Rhone River - Encyclopedia

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RHONE (Fr. Rhone, Lat. Rhodanus), one of the most important rivers in Europe, and the chief of those which flow directly into the Mediterranean. It rises at the upper or eastern extremity of the Swiss canton of the Valais, flows between the Bernese Alps (N.) and the Lepontine and Pennine Alps (S.) till it expands into the Lake of Geneva, winds round the southernmost spurs of the Jura range, receives at Lyons its principal tributary, the Saline, and then turns southward through France till, by many mouths, it enters that part of the Mediterranean which is rightly called the Golfe du Lion (sometimes wrongly the Gulf of Lyons). Its total length from source to sea is 5041 m. (of which the Lake of Geneva claims 45 m.), while its total drainage area in 37,798 sq. m., of which 2772 sq. m. are in Switzerland (405 sq. m. of the Swiss portion being composed of glaciers), and its total fall 5898 ft. Its course (excluding the Lake of Geneva, q.v.) naturally falls into three divisions: (r) from its source to the Lake of Geneva, (2) from Geneva to Lyons, and (3) from Lyons to the Mediterranean.

1. From its source to the lake the Rhone is a purely Alpine river, flowing through the great trench which it has cut for itself between two of the loftiest Alpine ranges, and which (save a bit at its north-west end) forms the Canton of the Valais. Its length is 1052 m., while its fall is 4679 ft. It issues as a torrent, at the height of 5909 ft., from the great Rhone glacier at the head of the Valais, the recent retreat of this glacier having proved that the river really flows from beneath it, and does not take its rise from the warm springs that are now at some distance from its shrunken snout. It is almost immediately joined on the left by the Mutt torrent, coming from a small glacier to the S.E., and then flows S.W. for a short distance past the well-known Gletsch Hotel (where the roads from the Grimsel and the Furka Passes unite). But about half a mile from the glacier the river turns S.E. and descends through a wild gorge to the more level valley, bending again S.W. before reaching the first village, Oberwald. It preserves this south-westerly direction till Martigny. The uppermost valley of the Rhone is named Goms (Fr. Conches), its chief village being Munster, while Fiesch, lower down, is well known to most Swiss travellers. As the river rolls on, it is swollen by mountain torrents, descending from the glaciers on either side of its bed - so by the Geren (left), near Oberwald, by the Eginen (left), near Ulrichen, by the Fiesch (right), at Fiesch, by the Binna (left), near Grengiols, by the Massa (right), flowing from the great Aletsch glaciers, above Brieg. At Brieg the Rhone has descended 3678 ft. from its source, has flowed 28 m. in the open, and is already a considerable stream when joined (left)by the Saltine, descending from the Simplon Pass. Its course below Brieg is less rapid than before and lies through the alluvial deposits which has brought down in the course of ages. The valley is wide and marshy, the river frequently overflowing its banks. Further mountain torrents (of greater volume than those higher up) fall into the Rhone as it rolls along in a south-westerly direction towards Martigny: the Visp (left), coming from the Zermatt valley, falls in at Visp, at Gampel the Lonza (right), from the Ldtschen valley, at Leuk the Dala (right), from the Gemmi Pass, at Sierre the Navizen (left), from the Einfisch or Anniviers valley, at Sion, the capital of the Valais, the Borgne (left) from the Val d'Herens; soon the Rhone is joined by the Morge (right), flowing from the Sanetsch Pass, and the boundary in the middle ages between Episcopal Valais to the east and Savoyard Valais to the west, and at Martigny by the Dranse (left), its chief Alpine tributary, from the Great St Bernard and the Val de Bagnes. At Martigny, about 50 m. from Brieg, the river bends sharply to the N.W., and runs in that direction to the Lake of Geneva. It receives the Salanfe (left), which forms the celebrated waterfall of Pissevache, before reaching the ancient town and abbey of St Maurice (92m.). Henceforward the right bank is in the canton of Vaud (conquered from Savoy in 1475) and the left bank in that of the Valais (conquered similarly in 1536), for St Maurice marks the end of the historical Valais. Immediately below that town the Rhone rushes through a great natural gateway, a narrow and striking defile (now strongly fortified), which commands the entrance of the Valais. Beyond, the river enters the wide alluvial plain, formerly occupied by the south-eastern arm of the Lake of Geneva, but now marshy and requiring frequent "correction." It receives at Bex the Avancon (right), flowing from the glaciers of the Diablerets range, at Monthey the Vieze (left), from Champery and the Val d'Illiez, and at Aigle the Grande Eau (right), from the valley of Ormonts-dessus. It passes by the hamlet of Port Valais, once on the shore of the lake, before expanding into the Lake of Geneva, between Villeneuve (right) and St Gingolph (left). During all this portion of its course the Rhone is not navigable, but a railway line runs along it from Brieg in about 72 m. to either Villeneuve or Le Bouveret.

2. On issuing at Geneva from the lake the waters of the Rhone are very limpid and blue, as it has left all its impurities in the great settling vat of the lake, so that Byron might well speak of the "blue rushing of the arrowy Rhone" (Childe Harold, canto iii. stanza 71). But about half a mile below Geneva this limpidity is disturbed by the pouring in of the turbid torrent of the Arve (left), descending from the glaciers of the Mont Blanc range, the two currents for some distance refusing to mix. The distance from Geneva to Lyons by the tortuous course of the Rhone is about 124 m., the fall being only about 689 ft. The characteristic feature of this portion of the course of the Rhone is the number of narrow gorges or cluses through which it rushes, while it is forced by the southern spur of the Jura to run in a southerly direction, till, after rounding the base of that spur, it can flow freely westwards to Lyons. About 12 m. S. of Geneva the Rhone enters French territory, and henceforth till near Lyons forms first the eastern, then the southern boundary of the French department of the Ain, dividing it from those of Haute Savoie and Savoie (E.) and that of the Isere (S.). Soon after it becomes French the river rushes furiously through a deep gorge, being imprisoned on the north by the Credo and on the south by the Vuache, while the great fortress of 1'Ecluse guards this entrance into France. The railway pierces the Credo by a tunnel. In the narrowest portion of this gorge, not far from Bellegarde at its lower end, there formerly existed the famous (described by Saussure in his Voyages dans les Alpes, chapter xvii.), where for a certain distance the river disappeared in a subterranean channel; but this natural phenomenon has been destroyed, partly by blasting, and partly by the diversion of the water for the use of the factories of Bellegarde. At Bellegarde the Valserine flows in (right), and then the river resumes its southerly direction, from which the great gorge had deflected it for a while. Some way below Bellegarde, between Le Parc and Pyrimont, the Rhone becomes officially "navigable," though as far as Lyons the navigation now consists all but wholly of the floating of flat-bottomed boats, named g igues, laden chiefly with stone quarried from the banks of the river. Above Seyssel (11 m. from Bellegarde) the Usses (left) joins the Rhone, while just below that village the Fier (left) flows in from the Lake of Annecy. Below the junction of the Fier the hills sink on either side, the channel of the river widens, and one may say that it leaves the mountains for the plains. At Culoz (412 m. by rail from Geneva) the railway from Geneva to Lyons (105 m.) quits the Rhone in order to run west by a direct route past Amberieu. The Rhone continues to roll on southwards, but no longer (as no doubt it did in ancient days) enters the Lac du Bourget, of which it receives the waters through a canal, and then leaves it on the east in order to run along the foot of the last spur of the Jura. It flows past Yenne (left) and beneath the picturesque fortress (formerly a Carthusian monastery) of Pierre Chatel (right) before it attains the foot of the extreme southern spur of the Jura, at a height of 696 ft., not far from the village of Cordon, and just where the Guiers flows in (left) from the mountains of the Grande Chartreuse. This is nearly the last of the cluses through which the river has to make its way. The very last is at the Pont du Saut or Sault, a little S. of Lagnieu. The river now widens, but the neighbouring country is much exposed to inundations. It receives (right) its most important tributary in this part of its course, the Ain, which descends from the French slope of the Jura and is navigable for about 60 m. above its junction with the Rhone. Farther down the Rhone meanders for a time with shifting channels in a bed about 2 m. broad, but it gathers into a single stream before its junction with the Saone, just below Lyons. The Saone (q.v.), which has received (left) the Doubs, is the real continuation of the Rhone, both from a geographical and a commercial point of view, and it is by means of canals branching off from the course of the Saone that the Rhone communicates with the basins of the Loire, the Seine, the Rhine and the Moselle. In fact, up to Lyons, the Rhone (save when it expands into the Lake of Geneva) is a huge and very unruly mountain torrent rather than a great European river.

3. Below Lyons, however, the Rhone becomes one of the great historical rivers of France. It was up its valley that first Greek, then Latin civilization penetrated from the Mediterranean to Lyons, as well as in the 10th century the Saracen bandits from their settlement at La Garde Freinet, near the coast of Provence. Then, too, from Lyons downwards, the Rhone serves as a great medium of commerce by which central France sends its products to the sea. Its length from Lyons to the sea is some 230 m., though its fall is but 530 ft. But during this half of its course it can boast of having on its left bank (the right bank is very poor in this respect) such historical cities as Vienne, Valence, Avignon, Tarascon and Arles, while it receives (left) the Isere, the Drome and the Durance rivers, all formed by the union of many streams, and bringing down the waters that flow from the lofty snowy Dauphine Alps. The Ardeche is the only considerable affluent from the right. Near Arles, about 25 m. from the sea, and by rail 1754 m. from Lyons, the river breaks up into its two main branches, the Grand Rhone running S.E. and the Petit Rhone S.W.; they enclose between them the huge delta of the Camargue, which is cultivated on the banks of the river only, but elsewhere is simply a great alluvial plain, deposited in the course of ages by the river, and now composed of scanty pasturages and of great salt marshes. Between Lyons and the sea, the Rhone divides four departments on its right bank (Rhone, Loire, Ardeche and Gard) from as many on its left bank (Isere, Drome, Vaucluse and Bouches du Rhone).

Consult in general Ch. Lentheric, Le Rhone - histoire d'un fleuve, 2 vols. (Paris, 1892). (W. A. B. C.)

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