne River. The Senne River was never a great river, dwarfed in Belgium by the Meuse and the Scheldt. Navigation on the Senne was difficult enough that the Willebroek Canal was built as early as 1561, and that canal was expanded and connected to the Charleroi Canal in the 1830s, becoming a major transportation corridor from the rich coalfields of the Sambre Valley to the port of Antwerp. The Senne, meanwhile, became a dumping ground for the refuse of the city.
The quality of the Senne was so degraded by the mid-19th century that historian John Lothrop Motley, writing in an 1853 letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., described it as “the most nauseous little river in the world.” Baudelaire was even more forthright, calling it “a dung that flows.”
The recently independent Belgians decided to do something about the cesspool that was their capital’s river. In the 1860s Mayor Jules Anspach led efforts to cover the river. The Senne was diverted into underground channels, and by 1873, the Senne had disappeared from the inner city of Brussels. Anspach used the opportunity to implement his own form of Hausmannization, replacing the river with massive boulevards, including one named after himself. The Brussels Stock Exchange building, designed by Léon Suys, who also drew up the plans for the covering, is one of the more important buildings constructed during the urban renewal.In the early 20th century, the river was diverted out of downtown tunnels to run around the city, and the old tunnels under the boulevards became subway tunnels and storm drains. It was not until 2007 that water treatment plants were finally constructed on the Senne, to purify the water that eventually makes it to the Scheldt.