The expansion of inland water transport
nland water transport expanded rapidly in the upper Dordogne from the 18th century. In this densely forested region, wood was carted to the rivers, sawn, and placed in the water. It then floated downstream. The floating wood was retrieved at Argentat or Souillac and placed in boats bound for Libournais and Bordeaux. From Souillac navigation conditions became easier in particular as the gradient became less pronounced. It was said to be a “merchant” river when the height of the water allowed the passage of boats.
There were three parts to navigate on the Dordogne:
- The upper Dordogne (upstream of Souillac), often nothing more than a narrow strip, with steep slopes on either side. Navigation was only possible in spring and autumn when the water reached a suitable height, i.e. on average 30 days a year. The water was too low in summer (with a draught of only thirty centimetres) and too strong in winter.
- The middle Dordogne (downstream of Souillac) where navigation was possible 6 to 8 months a year.
- The lower Dordogne (downstream of Castillon) where navigation was constant.
Boat builders took these conditions into account. That is why they built “gabares”, long flat-bottomed boats of aspen, alder or birch. The pit sawyers, used by the builders, cut the trees and planks in harsh conditions. They often worked on steep slopes and the forests resonated with their songs.
The existence of these “argentats” limited the time it took to descend the river. They were dismantled on arrival and sawn into planks: wood used for heating, sold at a low price. The boatmen returned on foot along the river.
These boats, known as “argentats”, were built upstream of Argentat, at Spontour, Saint-Projet and Nauzenac. There was the “gaberot” (or “gabarrot”), the smallest model, the “courpet” 8 to 12 metres in length, the “coujadour” up to 16 metres, made of oak with strengthening rails along the sides and the “nau” (3- or 4-masted sailing ship), the largest model reaching some twenty metres in length and 4.50 metres in width, which could carry 30 tons of merchandise and required seven crew. The tapered, narrow “filadière” was used at Libournais for river fishing and the transport of cargo.