The iron industry in Vallorbe and in the region
The heroic period of bloomeries
The excavations carried out by Professor Paul-Louis Pelet and his team near La Sarraz, in the Bellaires region, prove that blacksmiths were already utilising iron ore found in the Pied-du-Jura 350 years before Christ. From the stones which they collected they constructed furnaces coated inside with clay, and about 1.50 m tall; a pipe allowed the passage of the nozzle of manually-activated bellows which were used to kindle the fire in the hearth. This industry continued until about the 6th century A.D. There is no trace of it after that time.
From the 12th century, a few documents prove that the iron industry revived in the Jura. In Vallorbe, the first factories, the forerunners of the current industries, date from the last quarter of the 13th century. There was water from the River Orbe to drive the wheels, wood for building and for the manufacture of charcoal, and iron ore, notably in the Mont d'Orzeires, on the northern side of the Dent de Vaulion. Between 1280 and 1285, the prior of Romainmôtier, Gaufridius, set up the valley’s first bloomery at la Dernier. A bloomery reduces iron ore into iron that is directly forgeable, as in the primitive furnaces of the Bellaires.
At the beginning of the 16th century, Vallorbe was already a steelmaking centre with three bloomeries and several forges.
Towards blast furnaces and the industrial era…
The technical revolution embodied in the discovery of the blast furnace, in which cast iron is produced in large quantities, gave new impetus to the iron industry. In about 1670, Vallorbe had three blast furnaces, several fire-refining installations and about thirty forges. We should remember that cast iron, melted at about 1450 degrees C., does not become forgeable until after being refined.
However, by the end of the 17th century, production of cast iron had ceased in Vallorbe. The mines, of the open-cast type, were either exhausted or too poor, coal mining had ruined the forests, and competition from the Vallée de Joux, from Sainte-Croix and especially from the Franche-Comté, had become too strong. Metalworking had to diversify and become specialised. There was then a leap forward which proved that this transformation had been successful: The Vallorbians bought their iron elsewhere and became locksmiths, gunsmiths, nailsmiths, farriers.
This boom continued until about 1850, and was then sustained thanks to the manufacture of files, tools and chains. Les Usines Métallurgiques de Vallorbe, founded in 1899, and specialising in the production of precision files and chains for chainsaws, kept up the worldwide reputation of the Cité du Fer (City of Ironworks).
The iron industry also evolved elsewhere in the Jura, leading to the cutting of fine stones, the manufacture of music boxes, razors, chisels, and other precision tools or machines.
The Great Forges or Town Forges
It was quite normal that the Iron Museum should occupy the buildings of a listed site in Vallorbe, where ironworking has been carried on since 1495.
On that date the prior of Romainmôtier, Michel de Savoie, granted to Pierre Vallotton, alias Develley, water rights and the right to construct a grindstone and a tilt hammer, downstream from the bridge, in the centre of the town.
In 1528, a new ‘commune’ authorised the construction of a blast furnace. The Vallotton family continued as the owners of the enterprise until 1685, and added to it a refinery, a steel mill and several forge fires. The Favres, the Truans and other families succeeded them. The blast furnace was abandoned, and in 1705 it was demolished.
The Great Forges then became a conglomerate of independent factories, each of modest size. At the beginning of the 20th century there were six undershot water wheels in operation.
The Viotti family, who were the last owners, abandoned production at the Town Forges in 1967. On the other side of the canal, on which it also has a wheel, the magnificent Estoppey forge is now included in the visit to the Museum.
The Iron Museum
There were two guiding ideas behind its conception: demonstration and activity. Demonstration of the origins of the iron industry, of its development and of its current applications. Activity in the canal wheels which activate the machines, and in the working forge, the real heart of the Museum.
So there is a very special atmosphere: the panting of the water wheels, the whirring of the drive-belts, the clattering of the machines and the blows of the hammer on the anvil, constantly reminding one that each of the objects on view also had its own life.
At the forge, lit up and heated by the fire, a kind of work that has become mysterious for some lives again, and engenders a surprising fascination.
The Railway Museum
Situated halfway along the 820 km of the Paris-Milan railway line, Vallorbe might have been designed to become the line’s ‘memory’.
Moreover, the important role played by the railway in the development of the locality deserved public recognition. So it was quite natural that, in 1990, the areas available on the different floors of the building of the Great Forges, now the property of the community, should be converted into a museum devoted to the railway epic of Vallorbe, on the Simplon line.
Some important dates
- 1870 Opening of the Lausanne – Vallorbe line (the Day Viaduct was then made of steel)
- 1875 Opening of the Vallorbe – Pontarlier line
- 1886 Opening of the Vallorbe – Le Pont line
- 1899 Le Pont – Le Brassus extension
- 1915 Opening of the Mont d'Or tunnel
- 1924 Reconstruction of the Day Viaduct in stone
- 1984 Arrival of the TGV (High-Speed Train) in Vallorbe