Weird Wednesday: The mines of Paris

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

The mines below Paris stretch across thousands miles and hide many sinister secrets including mass graves. (SBoyd/Flickr)

Ah, Paris. A city of romance, good food and good times. How can you not sigh with joy as you appreciate the Eiffel Tower, blissfully unaware of the millions of bones buried beneath you?

Like Las Vegas and Innsmouth, the so-called French city of love holds a dark secret. However, instead of regrettable decisions or mutated fish-men, Paris hides thousands of miles of tunnels carved underneath the streets.

The Carrières de Paris (Quarries/mines of Paris) have existed for centuries, as medieval and Renaissance miners tunneled beneath the city for limestone and gypsum, which is used in plaster of Paris.

What started as open-air mines became underground excavations by the 15th century. The caves and caverns became deeper as the miners searched for more minerals.

The city was built on top of the mines. Ground level floors became basements and through several disasters, lack of planning and general disorganization, most of the blueprints and maps to the tunnels became lost.

Today, a majority of the mines remain unmapped and closed to the public for the sake of safety. Part of the tunnels is a popular tourist spot, with guided tours available for those willing to pay.

An intriguing and bone-chilling aspect of the tunnels is the Catacombs, a viewable section of the mines filled with remains of the dead.

In the 19th century, overpopulation and sickness in Paris led to overcrowding in cemeteries.

Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, a French man with a long name and the official inspector of the mines, came up with a solution: moving remains from several cemeteries to one section of the catacombs.

De Thury was an organizational fellow, arranging the bones and skulls into several displays and decorations. (Hey, if you’re a born interior designer and end up a mine inspector, you’ve gotta take what you can get.)   

Of course, this is the only arguably tidy part of the catacombs. Thousands of miles still stretch under Paris, unmapped and untouched. There are several entrances to the tunnels, if you know where to find them: manholes, crevices, grates under bridges and discreet doors in the subway systems.

Explorers venture at their own risk, however. The mines are perilous and it’s easy to get lost, even with a map, especially if your light source runs out of power. Miles under the surface, it’s pitch black without any sort of light.

Collapsed and flooded areas are not uncommon. Some sections are carpeted with a thick layer of bones-- remains of plague victims from the Dark Ages, dumped down there due to lack of space.

It doesn’t stop people from venturing below, however. Self-proclaimed ‘Cataphiles’ (Lovers of the Catacombs) dedicate their time and energy to exploring and mapping out the tunnels. Armed with chalk, grids, lights and nerves of steel, they evade the police and take the perilous journey down into the unknown.

Some have never returned. There’s a famous ‘found footage’ video from a camera supposedly abandoned in the tunnels, showing a man exploring them. As time goes on, the man becomes more agitated, running through the maze-like mines, until he drops his camera and rushes out of sight. A team of explorers in an ABC documentary followed the path shown in the footage, but never found the man-- or his remains.

Although the tunnels hold terror and claustrophobia for many, they serve as a literal ‘underground scene’ for many Parisians. Secret parties and gatherings are common in the larger and better-known sections of the mines. It’s also a convenient hiding spot for those taking part in rather shady activities.

It’s not all drugs, though. In 2004, police officers performing a training exercise in the tunnels encountered a fully-decked underground cinema, with projectors and a phone line, along with a well stocked bar and movie selection.

Though no revelers were present in the theatre at the time, when officers returned 3 days later to investigate where the power lines were connected, the cinema was packed up -- there was only a bare cavern and a note:

“Do not try to find us.”

For all of its terror and mystery, the Catacombs (the public part, at least) are well worth checking out. So, if you’re ever in Paris, maybe skip seeing “The Mona Lisa” and go take a selfie with a skeleton instead. It’ll make for a better story when you come back home, if you make it out alive.


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets at @marlese_lessing.