France. A journey through the past industrial culture of the Oisans. My “Urban Exploration” tour (Urbex) takes me to the French Alps in the footsteps of the great industrialists Keller and Leleux. These two entrepreneurs, originally from Bretagne, settled in the area around 1900.
Once a high place of industry at the beginning of the 20th century, today only a few buildings remind us of the past industry in Oisans. A ramble through the snow-covered mountain landscapes.
Located in the south-east of France, the area is deep in the French Alps. Between the cities of Grenoble and Briancon, the departments of the Isère and the Hauts-Alpes slumbers the history of a past industrial culture. The area is mainly located around the mountain river “Romanche” where the important hydroelectric power stations for the production of electricity were located. The natural area “Parc des Écrins” also includes a part of the Oisans.
On a winter Urbex journey through the past industrial culture of the Oisans
Abandoned industrial ruins lurk everywhere on the snow-covered country road, which winds through the mountains on steep rocky slopes. Without winter tires, no getting through is possible. The road is slippery and it snows constantly. Impressive icicles adorn the milky glassy rock faces. From a distance a small avalanche glides down the steep slope.
I am concentrating on the car ride when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spot the first remnants of past industrial culture in the Oisans.
My journey begins in the village of Séchilienne. Built into the rock at the side of the road, two mysterious round arches jut into the mountain. Moss-covered stone steps hint at an ancient path. A sign shows the area as private property. I decide to follow the road of the six valleys (“Route des Six Vallées“) for now.
The small commune of Livet-et-Gavet consists of three villages, which fulfilled different tasks in the sense of the industrial culture of the Oisans. The principal sectors were electrical engineering, hydroelectricity and metallurgy. In addition, there was paper processing in the form of paper fabrics.
The road through Gavet leads past a still active factory of Ferropem, which serves for the extraction and processing of metal. There is an electronic scoreboard on the factory site, which is visible from the outside. 132 days without an incident that required the machines to be shut down. The factory is the largest employer in the 1300-person community of Livet-et-Gavet. Its walls are covered with wildly colorful graffiti. Across the road I spot the snowy shape of a tennis court. This belongs to an old mansion that once housed the upscale employees.
The housing policy in Gavet was characterized by a huge workers’ barracks. Each big industrialist and entrepreneur decided on the design of the small urban settlements. Churches and cinemas, as well as the first social insurance schemes, promised a comfortable future for the migrant workers, and so the community Livet-et-Gavet experienced a brisk influx. From one end at the height of Gavet to Rioupéroux in the centre and Livet at the other end: man had made nature his own.
Urbex through Rioupéroux: a small village in the centre of the past industrial culture of Oisans
Ahead of me, Rioupéroux appears dull and grey on the horizon. I arrive at the central village of the small commune of Livet-et-Gavet. Its word origin Rioupéroux possibly comes from the local dialect, meaning stony torrent.
At the “Place du Musée” I park my car and get out. In front of me is the local library, as well as a small museum. Perfectly fitting the theme of my trip, it is about the industrial culture of the Oisans running along the mountain river of the Romanche. Unfortunately, the“Musée de la Romanche” is closed due to winter and corona.
The influence of the past industrial culture is perceptible through the planning of the village of Rioupéroux. Unique for its time, the village was conceived socially “horizontally”. Emphasis was placed on small houses with gardens and comfort. The most comfortable housing units were allocated to the workforce, who took on the most responsibility. This was to bind the workforce to the factories and the company.
In its heyday, the village was home to several bakeries, shops and cafés. These formed the central points of exchange. The aluminium factory which lasted throughout the century steadily emptied from the 80s onwards. From 1992 parts of the factories were demolished.
Urbex in the French Alps: the industrial culture of the Oisans lurks along the river
Along the mountain river of the Romanche, the first industries had settled from 1816. The use of water power had long played an important role in this remote area of France.
Around the village of Rioupéroux, a steelworks company had already settled at that time. The wild mountain river offered itself as an ideal source of energy. At the beginning operated with ordinary mills, which showed little efficiency. Less than a hundred years later, the industrialists Keller-Leleux, as well as Henri Gall and Paul Lacroix, settled in Oisans. Advances in hydro energy revolutionized the output. Hydroplants and the Dam of Chambon were built…
Urbex – In search of the past industrial culture of the Oisans. Lunch break!
It’s noon and the only open restaurant in Rioupéroux is the kebab shop “Le Libertad”. Somehow sympathetically, the head of Che Guevara at the entrance stings your eyes. The fast food restaurant is designed in Cuban style. The owner is a big fan of Cuba and has been there twice before.
Originally, an Algerian IT engineer, during his career, he has worked all over the world on various oil drilling platforms at sea and in the desert. About half a year ago, he decided to settle down here. He is happy with the rural life. Village life here is quiet. Even if, because of the Corona pandemic, guests are staying away and this is putting a strain on his business.
With no supermarket, Semir’s village shop is an important exchange point. Everyone knows him here. Most of the inhabitants here have Algerian roots and form a close-knit village community. Due to the former factories of Keller and Lelieux, the area saw a strong influx of people from Italy, Poland, Russia and later the Maghreb during its heyday. The industry disappeared during the 20th century, but the working families remained.
I set off on the last stage of my Urbex discovery of the industrial heritage of the Oisans. At the end of the village of Rioupéroux, I come across the head of the French Sun King Louis XVI, a local curiosity! Historically, the small town of Vizilles, not far away, was an important place of the French Revolution. Possibly the rock got its name then?
The last stage of my Urbex tour through the past industrial culture in the Oisans leads me…
…To the residence of the great industrialists Keller and Leleux
No one left his mark on the Oisans valley like the engineer, inventor and industrialist Charles-Albert Keller. The entrance to the village of Livet leads to the unique Keller-Leleux residence. It was built in 1912. The house, known as “Le Pavillon Keller“, is situated between the country road that bypasses the village and the Romanche. In the depths of winter, between falling snowflakes, it unfolds a charm reminiscent of past industrial culture like no other.
When I arrive at the house, I meet an elderly couple taking photos. They are from the region, but they don’t live in this village.
“C’est trop glauque“, says the blonde woman with a laugh, before the two get back in their car and drive away. “Glauque” is a special word for dreary and sinister. The bygone era of an industry, it leaves only gray houses and empty buildings.
Even a hundred years later, the office of the great industrialist hovers ghostly several feet above the ground. The last floor juts out into the garden, supported by concrete stilts. Facing the river, it made it possible to oversee the surroundings. According to stories, Keller could use it to monitor the smoke emissions from his factories. Today the house is sparsely inhabited. A visit is unfortunately not possible.
The house became famous in the thriller “The Crimson Rivers” by Mathieu Kassovitz, in which the well-known French actor Jean Reno plays. In the feature film, inspector Pierre Niémans is sent to the rugged French Alps to solve a murder…
Urbex in France: the romanticism of industrial ruins and its culture in Oisans
During his lifetime, the way of life in Livet was paternalistically organized with Charles-Albert Keller as the head. His engineers lived with him in the same house with their families. There were also two-story residences for other important employees. The ordinary workers were left only with the barracks.
There were also differences in priorities between the workers, who liked to work in the factories in winter, but preferred farming in summer. The peculiarities of the mountain river meant that there was less water in winter and therefore less electricity. Conversely, summer was long the high season for Keller and Leleux’s entrepreneurial endeavors.
Meanwhile, other people have taken up and appropriated these decaying buildings. Whether coming from the big cities of Grenoble, Lyon and Briancon or the Oisans area. The graffiti of Ivory, Yum, ONG and BNT are everywhere along my way. According to the tracks, year after year new sprayers immortalize themselves on this residential ruin.
Who was the great industrialist Charles-Albert Keller?
Charles-Albert Keller was born on January 1, 1874. After studying engineering at the Arts et Métiers college of Angers and some time in the French navy, he devoted himself to the development of blast furnaces. In 1889, at the age of 25, he designed one of the first electric arc furnaces for steel processing (Persee). His inventions in the field of steel alloys and refinements marked the beginning of his career.
Shortly before the turn of the century, he was working in Paris as a consulting engineer for metallurgy. When he meets the engineer Leleux and the latter becomes his partner around 1900, this is the beginning of the Keller-Leleux industrial culture in the Oisans. An abandoned factory in Livet became their first point of contact with the area. From 1908, he also became an elected representative of the Chamber of Commerce of Grenoble and even its president in 1930. As a result, he will wield a significant influence in the area.
In 1940, the great industrialist Charles-Albert Keller dies. He is buried in the cemetery of Livet-et-Gavet. It marks a turning point in the industrial culture of the Oisan. After the Second World War, his hydroelectric power plants are taken over by EDF (Électricité de France). Its steel and aluminium factories are bought up until eventually they too dim the lights and capitulate.
Between the turmoil of the First World War, Keller inaugurated the first hydroelectric power station of Livet-Les Vernes in 1918. Keller paid particular attention to the architectural design. It was intended to leave its mark on the landscape. With its contemporary ornamentation, the listed power station is a reminder of the splendour of Oisan’s past industrial culture.
Most of the remains of the industrial culture of the Oisans are not accessible nowadays. Above all, interior photographs of power plants, as system-critical infrastructure are forbidden. Some of the factories, such as the FEROCEM in Gavet, are still active. Other buildings are also in interim use. Economically, however, the area has been slow to recover.
My Urbex journey through the industrial culture of the Oisans ends at the Chambon dam.
I get back into my car. Snow has been announced for the return journey. Somewhat anxiously, I watch the temperatures steadily drop up the slopes to the dam from Lac de Chambon,. The winding road leads up the mountainside. To my left, the steep slope drops down into the valley.
A tunnel before the dam a car creeps in front of me. As it pulls to the side of the road at the end of the tunnel, I discover it has a flat on its front left tire. Between snowdrifts and slippery roads, I stop briefly at the parking lot of the artificial lake of Lac du Chambon, without walking to the other side of the dam.
The dam from Lac du Chambon was completed in 1928-1935. The undertaking of the gigantic project originated largely from the undertakings of Keller. Since the mountain river did not carry enough water in winter, the factories lost efficiency. This affected all entrepreneurs. Thanks to the dam, all the factories located in the lower and middle parts of the Romanche were able to use the hydropower even in winter.
The star architect behind this gigantic monster is Edmé Campenon (1872-1962). This concrete construction stretches over a length of 964 feet (294 meters). Of the gravity dam type, it consists of a heavyweight wall. In the form of a retaining wall, the dam is built into the gently sloping valley flanks of the mountain. The wall facing the artificial lake’s weight runs vertically and thus holds back the water masses. At the lower end, the width of the concrete dam is a full 229 feet (70 metres). The concrete was produced in the surrounding area, “on site”. For the construction of the structure, the villages Chambon, Dauphin and Parizet had to make way for the infrastructure.
But the project was not without risk to body and soul. In 1923, the Gleno dam burst in Italy. On the morning of a December, a 229-feet crack had formed in the concrete, binding the water in a reservoir. The released flood wave spilled apocalyptically over the valley of Dezzo. A 25-kilometer-long swath of destruction. Including five factories, several villages and over 600 dead. Concerned about what was happening on the other side of the border, France sent a commission of inquiry. The negligent mistakes in the construction of the dam of Gleno are noted and avoided in the construction of the dam of Chambon. Nevertheless, the dam is always in need of important maintenance work.
Urbex-less way of discovering the industrial culture of Oisans : the Musée EDF Hydrélec
The museum of the French electricity company EDF about hydro energy is located “Route du Lac – Le Verney, Vaujany 38114“. To get there, follow the Route de l’Oisans (D1091) to the village of Rochetaillé and then to the village of Vaujany at the other end of the Lac du Verney.
The exhibition goes back to the beginnings of hydroelectric power at the end of the 19th century. The automation of these power stations is also covered in an arc of developments in the following century.
Also worth discovering: The Museum Chasal Lento
Another recommended museum on industrial culture in Oisans is the “Musée Chasal Lento” in the mountain village Mont-de-Lans. The exhibitions focus on the local art and traditions of the Oisan area. One of the main exhibits is dedicated to the construction of the dam of Lac de Chambon. It houses an archive of old photographs of the past industrial culture and way of life.
You know someone who is interested in past industrial culture? Send them the article!
The contents refer to the following main sources:
– Article on Persee.fr: “La mise en mémoire de l’aventure industrielle d’une vallée alpine (Isère). Le musée de la Romanche” by Marie-Christine Bailly-MaîtreLaurencePissard, published in 2005 in the local.ethnological revue: Le Monde alpin et rhodanien. Revue régionale d’ethnologie (pages 191-200)
-A detailed blog post by Grenoble-cularo on Overblog (Worth seeing for the archive photos!)-
-The book “Un barrage et des hommes – Chambon – Dans l’ombre d’un géant” published by the Freyentique association documenting the history of the Chambon dam
The disaster of the Gleno dam in Italy and its impact on the Chambon dam:
-Article Persee.fr: “La catastrophe de Gleno (Italie) et le barrage de Chambon (Oisans)” Raoul Blanchard Revue de Géographie Alpine Année 1924 12-4 pages 669-673