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Rhône river

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Rhône river

For other uses, see Rhone (disambiguation).
Lake Geneva
Countries Switzerland, France
Source Rhone Glacier
Mouth Mediterranean Sea
 - elevation 0 m (0 ft)
 - coordinates 19|51|N|4|50|44|E|type:river_region:CH name=


Length 813 km (505 mi)
Basin 98,000 km2 (37,838 sq mi)
Area 54 km2 (21 sq mi)
 - average 1,710 m3/s (60,388 cu ft/s)
 - max 13,000 m3/s (459,091 cu ft/s)
 - min 360 m3/s (12,713 cu ft/s)

The Rhone (French: Rhône, IPA: [ʁon]; German: Rhone; Walliser German: Rotten; Italian: Rodano; Arpitan: Rôno; Occitan: Ròse) is one of the major rivers of Europe, rising in Switzerland and running from there through southeastern France. At Arles, near its mouth on the Mediterranean Sea, the river divides into two branches, known as the Great Rhone (French: Grand Rhône) and the Little Rhone (Petit Rhône). The resulting delta constitutes the Camargue region.


The name Rhône continues the name Rhodanus (Greek Ῥοδανός Rhodanos) in Greco-Roman geography. The Gaulish name of the river was *Rodonos or *Rotonos (from a PIE root *ret- "to run, roll" frequently found in river names).

The Greco-Roman as well as the reconstructed Gaulish name is masculine, as is French le Rhône. German has adopted the French name but given it the feminine gender, die Rhone. The original German adoption of the Latin name was also masculine, der Rotten; it survives only in the Upper Valais (dialectal Rottu).

In French, the adjective derived from the river is rhodanien, as in le sillon rhodanien (literally "the furrow of the Rhone"), which is the name of the long, straight Saône and Rhone river valleys, a deep cleft running due south to the Mediterranean and separating the Alps from the Massif Central.


Before railroads and highways were developed, the Rhone was an important inland trade and transportation route, connecting the cities of Arles, Avignon, Valence, Vienne and Lyon to the Mediterranean ports of Fos, Marseille and Sète. Travelling down the Rhone by barge would take three weeks. By motorized vessel, the trip now takes only three days. The Rhône is classified as a class V waterway[1] from the mouth of the Saône to the sea. The Saône, which is also canalized, connects the Rhône ports to the cities of Villefranche-sur-Saône, Mâcon and Chalon-sur-Saône. Smaller vessels (up to CEMT class I) can travel further northwest, north and northeast via the Centre-Loire-Briare and Loing Canals to the Seine, via the Canal de la Marne à la Saône (recently often called the "Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne") to the Marne, via the Canal des Vosges (formerly called the "Canal de l'Est – Branche Sud") to the Moselle and via the Canal du Rhône au Rhin to the Rhine.

The Rhone is infamous for its strong current when the river carries large quantities of water: current speeds up to 10 kilometres per hour (6 mph) are sometimes reached, particularly in the stretch below the last lock at Valabrègues and in some of the diversion canals. The ten river locks are operated daily from 05:00 a.m. until 09:00 p.m. Night operation can be requested and is usually granted.[2]


The Rhone rises as an effluent of the Rhone Glacier in Valais, in the Swiss Alps, at an altitude of approximately 2,150 metres (7,050 ft).[3]

Down as far as Brig, the Rhone is a torrent; it then becomes a great mountain river running southwest through a glacier valley. Between Brig and Martigny, it collects waters mostly from the valleys of the Pennine Alps to the south, whose rivers originate from the large glaciers of the massifs of Monte Rosa, Dom, and Grand Combin.

After Martigny, the river turns northwest towards Lake Geneva (French Lac Léman or Lac de Genève) and separates the Chablais Alps from the Bernese Alps. With a mean discharge of 165 m³/s it enters Lake Geneva near the Swiss town of Bouveret and exits it at the city of Geneva before entering France. The average discharge from Lake Geneva is 251 m3/s (8,900 cu ft/s).[4] After a course of 290 kilometers the Rhone leaves Switzerland.

At Lyon, which is the biggest city along its course, the Rhone meets its biggest tributary. The Saône carries 400 m³/s and the Rhone itself 600 m³/s. From here the Rhone follows the southbound direction of the Saône. Along the Rhone Valley, it is joined on the right (western) bank by the rivers Eyrieux, Ardèche, Cèze, and Gardon coming from the Cévennes mountains; and on the left bank by the rivers Isère (350 m³/s), Drôme, Ouvèze, and Durance (188 m³/s) from the Alps.

At Arles, the Rhone divides into two major arms forming the Camargue delta, both branches flowing into the Balearic Sea, part of the Mediterranean Sea, the delta being termed the Rhone Fan. The larger arm is called the "Grand Rhône", the smaller the "Petit Rhône". The average annual discharge at Arles is 1,710 m3/s (60,000 cu ft/s).[4]


The Rhone has been an important highway since the times of the Greeks and Romans. It was the main trade route from the Mediterranean to east-central Gaul.[5] As such, it helped convey Greek cultural influences to the western Hallstatt and the later La Tène cultures.[5] Celtic tribes living near the Rhone included the Seduni, Sequani, Segobriges, Allobroges, Segusiavi, Helvetii, Vocontii and Volcae Arecomici.[5]

Navigation was difficult, as the river suffered from fierce currents, shallows, floods in spring and early summer when the ice was melting, and droughts in late summer. Until the 19th century, passengers travelled in coches d'eau (water coaches) drawn by men or horses, or under sail. Most travelled with a painted cross covered with religious symbols as protection against the hazards of the journey.[6]

Trade on the upper river used barques du Rhône, sailing barges, 30 by 3.5 metres (98 by 11 ft), with a 75-tonne (165,000 lb) capacity. As many as 50 to 80 horses were employed to haul trains of five to seven craft upstream. Goods would be transshipped at Arles into 23-metre (75 ft) sailing barges called allèges d'Arles for the final run down to the Mediterranean.

The first experimental steam boat was built at Lyon by Jouffroy d'Abbans in 1783. Regular services were not started until 1829 and they continued until 1952. Steam passenger vessels 80 to 100 metres (260–330 ft) long made up to 20 kilometres per hour (12 mph) and could do the downstream run from Lyon to Arles in a day. Cargo was hauled in bateau-anguilles, boats 157 by 6.35 metres (515.1 by 20.8 ft) with paddle wheels amidships, and bateaux crabes, a huge toothed 'claw' wheel 6.5 metres (21 ft) across to grip the river bed in the shallows to supplement the paddle wheels. In the 20th century, powerful motor barges propelled by diesel engines were introduced, carrying 1,500 tonnes (3,300,000 lb).

In 1933, the Compagnie Nationale du Rhône (CNR) was established to tame the river. Some progress was made in deepening the navigation channel and constructing scouring walls, but World War II brought such work to a halt. In 1942, following the collapse of Vichy France, Italian military forces occupied southeastern France up to the eastern banks of the Rhône, as part of the Italian Fascist regime's expansionist agenda.

In 1948, the government started construction on a series of locked barrages and canal cuts, to improve navigation and generate electricity, with locks raising boats up to 23 metres (75 ft). Approximately 8% of France's electricity supply is now provided by these power stations.

Along the Rhone

Cities and towns along the Rhone include:

The Rhone through Geneva, Switzerland.
The Rhone (left) meeting the Arve River in Geneva.



See also

References and notes

Further reading

  • Scans: Volume 4 (1862).
  • .
  • A social, environmental, and technological history of the transformation of the river since 1945.

External links

  • InfoRhone Navigation and river conditions
  • CNR The Rhone Authority
  • Rhone guide Places, ports and moorings on the Grand Rhone.
  • Petit Rhone guide Places and moorings on the Petit Rhone.
  • The Rhone-Mediterranean page of EauFrance
  • Waterways in France
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