The ice factory developed on the banks of Lake Sylans, with its very pure water, in the late 19th century. Step back 140 years in time to one of the biggest natural ice harvesting sites, and listen to the story of an amazing industrial heritage! Relive a time when fridges and freezers didn’t exist…
Joachim Moinat, the pioneer
In 1864, Joachim Moinat, the owner of the Café du Paradis business in Nantua, had the idea to harvest the ice from Lake Sylans. He started small, contenting himself with extracting just enough to supply his customers.
In 1869, he built a real ice harvesting factory with the permission of the municipalities of Le Poizat and Les Neyrolles, and had a path to the Lyon-Geneva road created. He sold the Café du Paradis in 1871 to concentrate on the Buffet de la Gare and ice production. From 1873 onwards, a prefectural decree allowed Joachim Moinat to officially operate the lake's railway station.
A shrewd entrepreneur, he made the most of the extension of the railway line from La Cluse to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine in 1882, having it connected to the ice factory in 1883. This allowed him to export the goods to Lyon, Paris and even Algiers.
On 17 January 1884, Joachim Moinat sold his business to the Société des Glacières de Paris.
Galcières de Sylans café paradis
Glacières de Sylans recolte glace double drague 1 et 2
ICE, A LUXURY PRODUCT
In Antiquity, the use of ice became popular in the upper echelons of society. Used for preservation purposes as well as in food and drink, ice became a must in the royal courts of Europe over the centuries. In the Renaissance, Catherine de’ Medici imported the trend for sorbets, which became widespread from the 18th century onwards.
How ice was packed
At first, the blocks were transported in 3-tonne cars pulled by three or four horses each. They were insulated in double wood frames covered in 20 to 30 centimetres of straw.
Later, packing methods improved thanks to jute cloths covered with straw and tarpaulin sheets bearing the instruction “ne pas différer” (“do not delay”). The wagons travelled at night when possible in order to limit losses. With all these precautions, a relatively small amount of ice was lost: out of every 10 tonnes of ice leaving Sylans, 8 reached their destination in Paris.
Glacières de Sylans photo 1880 construction du chemin de fer
Glacières de Sylans tunel et wagons 1907
Glacières de Sylans voir ferrée et 1er batiment BD
Glacières de Sylans batiments et wagons vides BD
The connection to the railway
In 1883, the ice factory was connected to the PLM (Paris-Lyon-Marseille) railway network. The tracks ran through the buildings. Two external tracks were used for loading ice onto the wagons during very large harvests in winter.
With railway transport, the ice factory enjoyed remarkable growth: on average, twenty to thirty cars carrying ten tonnes each left Sylans every day. In good years, around fifty wagons were dispatched every day. Their destination: Lyon, Paris, the big French cities and even Algiers.
The takeover by the Société des Glacières de Paris paved the way for industrial development. From 1890 to 1900, the timber buildings necessary for storing ice and organising labour were replaced by large stone structures that still stand today. This rationalised activity meant that in good years, between 20 and 30 wagons containing 10 tonnes of ice could be sent out every day.
DIMENSIONS OF THE BIG ICEHOUSE
140 metres long
30 metres wide
12 metres tall
Storage capacity: 40,000 tonnes
Development of an ice factory
Between the time when the ice was harvested and the time when it was consumed, it was essential to find a place to store it. First, ice wells were used, then icehouses made of wood or stone. Storage was based on a simple principle: thermal insulation for limiting heat transfer with the expeditor. This is why the first icehouses were entirely or semi-underground.
Glacières de Sylans glacieres en bois en 1883
Glacières de Sylans batiments avant 1905
Glacières de Sylans vue generale
Glacières de Sylans vue d ensemble batiments
Glacières de Sylans batiments annexes
1869: stone icehouses with thatched roofs
1875: several wooden icehouses
1885 to 1910: 4 stone constructions
Architecture of the Sylans ice factory
Although the first buildings were humble to say the least, they were improved considerably within the next fifty years.
The walls of the first wooden buildings had two double layers with a 30 cm gap in between for air circulation to help with insulation. This way, the ice could be stored until summer.
The business soon prospered and the buildings had to be extended. In 1905, the storage room of the big icehouse (in front of you) is covered with a concrete slab (“Hennebique system”, the earliest reinforced concrete), on which a layer of straw provides thermal insulation. The openings are placed on the north façade to keep the building cool.
Difficult working conditions
In very cold weather, the ice could grow 5 cm thicker in one night and boats circulated constantly to prevent the channel from closing up. The beards and moustaches that nearly all the men had invariably froze and were dotted with chunks of ice. To keep their feet “warm”, they were kitted out with leather boots with nailed-on wooden soles.
Glacières de Sylans drague 4recolte glace
Glacières de Sylans recolte 3
Glacières de Sylans recolte 2
Glacières de Sylans equipe ouvriers permanents en 1894
From 6 am to 6 pm, stopping for an hour to eat
From 6 pm to 6 am, stopping for an hour around midnight
Organisation of labour
The men worked seven days a week. The workers from Le Poizat took about an hour to reach the ice factory, depending on snow levels. They took a very steep path called the “sentier de la soupe”.
The luckier workers (the ones who worked near the buildings) had their meal break in a heated canteen. Those who worked at the far end of the lake used a little wooden shack near the railway line.
From the 1910s onward, the business stagnated then declined irremediably due to the increasing competition from artificial ice, milder winters and above all France joining the war in 1914.
Those employees who had not gone off to war continued harvesting ice. The last harvest took place from 30 January to 10 February 1917. The Glacières de Paris abandoned the site to focus on artificial ice production.
In 1926, when the operating lease came to an end, the Glacières de Paris returned the buildings they had been allocated for a term of 50 years to the municipalities.
Glacières de Sylans les ruines en 1940
Glacières de Sylans ruines en 1950
The end of the Glacières de Sylans
Charles Roget - Ouvrier aux Glacières de Sylans
En 1914, à la déclaration de la guerre, mon père a été mobilisé ; la direction des Glacières de Paris, en échange du maintien du salaire de mon père, a demandé à ma mère de continuer...
The site is adapted to free, non-guided visits (the ice quarries are accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). You can also book a guided visit at the Tourist Office.
With the “Haut-Bugey Moments” guided visits in summer
All through the summer, the Haut-Bugey Tourist Office organises guided visits to the ice quarries on Saturday evenings at 8.30 pm and Sunday mornings at 10 am. Adults: €7.50 / Children (ages 7 to 12): €3.50