The Basque Country is one of the most prosperous regions in southern Europe. With approximately 2 million inhabitants, this region in the north of the Iberian Peninsula is formed of three provinces (Álava, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa). The industrialisation process started in 1841, coinciding with the move of ... more
The Basque Country is one of the most prosperous regions in southern Europe. With approximately 2 million inhabitants, this region in the north of the Iberian Peninsula is formed of three provinces (Álava, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa). The industrialisation process started in 1841, coinciding with the move of the Spanish customs posts to the coast and the border with France. A series of factors favoured the economic modernisation of the region: easy access to central Spain, the existence in Bilbao of the best maritime port in the Cantabrian Sea and the valuable iron ore deposits, which were decisive in the industrial development of the Basque Country.
Nevertheless, the industrialisation of the Basque Country did not proceed at the same rate in the three Basque provinces, Álava, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa. Consequently, the industrial heritage handed down is extremely rich and varied..
Bizkaia has been characterised by massive mining of its iron ore resources and the expansion of heavy industry through major industrial businesses located in the vicinity of the Bilbao Estuary. The three-way combination of the “mining – iron and steel - naval construction” industries has defined the industrial structure of Bizkaia.
The impact of the British demand for iron ore with a low phosphorus content (ideal for producing Bessemer steel) fostered the development of the most important iron and steel industry in the South of Europe. Linked to this, another key sector of the industrial development of Bizkaia was maritime transport. From the beginning of the 20th century, a modern fleet of iron-hull vessels was built for exporting the iron ore and Bessemer steel ingots to England, Belgium and France.
The most representative industrial activity of Bizkaia was perhaps the iron and steel industry. The foundries gave way to modern iron and steelworks, first with blast furnaces fired by charcoal and then by coal. Following the invention of the Bessemer procedure, iron ore with a low phosphorus content such as was found in the Bizkaia mines attracted the attention of foreign capitalists, and was exported in large quantities mainly to England. However, the local bourgeoisie also began to invest in the construction of local iron and steel plants located in the vicinity of the Bilbao Estuary. Of these, the main industrial company in the Basque Country was Altos Hornos de Vizcaya, the largest iron and steel works in the South of Europe and a symbol of Basque industrialisation.
The vicinity of the Bilbao Estuary was one of the largest industrial concentrations in Europe, making a significant contribution to defining the present-day character and nature of Basque Society. The strength, work and energy that was once found along the fifteen kilometres of the Estuary assume a unique value as they were witness to a tough but epic past. The industrial heritage that marks both banks of the Estuary, linked to the fact that it is situated in a mining zone, is a silent witness to what was once a scene of intense industrial and mining activity. The former mines, factories, machinery, railways, quays, docks and loading bays which remain are of great historical, cultural, technological, social and scientific value and also have significant potential for tourism.
The No 1 Blast Furnace of Altos Hornos de Vizcaya in Sestao, the Pabellón Ilgner in Barakaldo and Bizkaia Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, cannot be understood in isolation from the work in foundries such as that of El Pobal or that of the miners in La Arboleda or la Corta Bodovalle, located in the Basque Country Mining Museum. Nor is it possible to describe the industrial development of the Basque Country without including the industrial bourgeoisie who built their luxury mansions in Getxo, and the thousands of workers who settled in working-class neighbourhoods all along the left bank of the Bilbao Estuary. And of course the naval sector which converted the Bilbao estuary into the lifeline of the Basque Country with the trading of products and raw materials and from which a rich heritage has been conserved in the vicinity of the Ría de Bilbao Maritime Museum.
On the other hand in Gipuzkoa small and medium-sized companies were more predominant. These were often family-run, and offered greater sectoral versatility and they helped to boost and promote the area in the regional and Spanish market. They includeda varied range of metal processing together with textile, paper, arms, consumer goods and cement industries.
Although smaller in size compared to the Bizkaian plants, an important iron and steel industry was also developed from the mining of different reserves. These include the Zerain, Mutiloa, Arditurri and Irugurutzeta mines, all of which can be visited today. Similarly, the earlier forging tradition of these plants was of great significance in Gipuzkoa, in particular Mirandaola forgery in Legazpi, one of the main industrial areas of Gipuzkoa. Here it is possible to visit the workers’ route, the Agorregi Mills and Ironworks in Beasain, the origin of today's powerful railway industry, perfectly represented in one of the best railway museums in Spain, the Basque Railway Museum in Azpeitia, or Agorregi foundry, in the heart of Pagoeta Natural Park.
The firearms sector is also an important part of the metal processing industry. Pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns are the main products manufactured, particularly in Eibar, Elgoibar, Soraluze and Ermua. At the start of the 20th century, these cities experienced a transformation in their industrial activities moving towards the manufacture of new products following the arms crisis. The move tended towards the manufacture of bicycles, sewing machines, domestic appliances and machine tools. This process of transformation and reinvention can be visited and discovered in the Eibar Arms Industry Museum and Elgoibar Machine Tool Museum.
The naval sector was also a feature of industrialisation in Gipuzkoa, although this assumed a more traditional profile and was linked to the fishing industry. Pasaia Bay, the location of the Albaola Basque Maritime Factory and the Eko-Activo Mater ship, is one of the most typical maritime settings of Guipuzcoan industrialisation, not to mention the Basque Maritime Museum found in the historic fishing port of Donostia-San Sebastián.
Although nowadays Vitoria-Gasteiz is the industrial capital of the Basque Country, Álava, unlike its sister provinces, did not start to become industrialised until the first half of the 20th century when the characteristic sectors of the Second Industrial Revolution including the oil, chemicals, car and electricity industries started to develop. Nevertheless, historically Álava was important for the development and expansion of the agrifood sector: the flour industry, winemaking, spirits and liquors, sugar and the salt mines. On the one hand there was the former factory of Ajuria and Urigoitia, manufacturer of agricultural machinery, and which installed the first blast furnaces in the Basque Country and, on the other hand, Añana Salt Valley, 30 km from Vitoria-Gasteiz, one of the oldest industries in the world as salt has been produced here for more than 7000 years.
In spite of the differences in the industrialisation process in the three Basque provinces, the Basque regional route connects 33 interesting sites which are the best examples of its rich industrial heritage. These museums and landscapes summarise and explain the industrial sectors which were key to the social and economic development of the Basque Country: from mining landscapes to foundries and iron and steel works, via the naval and agrifood industries, and not forgetting civil engineering and the railways. All these elements have shaped a unique landscape which deserves to be preserved, presented and passed on to future generations as well as visitors wishing to find out more about our history.
Consequently, there is no specific start point for the route. Each of the three provinces may have their own start point. In any case, the common theme for understanding industrialisation in the Basque Country must start with iron ore mining and its processing in the ancient forgeries and then in the iron and steel works, its trade and transport to foreign markets and its transformation into consumer goods for the regional market. Finally, it is worth mentioning that a large number of different initiatives in the region have joined forces to conserve and present their industrial heritage. Their networks and websites are full of additional interesting information.