The mines of the Biros valley

Located in the western corner of Ariège, the Biros valley has a rich mining history.

"When God came here it was night then, and he carved the land with blows of a hatchet. But as he left, he was seized with remorse and threw over his shoulder a handful of ore" -- so says the shepherd of the Biros."


With that, he set down the contours of this land:
A mountain with deep, steep valleys, shaken during the geologic eras, which rise up to jagged ridges as high as 2880 metres elevation. Man has lived there for a long time and generation after generation of farmers and peasants advanced on the forests in order to survive on these slopes. The discovery of a seam of argentiferous lead in 1830 brought an unhoped for wealth to this mountain land.

bentaillou barracks

For more than an century (1850-19500 the Biros valley was mining country; zinc and silver-bearing lead was extracted from the sites of Bulard and the Bentaillou. Two other Spanish concessions were also exploited by the French: that of the Fourcail which brought ore via the Port d'Orle and that of Montoulieu which descended the mined rock by the impassable Port d'Urets. The ore was broken up and sorted variously, depending on the era, at the cirque de la Plagne, at Orle and the Bocard d'Eylie.

The Baron de Boisrouvray and the banker Espeletta formed in 1848 the first mining company. Many others would follow.

The peasant, leaving his wife to the farming, became a miner.
Miner's barracks were built everywhere and the most spectacular was without a doubt those of the rocky peak of Bulard, which later would be nicknamed Macchu Picchu, the highest mine in Europe. Paths were carved into the impressive cliffs, 10 kms of track cleared for the ox carts that would descend with their loads of ore to the bottom of the valley, tunnels were pierced in order to install Decauville track, sometimes dismantled so it could survive the winter undamaged. Later pylons and cables were erected for faster, more secure descents. All this construction was carried out at high altitude with the risk of falls and in the cold, the snow, the wind and rain -- and certain installations would never be used.

The hand of man left the imprint of suffering on the land but above all one of wealth and grandeur...

The first galleries were attacked with the miner's pickax and dynamite. In 1910 the pneumatic drill make its appearance but hardly alleviated the work of the miner. The miners became intimately familiar with the galleries and gave them names: Ste Amèlie, Ste Eugénie, Ste Geneviève, Ste Victorine, Ste Cécile, Anita, Pépita or Jesussita, Maison neuve or Ita's quarters. They also saw the cursed side as in "La Mangeuse d'Homme" (man eater) at the Mail de Bulard. It wasn't exactly healthy to work in the galleries: besides the explosives and the dust, the miner had to confront "lead colic" and silicosis. Some died there from illness, explosions, accidents and even falling off the mountain. A few children worked at the Bentaillou site and two in the mine at Bulard. Thirty to forty women sorted the ore at the bottom of the valley of Bocard d'Eylie. In 1907, when the mine at Bentaillou was in full expansion it employed close to 500 miners. Two schools were needed to accommodate the 200 pupils in the commune of Sentein.

bentaillou mine

At the beginning of the century, miners worked 12 hours a day and the conditions were deplorable -- they suffered from the cold and terrible food. After a series of strikes the pay was increased and working time was reduced to 10 hours a day. In 1926 the zinc market collapsed, setting off a huge strike and the mine closed. Many workers went to work on the construction of a hydroelectric dam at the Araing lake that terminated in 1942. The Miners' Union of the Pyrenees reopened the mine for 14 years until its permanent closure.

What remains today of the abandoned mines?

The walker and hiker will undoubtedly be taken aback by the spectacle of desolation. But let them pause for a few moments in these places, open their hearts and understand that these old imprints and scars are but forgotten pages from history.

-- Nelly and Claude Taranne
With the tourist office of Sentein they have written several guides to walks to these mining sites that invite you to see them with a new eye.

Photos by Sheri Bluestein

Many thanks to these photographers

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