Situated on the banks of the Rhône at the end of the Rue du Port in Champagne, a distinctive building catches the eye: the Pile du Bac à Traille, a reaction ferry pillar, once used to transport passengers from one bank of the river to the other.
What is a reaction ferry?
It’s a flat-bottomed boat attached to a cable stretched between the two banks of the river*, between the Ardèche and the Drôme.
The one in Champagne linked the commune on the Ardèche side to the present-day boundary between Andancette and Saint-Rambert d’Albon on the Drôme side. In 1916, it could carry 60 people.
A history linked to the port and the priory
The port of Champagne appeared in the 10th century as a crossing point for the Rhône.
Today’s Rue du Port bears witness to this past, which explains, among other things, the existence of this building known as the Pile du Bac a Traille.
In the past, the village of Champagne used the port as an east-west route between Grenoble and Le Puy, via the Bièvre-Valloire depression, the Annonay plateau and the Col du Tracol pass.
Until the 13th century, there was certainly a great deal of traffic at the time of the construction of the Romanesque church in Champagne (12th century) and at the time of the great pilgrimages that sent Christians on the roads to Rome, Notre-Dame-Du-Puy, Santiago de Compostela, Jerusalem and many other sanctuaries.
The signpost on the road to Santiago de Compostela still bears witness to this on the dirt track leading to Andance.
The development of goods transport on the Rhône began in the 15th century and enriched the neighbouring towns of Andance and Serrières, which were better placed to serve as stopping-off points for navigation on the river.
Ferry traffic increased in the early 19th century, but the construction of the Andance suspension bridge in 1828 diverted most of its customers away from the port, and the abolition of the toll for crossing the bridge in 1867 was the final blow to the port of Champagne.
The end of the reaction ferry
As you can read on the sign near the monument, it was an accident that put an end to the ferry in August 1896:
the tugboat Le Pilat forgot to lower its chimney as the ferry passed by, and when it hit the cable, the pillar broke into several pieces.
The municipality requested repairs in vain, but the ferry continued to operate until 31 December 1897.
It wasn’t until the installation of a footbridge over the Peyraud railway bridge in 1935 that pedestrians and cyclists from Champagne could once again travel quickly to Saint-Rambert-d’Albon.
The pier at Champagne is the only remaining pier from this ferry, dating from the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries. It was listed as a Historic Monument on 23 May 2006.
A historic site in a charming setting
Today, it’s easy to admire the boat while discovering the area developed around the site:
a picnic and play area with a zip line, in a wooded setting much appreciated by locals and passers-by alike.
The port of Champagne is not mentioned in documents before 1347, but a 1255 transaction between the Dauphin Count of Albon and the Prior of Champagne implies its existence.
With its ferry, the port played only the current role of a bridge, as the name given to the ferryman, the pontonnier, clearly indicated. The port is particularly well placed, at the point where the flood zone is the narrowest between Andance and Serrières (around 300 metres wide), in a tight spot where the river, caught between two relatively high banks, could not wander as it did almost everywhere at the time.
The Champagne ferry remained the property of the Count Archbishop of Vienne until 1790, and as the parish of Champagne spanned both banks of the Rhône, its inhabitants could use the ferry free of charge.
In 1816, the Rhone crossing was served by a large ferry 14 metres long and 3.60 metres wide, fitted with a rudder and a spare oar and capable of carrying 60 people.
The tow was raised 8.5 metres above the river, and two bargemen provided the service during high water.Source: Médarus*
Location and pillar of the Champagne ferry
Satellite map to locate the reaction ferry on the banks of the Rhône:
- Reaction ferry, Wikipedia
- Champagne by Medarus (French)
- Presentation of the building, Monumentum (French)
- Remains of the pillar, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes patrimoine (French)
- Map of the Rhône river
- Weather along the Rhône
- Taking the train in Switzerland and France
- Activities and leisure in France
- Where to sleep in the Rhône valley?
- River tourism map (Rhône)
- Towns crossed by the river