Category: Basque transport

September 3, 1902: Euskalduna company launches first ship

On September 3, 1902, the Euskalduna company launched its first ship, the “Portu,” a barge for use by the important Altos Hornos de Vizcaya foundry. Euskalduna, a marine engineering company whose full name was Euskalduna de Construcción y Reparación de Buques de Bilbao, would go on to become one of the most renowned features of the Basque industrial landscape with its headquarters in the heart of Bilbao. It opened for business in 1900 and finally closed in 1988 after a four-year period of severe confrontations  between workers and police over the decision to close the shipyard.

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Aerial view of Bilbao in the 1950s during a new era of expansion for Euskalduna, shown here top left in the picture beside the bridge. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

During that time, the company enjoyed mixed fortunes: a boom in the World War I era and beyond that tailed off by the 1930s; growth again in the 1950s and 1960s, with Euskalduna contributing 50% of the capital to a new statewide conglomerate, Astilleros Españoles, which by the late 1960s would be one of the largest shipbuilding companies in Europe; and, ultimately, decline again in the 1970s following the 1973 oil crisis and increasing competition from East Asia. When the decision was taken to close the shipyard in 1984, the workers there engaged in direct confrontation in an effort to maintain their jobs. These confrontations, as well as many negotiations including labor unions, management, and the public administration, went on for four years and this intense period came to define much of Bilbao’s social history in the 1980s.

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Central Bilbao today, with the Euskalduna Conference Centre, the reddish building, to the far right of the picture and the Bilbao maritime Museum behind that. Picture by Ben Bore (Rhys), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Following the closure of the shipyard, the emblematic site that had been so important in the industrial history and legacy of Bilbao was converted into a leisure area: today it houses both the Euskalduna Conference Centre and the Bilbao Maritime Museum. The site itself, then, continues to form a central part of the Bilbao economy, although now in a postindustrial and leisure-oriented framework.

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The “Carola” crane, installed in 1957 in the Euskalduna shipyard, it was and still is an important part of the cityscape. Today, though,  it forms part of the Bilbao Maritime Museum. Photo by Txo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In That Old Bilbao Moon: The Passion and Resurrection of a City, Joseba Zulika shares a very personal view of Bilbao and its historical transformations. And for more on Bilbao and the urban changes associated with the city through time, check out Transforming Cities: Opportunities and Challenges of Urban Regeneration in the Basque Country, edited by Arantxa Rodríguez and Joseba Juaristi.

 

 

Irun and Hendaia commemorate bridges linking the two towns

A series of acts were held over the weekend of September 2 to 4 on and around the Avenida and Santiago/Saint-Jacques bridges that link Irun (Gipuzkoa) to Hendaia (Lapurdi). The acts were held in commemoration of both the people that used these bridges to flee the horrors of war, but also in celebration of these vital points of connection between the two towns.

On September 2 the two mayors of the respective towns took part, on the Avenida bridge (also known as the International bridge) and on the occasion of its hundredth anniversary, in an act remembering all the people who had crossed the bridge–in both directions–to flee war and save their lives.

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American prisoners who had fought as volunteers on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War released by Franco’s forces via the Avenida bridge, walking from Irun to Hendaia (1938). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On September 4, meanwhile, another act was held to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the burning of Irun at the outset of he Spanish Civil War, a specific occasion on which people used the bridges en masse to escape the conflict.

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The Santiago/Saint-Jacques bridge today.

A plaque will be installed at some point this year on the Avenida bridge to remember all the people who crossed the bridge to save their lives.

The impact of war on ordinary people’s lives, and particularly in the intense period between the Spanish Civil War and World War II, is explored in War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life 1936-1946, edited by Sandra Ott.

Annual Log Raft Day held in Burgi, Nafarroa

This past Saturday, April 30th, the town of Burgi in Nafarroa held one of the more unusual events on the always lively Basque cultural calendar: Log Raft Day (Almadiaren Eguna). The small town at southern entrance to the Erronkari/Roncal Valley was famed historically for its river log rafting, the traditional method of transporting timber from the high Pyrenean mountain valleys down to lower ground and beyond.

Beginning in the 14th century, creating timber rafts to be shipped down the Ezka River was the only means of transporting this valuable resource from the high mountains and Burgi gained special fame for its skilled rafters. With modernization and improved transport facilities this skill gradually declined in use, with the last rafts being employed in 1952. But in 1992 an association was formed to revive historical memory about the craft and its special place in the history of the region. Since then, Burgi has held an annual Log Raft Day to celebrate the feats of its ancestors.

Julio Caro Baroja describes this dangerous work vividly in  his classic study The Basques (pp. 156-57):

Even in the eighteenth century, however, the rivers that cross oceanic Navarre and all of Gipuzkoa from south to north were used to carry, in rafts, tree trunks cut in the nearby mountains to the ports of the estuaries, where there were shipyards and important warehouses. Today, the river transport of wood has become typical of the rivers of the easternmost Pyrenean zone of the country, such as the Eska, which flows through the Erronkari Valley from north to south; the Salazar, which bears the same name as the valley (in Spanish); and especially the Irati, which originates in a dense forest. Woodcutters and raftsmen are of great economic importance there, as in the adjacent land of Zuberoa. The rafts may be made of planks or tree trunks. If they are made of planks, some forty are placed on their sides, or fifteen are placed together if they are made of trunks. Each plank or trunk has holes in the ends for wires, or earlier, branches of hazel, as towlines that bind them to a crossbeam. Strings of rafts, usually tied in fours, are formed in this way so that the raft can negotiate the turns in the river by what is called xintura. Each raft measures some five meters in length and three meters in width, so that the string of rafts totals twenty meters. In the forward part stand two men, the lead men, each with an oar or hook (gafa), and in the rear another two, the aft men. In the middle there are two wooden forks with a stick over them, from which the food and clothing of the raftsmen are hung in knapsacks. The work is hard and dangerous, especially in ravines with violent currents and at dams, where there are ramps built expressly for the rafts. The pine rafts of the Irati go all the way to Castejón, and those of oak and fir go to Agoitz.

Historical links between the Basque Country and Wales in the news

An exchange of gifts was held recently between the Welsh charity Friends of the Newport Ship and the Basque foundation Albaola: The Sea Factory of Basques. This included the Friends of the Newport Ship receiving an ikurriña or Basque flag, which will fly alongside the flag of Wales in the group’s maritime center.

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The Newport ship in the foundations of the Riverfront Arts Centre, Newport, Wales, September 8, 2002. Photo by Owain at Wikimedia Commons.

The Newport Ship is the most complete surviving example of a fifteenth-century ship, discovered in Newport (Casnewydd in Welsh), Wales. According to the Welsh charity website, “the Ship was built from local timber in the Basque Country, probably around 1449 -1451,”  and was probably one of the larger ships of the era. Later, it was “left to partly sink into the riverbed [of the River Usk or Afon Wysg in Welsh] before being covered by accumulated sediment. This preserved the vessel for around 532 years before its discovery in 2002.”

According to a report on the exchange for the South Wales Argus: Chairman of Friends of Newport Ship, Phil Cox, described the flag as a “symbol of friendship and collaboration.” He said: “The Basque flag will fly proudly in our ship centre as a symbol of our shared maritime history, alongside our own Welsh dragon. “We look forward to visiting the Basque country, visiting Albaola and seeing their amazing projects as they create full scale replicas of medieval vessels.” Local Basques were also in attendance. Read the report in full here.

If you’re interested in this topic, check out the recent Center publication Basques in the Pacific Ocean by William A. Douglass explores Basque maritime prowess through the centuries.

 

 

 

February 22, 1926: The Urola Railroad Inaugurated

On February 22, 1926, the Urola railroad, linking the towns of Zumarraga and Zumaia in Gipuzkoa, was inaugurated by the Spanish king, Alfonso XIII. It was the first electrified railroad in the Spanish state and operated until 1986, closing definitively in 1988.

It was originally envisaged as both a passenger and freight line, connecting key towns in the nascent industrial and demographic growth of this river valley in Gipuzkoa. Starting at Zumarraga, a station on the main Madrid-Irun line, this narrow-gauge railroad followed the Urola River, stopping at towns like Azkoitia and Azpeitia, as well as important destinations for many visitors like Loiola (the birthplace of St. Ignatius of Loiola and home to the Sanctuary bearing his name) and the Zestoa spa, before finishing at the port town of Zumaia.

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Zumaia station. The terminus for the old Urola railroad line.

In its early years it was transporting just under 400,000 people annually, and during its most successful period in the 1950s and 1960s, 800,000 people used the line annually (with a record number of just under a million in 1962). As regards freight, it transported around 55,000 metric tons annually until the mid-1950s, when freight services began to decline in part due to improved road connections (by the end of its lifetime the Urola line was only transporting 2,000 metric tons annually).

In the 1980s, a Basque government report stated that, without significant investment, the line would have to be closed (to be replaced by a bus service for passengers).  Despite significant protest, including a 1988 demonstration involving 7,000 people, the line was ultimately closed.

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Steam locomotive “Portugal” E205 with railroad cars on the line between the Basque Railway Museum in Azpeitia and Lasao. Photo by Nils Öberg, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Today, however, the Urola railroad is enjoying a new lease of life, at least in part, through the auspices of the Basque Railway Museum in Azpeitia. Here, as well as visiting the impressive collection, enthusiasts old and young alike can enjoy a charming ride to Lasao and back (a 10 km/6 miles round-trip) on an old steam train. Having done this myself last year, I’m still not sure who enjoyed themselves more on that ride, the kids or the drivers!

Check out this short article on the Urola line, part of a wider series of articles about the railroad in Gipuzkoa that also includes an interesting piece here on the Basque Railway Museum.

Modern railroads, and especially the new project for a high-speed train service in the Basque Country and beyond, are central to Nagore Calvo Mendizabal’s argument in her compelling study, Building the Basque City: The Political Economy of Nation-Building.  If you thought that railroads and nation-building were a relic of the past, of nineteenth-century industrialization and growth, think again. Railroads are still a highly political, as well as economic, issue, and impact people’s very group identity, as adeptly demonstrated in this remarkable work.