Red faces museum in Tourves

Musée des Gueules Rouges - Tourves

Why present this museum in a heritage railway blog?

Because this museum is about bauxite in the Brignoles area and transporting bauxite was an important part of the Gardanne - Carnoules railway's activities. For more than half a century is was the only transport activity.

Bauxite is a rock where the alumine, from which aluminium is manufactured, is found in high concentration (55 - 65 %). It was in 1822 discovered near the village of Les Baux north of Marseille by a French chemist when he was searching for iron ore. Bauxite was named after this village.

The colour of the rock varies from almost white via yellow to red, depending on the degree of its contents of iron oxide.

Bauxite is the raw material for the manufacturing of aluminium according to a process invented in the 1860s. Bauxite mining was for a century one of the most important parts of the economy in the Brignoles area.

The rise and fall of bauxite mining in the Brignoles area

The first known bauxite mining activity started in the mine of Combecave near Cabasse, northeast of Brigoles, in the late 1870s, prior to the opening of the Gardanne - Carnoules line in October 1880.

Combecave, north of Cabasse
 The size of the activities grow and in 1896 there were 25 mines, of which 20 open-air, opened with 150 workers.

Aluminium works were built in Gardanne (1894) and in the Marseille area some ten years later.

The Brignoles area was for a century the main source of bauxite in France and even for a period prior to WW1 the largest in the world. The mining activities were economically very important for the communes concerned and their populations, which also saw an influx of workers from other countries, Italy, Spain, ...

The Gardanne to Carnoules railway line played an essential role in these mining activities.

Important mines were located at
  •     La Brasque, between the villages of Bras and Le Val, norhtwest of Brignoles
  •     Péliquon, east of, just outside, Brignoles
  •     Cabasse, between Carcès and Cabasse, northeast of Brignoles
  •     Le Thoronet, south of Abbaye du Thoronet, east of the previous mine
  •     Saint Julien, southeast of Tourves
  •     Mazaugues, south of Tourves
The bauxite was by various means transported to and loaded on trains in Brignoles, Les Cenciés and Tourves, on the Gardanne-Carnoules line and in Le Cannet (from the Le Thoronet mines).

Narrow gauge Tourves - Mazaugues

One of the more important bauxite deposits were located some 10 km south of Tourves, not far from Mazaugues. At the end of the 19th century, the transport of bauxite was done with horse and cart.

Increasing complaints about the roads being deteriorated by the heavy traffic forced the mine companies to look for other transportation means. Two solutions were soon favoured: overhead cable lines and narrow gauge railways. Nither of these required any major infrastructure investments.

The late 19th century and early 20th century saw the introduction of the Decauville system. The major innovation was the use of ready-made sections of light, narrow gauge track fastened to steel sleepers. This track was portable and could be disassembled, transported and reassambled very easily. The French military had selected the system in its 600 mm version in the late 1880-ies. Mining companies, quarries, chemical plants also equipped themselves with this type of railway thanks to the capacity and adaptability of the this means for transportation.

This area had installations for loading of bauxite from Mazaugues mines to railway wagons
 A railway with 700 mm gauge was constructed between the Tourves station and the bauxite mines in the Mazaugues area. The construction of the line started in 1907 and was finished in 1909. The track was laid along the road in direction south-west from Tourves (today road D1) and then south-east towards Mazaugues (today D64). Light 9.5 kg/m rails fastened with screws on wooden sleepers. This permitted a load of 1.5 tons per wagon axle.

Electrical locomotives were chosen for the major part of the line, with a 500 (or 600) volt overhead line. Each wagon could load 2 tons and each train could consist of 10 wagons. Steam engines were used for the transport of loaded wagons from the various mining sites to the end of the electric line. For the tracks to the mining sites, the portable Decauville solution with metal sleepers was used (to allow fast and easy rearrangement of the tracks).

The wagons used were from several manufacturers, including Decauville and Orenstein & Koppel.

The Tourves - Mazaugues railway was in operation until 1925.

"Todt's wall" in Brignoles

Todt's wall today (43.409788,6.054886) amidst modern villas

The German war industry was in strong need for aluminium, but the mines in the Brignoles area did not for various reasons produce the contracted amount or provide enough to meet German demands. The area was under Italian military control, but the Germans controlled the mining activity. In order to increase production and make more effective the transportation, two installations were made at the Brignoles station, still visible today
  • at the southern part of the railway yard, an extended concrete bauxite loading quai, to allow direct charging of bauxite from lorries to rail wagons
  • north of the station yard, a quai (by locals called "Todt's wall") consisting of an elevated concrete discharge platform for narrow gauge (600 mm) wagons, used to charge bauxite directly into standard gauge wagons placed below.
"Todt's wall" was the terminal of the 600 m gauge railway line built by Organisation Todt (OT) in 1943 between Brignoles and the Combecave mines northeast of Cabasse. The trains were hauled by diesel locomotives manufactured by the Arnold Jung locomotive factories in Kirchen, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany.

The line was in use until the landing of the Allied forces on the shores of Var on 15 August 1944 which was the start of the liberation of Provence.

The museum on bauxite in the Brignoles area - called the Museum of the Red Faces (Musée des Gueules Rouges) - was opened in Tourves in 2012.

Museum exhibitions