The "Grande Saline" : a unique history.
Next to the Jura vineyard, 10 kilometers from Arbois, hides one of the jewels of Franche-Comté heritage. « Grande Saline » of Salins-les-Bains is a vey important witness of an unexpected productive activity in Franche-Comté : the salt production ! And yet, without salt, no “comté”, no famous saltings, in short, nothing that makes the gastronomic richness of our region. And without salt in Salins, no city, no fortifications, no thermalism, no casino… In many ways, the saltwork’s history is a model. An industrial model, by the evolution of technics and by its extraordinary longevity (1200 years of continuous production !) that makes it one of the oldest factory in France ; an economic model, that demonstrates a rigorous organization and management of resources from its inception ; a social model that from the fifteenth century proposed a system of protection for workers unmatched on the scale of the national territory ; an architectural model whose oldest elements are revealed today in visit and always arouse the wonder. The history of “Grande Saline” is also the one, unique and touching, of men and women who worked for salt production, for getting white gold, during 1200 years…
... and priceless treasures !
"Grande Saline" preserves today notable technical and architectural elements, that reflects the richness of its history. The descent into the saltwater extraction wells reveals the invisible and extraordinary skills of men. Suddenly, 165 meters of vaulted gallery in the 13th century are available to the visitor. Far from feeling cramped, the gallery amazes and charms by its dimensions worthy of a cathedral and by its ancestral stones which for 8 centuries watch and protect over the sources of salt water. In this timeless and unique space, the magic operates: one could believe in something fixed, one could believe in a simple superimposition of stones, but the saline is surprising unexpected. A sound of water echoes in the depths ... At the end of the corridor appears the living strenght of the site : the bucketwheel, dated on the 19th century, still functiunning thanks to the river crossing Salins-les-Bains called "la Furieuse". The wheel powers, in a very silent and relaxing movement, a 32 meters long balancing pole and a pump which drew the salty waters in depth. This is the beating heart of the saltwork, the patrimonial pulse of the city. On surface, we discover an other universe and the ambiance of the evaporation room where the saltworkers worked day after day to gather the salt. An other plca, an other emotion : here, it's the memory of workers which talks, the memories of men and women who have succedded around the pans of evaporation during 1200 years. The saltwork's strenght is to have been able to preserve one pan of evaporation, the last in France, and the workers' tools, making the evocation of their labor even stronger.
At the Grande Saline, more than a simple visit, we listen and we live a story. We pass on this extraordinary story with passion and honesty every day to keep the saline and the memories of its workers alive
The origins of salt
The presence of natural salty waters in Salins-les-Bains has a geological origin. 220 millions years ago, a sea covered a grand part of Eastern France, including Jura, which, after evaporation, left a layer of salt buried today at 250 meters depth. It is the leaching of this deposit by rainwater infiltration that causes the birth of salt water sources.
In Salins-les-Bains, these natural salty springs have been exploited since the Neolithic period, thus dating back salt activity to 7000 years ago. Salt has induced human behaviors and caused their sedentarization: also, in the environment of Salins, archeology has demonstrated the presence of princely habitats and extremely rich population groups developed since Protohistory.
Produce and protect !
In Salins-les-Bains, and in the whole Franche-Comté, the salt was obtained by artificial evaporation, in contrast with salt marshes : it's called the fire-source production of salt. During several centuries, the wood was used for the evaporation, but for calorific and economic reasons, the coal was adopted at the beginning of the 19th century.
The "Grande Saline"'s production was the most important in Franche-Comté. In the 17th century, the saltwork produced 14 000 tons of salt per year and fed Burgundy, a part of Switzerland and the Flanders. The salt, called white gold, has largely impacted the development of Salins-les-Bains, which became the economic capital of the région, second town behind Besançon, the administrative and politic capital of Franche-Comté. Imagine : the "Grande Saline" generated the half of the region's income !
Salt is at the heart of political and strategic issues; its production is managed by the sovereigns of Franche-Comté (counts of Burgundy, kings of Spain, kingdom of France) and must be protected. From the Middle Ages, Salins-les-Bains acquired an impressive defense system of which the forts Belin and Saint-André are today the last vestiges.
The saltwork itself was fortified. An outer wall was built around the two hectares of industrial buildings, to protect the salt, highly coveted. The saltwork then looked like a real fortress, a city within the city, which is distinguished by its autarkic functioning, in opposition to other industrial sites in the region: production buildings, workshops, housing, tavern, court, chapel, prisons ... in the Middle Ages, the Grande Saline was an industrial and social model which employed 820 workers, men and women, out of the 8,000 inhabitants then living in Salins-les-Bains.
The evolution of techniques, the lack of modernization, the cold storage and the competition with the salt marshes will put an end to the "Grande Saline" which stopped its production in 1962.
In 1966, the "Grande Saline" was bought by the city of Salins-les-Bains and became a heritage and touristic site.
With its 1200 years of history and technique, the one which is one of the oldest factories in France, constitutes an exceptional and unique heritage in Europe and one of the region's heritage and industrial jewels.