The water mills of Pallars Sobirà



The forms of lighting in the Pyrenees are undergoing a profound transformation. This innovations have not yet penetrated with the same intensity that, for example, the French Alps, where, even in the more hidden valleys electricity flows abundant to the people who hardly remember the name of torchs, while lanterns and oil lamps , have moved to atics, dumps or museums”.(1)



Krüger Fritz wrote this in the early twenties when he visited the valleys of Pallars Sobirà. He stated the efforts of those villages to enter into modernity. Well, this modernity would be denied to them until almost the last quarter of the twentieth century. Each valley, each village, each farmhouse, needed to get a move on to enjoy a few bulbs lit during the long nights of winter with the old light instruments ready and very close at hand.

We can not attribute the backwardness of Pallars Sobirà to a lack of entrepreneurial spirit. The Tor d'Alòs and his brothers (the brothers Arnalot) were leaders in the electric business in Pallars and also Cardona(2). A few years after the first experiments in Barcelona, La Pobla de Segur (1898), Sort (1905) and Gerri de la Sal (1906), already knew what was electric lighting. The instinct of business was there (one of the first to see the great energy potential of the region was a man of Sort: Emili Riu i Periquet). It was basically the choice of a model of centralized industrial development in Barcelona the cause that left aside and in the dark the Pallars Sobirà.

The Pallars, where some of the first turbines and dynamos of the country where installed , had been disconnected from the second industrial revolution, excluded from the process of electrification of the Catalan space . Of the huge hydroelectric potential of the Noguera Pallaresa nor a kilowatt was returned to the river communities further north of Collegats. It was needed a notable effort to at least alleviate this abandonment. Disconnected of the national electric grid, the peoples of Pallars Sobirà had to devote a significant portion of its scarce resources to turn on a few bulbs at night. Poor lighting homes and streets cost to the residents and municipalities ten or twelve times more than the people connected of the rest of Catalunya. The Sort municipalitie had to sell the mountain of Costa Negra and rest severely indebted to sign a loan of 85,000 pesetas, to acquire its minicentral. (3). Llavorsí dedicate the eleven years complete revenue from logging the timber of its forest to fund improvements its mill (when they finally settled the debt with a certain amount of the last auction, was able to devote the rest to the construction of a building for the school).(4)

A flood meant often start again *(that was the case of 1968 in Sort, the consequences of which we have already pointed in the mill Sort seccion of this work). In Sort, during the thirties, the basic price of kWh for lighting was 0.6 pesetas (for the residents of nearby villages the cost rose to 80 cents on kWh) while in Barcelona the cost was 10 cents or less during the twenties. In Barcelona between the years 1918-19 electricity prices for power were between 5 and 7 cents kWh while in Sort by the year 1929 the city council dictated a fee for the use of electric force of 35 cents on kWh.(5)

Of this industrial effort of Pallars Sobirà to overcome electric marginalization is being lost track. There has been no in-depth study of this rich heritage of small power plants, pipelines, pools, conversion or use of old wheat mills , technical solutions who knows where imported or fruit of the pallarés people inventive (6), repair systems, maintenance, electric lines, administrative organization of business or services, charge systems, fraud detection, ...

The situation of isolation of Pallars Sobirà, the relative economic autarky lasted until the late sixties and early seventies. The lack of electricity favored the running of old water mills that turned into flour crops of the vicinity people. Append electric enginys, turbines and pipes to the old mills helped them to continue in good working order when many of them elsewhere in the country decades ago had already disappeared.

We have found that this valuable industrial heritage preserved thanks to the adverse circumstances of disconnection and isolation is in serious jeopardy. A few decades after its shut down much of these jewels of the former industry pallaresa are in ruins. In addition there seems to be little interest in saving what remains. The buildings sink, the facilities are enmohecen or spoil and the old millers disappearing.(7)

A typical case is that of the Gerri de la Sal mill (2 turbines, two flour mills with machinery attached to separate the flour, a waterwheel, electrical machinery, ...). The last saliner, Felip Montoliu Varó, was the grain miller and producer of the electric power Gerri and nearby villages used. After connecting to FECSA in the seventies Felip had to close the plant but kept running turbines to light itself. Ffinally had to stop because too much maintenance costs. He still has all the facilities in perfect condition for operation. No aid coming he had to stop making salt by the year 2000 and within a few years the last eras of Pallars salt had been spoiled (it was the last saliner after more than a thousand years making Gerri's salt). It is disappointing the lack of institutional interest in cases like this.

A pathetic case is the Sall mill (Altron). It has a magnificent building construction, two floors, with stone walls and covered with slate around 70 m2 per floor. The roof had collapsed partially and threaten complete ruin because nobody take concern to cut the vines that have climbed the walls and lifted slates. It rest all the machinery (turbine, flourmill and additional machinery, flyers, pulleys lifting mechanisms of grain ... plus an enginy Siemens, two transformers ...). The site is easily accessible by a trail of a mile to the left of the road to Caregue but there is no signal indicating the location of the mill(8).

And this happens at a time when the Snow tourism model (similar to the sun and beaches) falters and becomes more obvious their speculative component and lost of respect to the environment. There is a need for enhancing cultural tourism, scientific tourism, industry tourism . Tourism that every day increases the number of adept and is, in certain measure, the return to the origins of tourism, tourists of the eighteenth century, Europeans doing long stays abroad driven by educational and cultural interests. We are not inventing anything new. There are French Pyrenees associations such as the "Association des moulins des Hautes" (9) that ensure the preservation, dissemination and knowledge of the water mills. They have a web page and publish routes of water mills. In the Basque Country, in Asturias, there are similar initiatives. As for the Pallars this task is to be done. With this research we would like to contribute to the salvation of a valuable heritage in danger that has enormous potential for a form of sustainable tourism.

Finally with this work we wanted to make a small contribution to the study of this sector of the tecnics, economics and form of life of pallars' country that seems to be quite forgotten, while valuing the work of people like Lluis Vilà Pla, Felip Montoliu Varó, Cisco Farré, all of them from Gerri de la Sal, Joan Peña Ubach and his godfather, Gildo of Soriguera; Emili Boixereu Locutura de La Pobla de Segur, (10) ... who strove to bring light and progress to Pallars Sobirà.

* Floods according to the Technical Comisió Flood: 1348, January 1433, autumn 1436, 1617, 1637, 1753, 1854, 1894, October 1907, October 1937, August 1963, November 1967, April 1971, November 1982.

(1) FRITZKRÜGER (1997): Los altos Pirineos Vol I. 2ª Parte. Edit. Garsineu i altres Pàg. 207
2  Isidre Arnalot Carrera, Tort d'Alós' brother, with the experience gained in Pallars Sobirà, built the hidroelectric plant of Cardona known as La llum of Cardona that provided light to the city for twenty years through contract with the city council dated 1908.
3  AHCS Llibro de Actas del Ayuntamiento de Sort. March 6 of 1929.
 “... libre ya el pueblo de dicha carga que ha pesado sobre él como un plomo ... las restantes 4.250 pesetas ... sean invertidas en la construcción de un edificio para Escuela”.AHCS Llibre d’actes de l’Ajuntament de Llavorsí .Full solt.
5  AHCS Llibro de Actas del Ayuntamiento de Sort. June 24 of 1929.
Cisco Farré of Gerri, who worked on centrals explained a system based on a cable hung on poles in the same line that controlled the regulator of the turbine, avoiding having to go to the plant at night when descents of tension occurred .
7  Something has been done: The Àreu mill operates as a museum and Sort want to do a museum in the former Central hidroelèctrica.
8  The Picture of the minicentral d'Altron. The photograph shows how the central threat Sall total ruin ...
10  GIMENO, Manel (1999) Un segle i mig de botigues i indústries de la Pobla de Segur. Ajuntament de la Pobla de Segur. Pobla de Segur: pàg: 26. Emili Boixereu operate a workshop electricity in montó un taller de electricidad en la Pobla de Segur. Electrificó los pueblos Escós y Àreu (1919); Malpàs (1921), Sellui i Basturs (1922), Surp, Altrón i Unarre (1923) i Llavorsí (1925)

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Why in the dark



The builders

Map Pallars

Registration waters

Inventory mills


List of mills