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Asphalt mines of Travers
The Travers asphalt mines are located in the canton of Neuchâtel at the locality of la Presta. They are old mines that can be visited today accompanied by a guide. Together with the salt mines of Bex, they are the only mines that can be visited permanently in Western Switzerland.
A large parking lot is available next to the mine. A railway stop on request, “La Presta Mines d’asphalte”, serves the mines once or twice an hour.
The visit of the mines starts with a small museum dedicated to the Presta mine and the history of asphalt, it continues with the mine itself on an underground route of about 1 kilometre over the 100 kilometres of gallery in total.
The visits are conducted with a guide in several languages and last about 2 hours. One discovers the work of the miners to extract the rock and take it out of the mine in an environment with a temperature of 8ºC.
Asphalt mines are little known outside Neuchâtel because of their off-centre geographical positions and the type of rock that was mined there. However, they are well worth the detour and are of real historical interest.
Please refer to the website for visiting times.
The price of the tickets is as follows:
- Adult: 16 francs
- Students: 12.50 francs
- Under 16 years of age: 10 francs
One can stop at the mine café to taste the ham baked in the asphalt. The ham is first wrapped firmly in several layers of newspaper and dipped in a vat of molten asphalt at 170 C for 4 hours. The ham is served in its juice with beans and a gratin dauphinois.
The Travers asphalt deposit was discovered in 1711 at a time when the regions of Neuchâtel and Travers were not yet part of Switzerland. It was first mined in open-cast quarries and then the ore was extracted in the Presta mine from 1830 onwards.
The yellow flag of Neuchâtel, while it was part of Prussia in the 18th century, and the current flag of the canton adopted since the mid-19th century with its small white cross to differentiate it from the flag of Italy.
Asphalt has been mined industrially since 1873, when the mines were taken over by an English company. The mine closed in 1986 due to lack of profitability caused by foreign competition and especially by the production of artificial asphalt after the distillation of certain crude oils.
Asphalt in the natural environment is found in geological layers in the form of bitumen mixed with limestone in proportions of 6 to 12%, the bituminous limestone. The miners extracted blocks of rock which they put into small wagons that were taken out of the mine by horses until 1973 before being replaced by machines.
Asphalt could be exported in three forms:
- Boulders of limestone.
- a very fine black powder resulting from the grinding of the rock.
- Hexagonal blocks of 25 kg resulting from the baking of the asphalt powder.
Bitumen and tar
Asphalt should not be confused with bitumen and tar. Bitumen is made up of sand and gravel while tar is a coal derivative, i.e. coal. Thus, to be precise, asphalt mines should be called bitumen mines.
Mining reached its peak at the end of the 19th century with the export of asphalt all over the world such as Paris, London, New York, Rio de Janeiro or Australia mainly for road construction. However, bitumen has been known for millennia for its waterproofing properties for buildings or wooden boat hulls.
For the anecdote, the “macadam” word, coming from the Scots who invented it in the 19th century, is a technique for paving stone roads contrary to the misuse of the word “macadam” today to refer to an asphalt road.
Other mines in Western Switerland
Numerous mines have existed since antiquity and until the middle of the 20th century in Western Switzerland. From that date on, they quickly disappeared because of economic exchanges making the import of ore much cheaper than its local production. Only one remains in operation, the Bex salt mine in the canton of Vaud.
Une vidéo à l’intérieur des mines de Travers.