A major site in the historically important neighborhood of Olabeaga in Bilbao was recently renamed in honor of the women who used to physically haul all kinds of vessels into central BIlbao.

A representation of the sirgueras.

With the industrial development of Bilbao through the nineteenth century, so there was a major increase in shipping traffic into the heart of the city via the Nervion Estuary. However, at the point where the estuary ran through the Olabeaga neighborhood, the river was so silted up that larger boats could not complete the final stretch that would take them into the center of the city. As a response to the problem, groups of men were hired to undertake the backbreaking work of physically hauling smaller vessels by means of a sirga (towrope) along that final stretch toward downtown Bilbao. Yet with the outbreak of the Carlist Wars and the exodus of men from the city, this work was taken up by women. The sirgueras (zirgariak in Basque) who came to do this work were cheaper to hire than men and could be hired in the moment; there was no need to employ them on a permanent basis. Check out the short movie Zirgariak (2006), by filmmakers Fernando Bernal “Ferber” and Urko Olazabal, which portrays just what this job entailed.

Working in such conditions of hard physical labor and  in the dirty conditions of an ever more polluted river, this was work that was looked down upon socially; whether men or women, the people who undertook it were considered ganapanes, humble laborers who earned just enough to cover their daily needs: at the very least, a loaf of bread. This partly explains why these women, in particular, have been excluded from the major narrative of the industrial development of Bilbao.

The newly named wharf, the Muelle Sirgueras / Zirgariak Kaia, stands as a testament to this forgotten collective.