Since its discovery in the Alps, salt has never ceased to play a role in the history, politics, economics and gastronomy of our country. The Bex Salt Mines and the History of Alpine Salt stand for a living heritage which has fascinated and inspired visitors for more than 5 centuries.
The history of Sel des Alpes
4 billion years ago, our planet was born, covered with oceans containing all the salt on Earth. As the continents formed, the sea retreated from the land which was to become Switzerland. The salt was then trapped in the rock that would form the Alps, pure and protected from all pollution for 200 million years.
Until the end of the Triassic period, 200 million years ago, the land that was to become Switzerland was entirely covered by the sea. When it retreated, at the beginning of the Jurassic period, the salt remained trapped in the Alpine rock, perfectly pure and sheltered from all pollution.
The discovery of Alpine salt goes back to the 15th century, when, according to legend, a young shepherd named Jean du Bouillet (nicknamed Bracaillon) took his goats up to Panex and the Fondement region above Bex to graze. They showed a preference: they invariably drank from two springs at the same place. Curiosity led the shepherd to taste the water from these springs. Finding it salty, he filled a pot and boiled the water. Once it evaporated, he found a pinch of salt at the bottom of his pot. And so he discovered Alpine salt.
In 1475, the Bernese who invaded the region started to exploit these slightly salty springs. They heated the salted water in large open pans. This method of recovering salt by evaporating brine, in other words salt water, over a wood fire continued for more than 200 years.
In 1554, the first saltworks emerged around the Bex Salt Mines. The attempts at extraction were still very much the work of artisans. It was not until the following century that extensive work was undertaken to enable industrial production.
In 1680, the Bévieux Saltworks, better known as the Bex Saltworks, was established. It is the only one still in operation today. At this period, since the flow of the springs had diminished, people started to cut into the mountain to dig galleries, with the idea of emptying the immense reservoir filled with salt water which they imagined lay in the mountain. A labyrinth of several dozen kilometres of galleries, stairways and wells was cut over more than a century, working with hammer and chisel, by muscle power. Later, gunpowder was used.
Between 1684 and 1691, the Coulat level was dug. Seven years of work were needed for this main gallery, known as the Principale du Coulat, which was approached from the left bank of the Gryonne. A 700-metre tunnel was cut to the Cylinder which thought to be a cylindrical reservoir containing the precious salt water. To speed up operations, the managers decided to cut a stairway to obtain a ventilation system. Cutting downhill was an arduous and dangerous process for the miners who had to cut lower than their feet and then take up the debris on men's backs, always working with poor lighting and ventilation. The average progress was 4 metres per month for the horizontal gallery, but considerably less for the stairway. The Coulat stairway, known as the Escalier Ruiné (Ruined Stairway) numbers 458 steps.
In 1725, Isaac Gamaliel de Rovéréa, the director of the Mines at the time, decided to take even bolderaction: to cut a gallery from Le Bouillet. A distance of two kilometres separated the point of departure from the notorious imagined Cylinder. A start was made with a stairway of 735 steps. However, the Bernese government of the time was alarmed by the project’s duration and scope. It took the decision to close the site when 202 metres of galleries had already been cut and the Grand Escalier (Grand Stairway) had been completed. After consulting Baron de Beust, a Saxon engineer, a well was cut to test the Cylinder. However, these new experiments proved disappointing. The salinity of the springs continued to fall. The future of the Mines appeared very dim and the Bernese government was thinking of closing them.
In 1768, François-Gamaliel de Rovéréa, son of Isaac Gamaliel de Rovéréa, saved the site, with a resumption of his father’s plans. The experts realised that the Cylinder was in fact a thick layer of schist and sandstone which was not cylindrical at all. François-Gamaliel suggested following this layer along a gallery from which other transverse galleries led off. A good source of salt water was discovered at the very first transverse gallery. Two other attempts proved fruitful and made it possible to supply the saltworks for more than 60 years.
In 1811, under the direction of Jean de Charpentier, the cutting of the Le Bouillet gallery was resumed. Over a period of twelve months, a considerable mass of salt rock (the “Poche du Coulat” or “Coulat Pocket”) was revealed, a whole series of galleries and several halls were completed. The work consisted of removing the rock in superimposed underground quarries. The resulting blocks were then transported into the halls, the desalination chambers. It was here that the salt was dissolved from the rock by washing out the blocks. The brine was brought to saturation and then carried to the Bévieux Saltworks by larchwood pipes. This method of operation is expensive and requires considerable manpower. Bex salt could not compete with salt imported from abroad, and that situation deteriorated after rail transport arrived.
In 1836, Chablais passed back into the control of Vaud and salt deposits were discovered at Basel. Deposits of thick layers of salt which were easier to extract that those at Bex induced the Vaud authorities to want to close the Bex Salt Mines in 1865. However, the citizens of Bex united to save their industry. Four of them, Messrs Grenier, Chappuis-Veillon, Beauverd and Laurent, introduced a new method of operation when they set up the Compagnie des Mines et Salines de Bex in 1867. The existing halls and galleries were flooded and the water, which penetrated everywhere, became brine. After that, it just had to be pumped to the saltworks.
The technology of the saltworks was also modernised, making the work easier and the Mines more profitable. Around 1877, open pans were abandoned in favour of extraction by thermocompression. This new technique was introduced thanks to the Piccard apparatus, from the name of its inventor Antoine-Paul Piccard (the great-great-uncle of psychiatrist and balloonist Bertrand Piccard), who was then the director of the Papeterie de Bex paper mill. Invented at Bex and for Bex, this technique is still used all over the world today. It works according to the same principle as heat pumps: the brine is brought to a boil by the live steam produced by the boilers, this steam is then condensed, raising its temperature, then sent to the evaporator to provide heat, all in a closed circuit. A considerable amount of energy can be saved by this technique of recovering heat from the evaporation of water. In the space of a century, thanks to innovation, inventiveness and the modernisation of the Mines and Saltworks, production multiplied while energy consumption was reduced by more than tenfold.
In 1917, the existing company became the Société Vaudoise des Mines et Salines de Bex, half of the equity was assigned to the state, while the Vaud regulations imposed the introduction of iodine into salt from 1924 onwards.
In 1943, the Bex Saltworks put its electricity generating plant into operation, saving the Saltworks 900 tonnes of coal per year.
The drill was the next technical innovation to enable modernisation in the Mines. Drilling machines were first used for exploration. From 1960 onwards, they were used for desalting by drilling and then injecting water directly into the rock under high-pressure, a technique still used today.
In 1984, the Salt Mines were opened for tourism. Visitors were able to take the Miners’ Train and tour a 52-kilometre section of the labyrinth.
In 1997, the commercialisation of salt and the collection of jura regalia (a tax on salt) which had been in the hands of the State of Vaud were entrusted to the Société Vaudoise des Mines et Salines de Bex. In 2002, the company changed its name to Saline de Bex SA and created the Fondation des Mines de Sel de Bex. The latter was a non-profit foundation charged with taking care of the tourist site and preserving the extraordinary heritage which had been developed, century by century, thanks to the courage and ingenuity of generations of salt pioneers in Switzerland.
From 2010 onwards, the production of Sel à l’Ancienne (traditional salt produced in open pans) was started at the Bex Saltworks in a small production plant. Production came to 3 tonnes per year.
In 2018, major works were undertaken in the Mines to connect the production of Fleur des Alpes salt to the heart of the Salt Mines. Fleur des Alpes, whose crystals bear a resemblance to flowers, is now extracted, produced and packaged entirely within the Bex Salt Mines. Visitors can therefore watch the production and packaging of this large-grained salt. Annual production has risen to 15 tonnes. The Bex Salt Mines are the only mines in Europe open to the public to feature a production and packaging unit. The Swiss Saltworks railway station was also built as part of the works in 2018. Trains can now cross in the Mines, and their frequency has doubled.
Over the centuries, the Bex Salt Mines have been visited by illustrious guests. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was there in 1754, Horace Bénédicte de Saussure and Casanova in 1760, Alexandre Dumas wrote an epic account of his visit to the Mines on 28 September 1832. Empress Marie-Louise also toured the Mines and her name was given to the Grand Réservoir in honour of the visit.
Alexandre Dumas, writer (1802-1870)
In 1832, escaping from Paris where a cholera epidemic was raging, the thirty-year-old writer arrived at the foot of the Dents-du-Midi. A miner took him to the centre of the earth: the frizzy-haired giant of a man proved less intrepid on that occasion than his Three Musketeers. He has handed down a humorous account of his adventure.
Just at the moment of descent into the second gallery, my guide held me back by the arm and, without warning, gave a cry: I thought the mountain was crumbling beneath us, the cave was instantly filled with noise and sound. One of the most remarkable echoes I have ever heard in my life. At least a minute passed before the last reverberations of this echo, so violently awakened, died away; you could hear its dull roar beating against the rock cavities like a surprised bear retreating to the farthest depths of its den
When climbing down a well behind his guide, he asked if this “foolishness would soon be at an end”. The guide announced that he had come a little less than one third of the way. Clinging with both hands to the rope ladder “like a beetle on a blade of grass” he dropped his lamp “which I had the pleasure of following with my eyes until its light was extinguished, and then of hearing crashing against the ladders, one after another, which it encountered on its way, followed finally by a dull sound, produced by its contact with the water, which proclaimed that it had reached the destination to which we were on our way”. To relive the shivers experienced by the illustrious novelist, join in the TrekkMines.
Marie-Louise of Austria, Empress (1791-1847)
In July 1814, Marie-Louise of Austria visited the region with her entourage. Baron de Méneval tells the story of her travels in a poem:
“ Scarcely arrived in the rustic vault,
Which is the first portal of the mine,
Our queen, her curiosity aroused,
Confines her blond locks
Under a black cap, then cloaks her slim figure
Without concealing its graceful lines
in a smock the colour of grey stone.
The miner, going before her torch in hand,
leads her into the underground cavern
And follows the way down into the depths.
Each of us enters in our turn.
Our pale torch does not cast light
But makes the darkness visible”.
He continues to describe their tour, in particular a visit to a well:
We arrived after a few minutes at a great well, said to be eight hundred feet deep, into which the conduits carrying the salt water are discharged. To the right of this well was a vast reservoir with an area of seven thousand feet, two feet deep in some parts and fourteen in others. We reached it by a stairway of a dozen steps. Large areas of the ceiling are supported by pillars driven into the rock. After admiring this beautiful well and the boldness of the ceiling, ...
The vast reservoir which captured the imagination of the empress and her entourage was subsequently named after her, and you can visit the Marie-Louise Reservoir on a tour of the Bex Salt Mines.
The Terra Salina project aims to use salt as a theme to promote the natural and cultural heritage on which the identity of the Jura Arc is founded. The 5 founders of the project, the Arc-et-Senans Royal Saltworks, the Grande Saline of Salins-les-Bains, the Swiss Saltworks in the Basel region, the Yverdon-les-Bains region and the Bex Salt Mines, support a range of multimodal travel options (routes for hiking, cycling or riding, public transport) relating to a key element of our cross-border heritage: salt.