Just another Monday in the salt mines

We may take it for granted now, but salt was a big business in the Jura region for hundreds of years. Today we went underground at Salin-les-Bains to get a glimpse of what mining salt was like. The saltworks here was active for at least 1,200 years, until 1962. The part of the mine we saw is an amazing underground gallery from the 13th century, with a hydraulic pump from the 19th century that still functions. It was hard work and very important to keep producing a steady stream of  that “White Gold.”

The salt output of Salin-les-Bains and other smaller saltworks started to diminish in the 18th century, and a new industrial plan was made to create greater efficiency and productivity. In 1771, Louis XV appointed Claude-Nicholas Ledoux, a prominent Parisian architect, Commissioner of the Salt Works of Lorraine and Franché-Comté. He was responsible for inspecting the different saltworks in eastern France, and to learn how to design a factory from scratch.

So the plan evolved that the salt brine would be shipped to a central location to be processed, and Ledoux set out to design the first company town in Arc-et-Senans where the work would be done. His design was quite grand, featuring the saltworks as the heart of an Ideal City which he imagined and designed encircling the factory. The unfinished Utopian vision was only partly completed, but we can see the scope of his vision from the original plan and the model. What actually exists is shown last, also as a model.

Today it all looks rather austere and institutional. Ledoux built many other famous buildings, shown in model form here, and we kept expecting to see the White House among them. Surely his designs had some influence on Charles L’Enfant. Will have to ask our architect friends.

At any rate, here is the reality of the Royal Saltworks today. Lots of exhibit and special event space, along with the Institute that deals with Ledoux’s work. The windows all have the dripping brine motif, which I personally wouldn’t want to live with. But it was a major step forward in dealing with the changes of an industrialized society.

While salt and its production are indeed fascinating, the star of our day was the home of Louis Pasteur in the town of Arbois. You will remember that we saw his birthplace a few days ago, in the town of Dole. When he was five, his family moved to Arbois, and it remained his home and his country refuge for the rest of his life.

We had the great good fortune to have the house to ourselves for a self-guided tour. It was eerie being able to open the doors to each room and feel that someone from the family had just left before us. The culmination was the laboratory, and that was thrilling. A wonderful house museum, so well-preserved.

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