At the start of my life, there was Hirson. Hirson is a city next to my hometown. It is not a very big city, but it is larger than the villages surrounding it. I was born in its maternity ward, but apart from it featuring on my identity card, Hirson has never been a city that I have felt particularly bound to. I have passed by the old buildings there on my way to the train station more times than I can count, always wondering what they were built for. My father explained to me that there were once hundreds of trains serviced in Hirson and that these buildings are all that remain from these times. I never stopped on my commute until a cold morning last October, when I found myself walking through these buildings, trying to understand their story.
A century ago, Hirson was a city of steam, where the rhythm of life was orchestrated by the arrival and departure of trains. Trains, coming from the north, carrying their merchandise through the entire country and the rest of Europe. Hirson lies at the middle point between the east and the north of France, meaning between two regions of steel, coal and all sorts of industry. In the midst of the 19th century, a train station was built here. With the development of the railway network, trains stopped here for maintenance and repairs, as well as to load and unload cargo. This small town became the pulsating heart between the north and the east, the second-most rail marshalling yard in the country after Paris. Technical progress does not stop for anyone or anything, however, and after powering Hirson, it left. In the 1930s, railway companies decided to create a direct line between the north and the east. The quicker and more powerful electric trains no longer needed to stop over. The important role Hirson played started to lapse and by the 1960s, the railway depot finally closed down.
Today, three buildings remind us that Hirson was once a shining star in the railway industry. Coming from the countryside, the first thing that catches your eye is a tall, slender signalling tower. This was used to guide and regulate the trains on the rail site. This tower was called the “Florentine”, a surprising name which perfectly reflects the elegance and the mystery of its shape but is not in any way to be confused with Italian architecture. Built in 1921 in an art deco style, it is nowadays classified as a French National Monument, but its restoration and preservation is still pending due to lack of financial resources. After all, it has already – for the most part– survived a World War, economic crises and time’s inevitable wear and tear.
Walking further, you enter a former depot built in the 1920s. It rests among trees, tall grass and debris like a giant skeleton. Plants and the wind play together between its ribs. At places, graffiti appear on its walls. The concrete floor, that has been polluted by toxic oils and other fluids over decades, condemns the depot to fall apart with nothing being done to save it. Decontamination is an expensive and complicated process, and the question is always who will pay for it.
The rotunda further away might have a brighter future. Like the Florentine, it is owned by the city council who is committed to its preservation. It was built after the Second World War and it is one of the last railway rotundas of its type in France. The rails have disappeared, but the structure still stands. On the roof, letters spelling “Hirson” were proudly painted in blue. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was used for rock ’n roll and metal music festivals, but the project was discontinued in 2006 as concerts were too expensive to organise. The preservation of the building is the only priority for now. We are used to saying that more is impossible. The trains are gone and with them, the money.
This is the former rail marshalling yard of Hirson. It no longer shines, but it is the last vestige of a golden age, a significant part of a regional story. At the beginning of my life there was Hirson, and once upon a time it was a star in the railway industry.