Exploring the “plans inclinés”

Hiking distance : 9, 10, 15, 11 and 10 km ; Hiking time : 3 to 4 1/2 hours
information panel at les Pinèdes
info panel a the Pinèdes tower

Just north-west of Alès, these five different walking routes explore the ruins and visible remains of the “plans inclinés”, a nineteenth century mountain rail transport system built to move coal from the remote Broussous valley to a railhead in La Levade. The network was operated between 1859 and 1867, just 8 short years before being abandoned (and then swiftly dismantled) in favour of conventional rail transport. (read about the system here.) The area covered by these walks includes the Broussos valley, the mountain pass at Portes, the Pereyrols ridge above La Vernarède, the Pinèdes valley and the Luminières valley.
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Graveyard sheet steel

cemetary in La Vernarède
cemetary la Vernarède
According to different sources the little used french word “cabistous” is a regional term used in the Ardèche department meaning lean-to, small cabin or garden shelter. In the coal mining area around Alès, in the 19th century, many “ardechois” came to work in the booming coal industry. Towns were created where none existed before, and the ardechois settled in, bringing their regional expressions and their families.

In the mining industry, sheet steel was readily available, but marble gravestones would have been costly for modest families. As a result, many cemeteries (eg. those in Portes and in La Vernarède) contain small sheet steel structures standing over family burial plots. These structures were called “cabistous”. Some were very finely decorated, while others remained simple and basic. Many have been abandoned by the families who have no doubt left the mining area to seek fortunes elsewhere.
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Nineteenth century coal and the “plans inclinés”

information panel at les Pinèdes
information panel at les Pinèdes

Coal mines, railroads, businessmen and engineers

The story of the “plans inclinés” starts around 1853. Coal mining was already in progress in the Alès basin and coal was found in a number of localities, including La Vernarède – an off-the-track village in the shadow of the Portes castle. The village found itself in the middle of a coal mining boom when several deposits of coal were located in the Broussous valley. Mining coal is one thing. Getting it to market was quite another.
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A coal mining valley

Hiking distance : 10.6 km km ; Hiking time : 03:00
former mine workshops : Pourcharesses
former mine workshops : Pourcharesses

La Vernarède was a coal mining town in the second half of the 19th century and is now a sleepy village at the bottom of a deep valley below the Portes castle. In a companion article, I provide the background to a remarkable coal transport system called “les plans inclinés” that started in La Vernarède and transported coal over 2 mountain passes and an intervening valley to a railhead at La Levade. In this article, I describe a pleasant walk through the Vernarède valley in September where we spotted a number of interesting trees and plants and a few vestiges of the coal mining past. Continue reading “A coal mining valley”