History – The construccion work on the Northen dock and the Ribera quays

The construccion work on the Northen dock and the Ribera quays

Almost thirty years after the first preliminary project on the port of refuge at El Musel, the engineer Fracisco Lafarga presented a new project for the port at El Musel in August 1891 that was to be approved that same year. This involved building a large seawall (Norte dock), more or less perpendicular to the coastline and a coastal or shoreline quay (Ribera quay). The building of the Norte dock was awarded to Lázaro Ballesteros in April 1892. The tender to build the Ribera quay was awarded to Antonio Arango in 1895.

The work should have begun on 6th August 1892, although the difficulties involving the sharp Torres cliffside hindered the layout work and the corresponding record was not signed until 9th October 1893, with the dock rockfill caisson work beginning on 13th January 1894.

The Norte Dock designed by Lafarga measured 1051 metres in length and consisted of three sections: an initial, curved section measuring 657 metres in length, followed by a straight section measuring 364 metres in length and finally a 30 metre-long end. The constructive section of the first part of the dock was made up of two walls built using concrete blocks with an 18-metre gap between interior walls, connected every 30 metres by other cross-sectional walls and with the intermediate spaces filled with paving to define a 24.50 metre wide surface for ship loading and unloading. The straight part of the dock was made up of a single wall.

The delay in complete the work on the Lafarga project, together with the lack of coordination in the work by the two contractors was to lead the mining industrialists to become promoters and contractors of the new port infrastructure, constituting the Sindicato Asturiano del Puerto del Musel as a subsidiary of Crédito Industrial Gijonés in August 1900. The new company took over all the work awarded to the two contractors that very year and appointed the engineer Alejandro Olano as their technical manager. In November 1901, the Directorate General for Public Works authorised the engineer Olano to draft a reformed project to modify the foundations of the dock walls and the size of the blocks forming them to make its construction feasible.

From then on, the work on the new port progressed quickly, with commercial activities beginning in 1907. In June of that same year, work on the 8-kilometre Compañía del Ferrocarril de Langreo branch line of the was completed. This ran from Sotiello through the Aboño valley and reached the start of the Norte dock where the first wagon loading bay on the El Musel railway was built by commission to the company.

The work awarded underwent another two Reformed projects to adapt them to the demands of traffic. Hence, the 597 metres of quayside attached to the Norte Dock soon seemed insufficient for commercial operations and Olano presented a Second Reformed project that enlarged it by another 342.21 metres to give a berthing length of 939.21 metres. With the proposed Reform there was only 10 metres to the end of the dock. Therefore, Olano requested its length be enlarged by 500 metres to ensure calm waters at the berth, which was denied. It was not until 1926 that Eduardo Castro, the Head Engineer of the Port Site Board, designed and awarded this extension, the work on the Norte Dock finally being completed in 1930, 36 years after they began and 38 years after the tender were first awarded. The design of the Norte Dock extension included the vertical wall made of floating concrete caissons with a base of 20 x 15 metres and a height of 11.30 metres. An advanced, innovative technique at that time that was then to be used normally at El Musel to build the quays.

There were many mishaps, breakdowns and accidents over the 36 years that it took to build the Norte Dock, mostly due to the winter storms and the use of the Torres quarry to obtain material for the work. Among these was the accident that occurred on 12th October 1912 in which Alejandro Olano and 4 workers lost their lives when trying to protect the Titan crane at the end of the site that positioned the 80-ton concrete blocks to make the walls of the Norte Dock from the storm. The worst accident occurred in the quarry on 25th February 1913 when a blast killed head engineer Victoriano Alvargonzález and 21 workers and onlookers.

As well as constructing the Norte dock, Sindicato del Musel was also awarded the Ribera Quay that, starting from the berth of the dock, stretched lengthways south over a length of 1,272.70 metres. As site manager, Olano also proposed a reform to this project so that its quays were of a greater draught. He proposed the construction of three alignments, now known as the Ribera alignments, and a breakwater, Espigón I.

Right from the start, El Musel was designed as a port in which railway traffic played a leading role. Furthermore, in specialising in the loading of coal and in view of the lack of a land-based service area where the coal could be stored, it was loaded directly from the mines to the port itself by means of wagon convoys until the Aboño valley was established as a classifying station, with wagon loading bays being built on the quays from the very start by private initiative. As mentioned above, the first loading bay was that of Langreo on the Norte dock berth, which began operations in 1907 with a branch line that crossed Cape Torres through a tunnel. During its first year of operations, the new port recorded total movements of 280,000 tons of cargo. This railway infrastructure was to be enlarged shortly afterwards by another two branch lines from Aboño, run by Ferrocarril del Noroeste (wide track) and Sociedad Minas de Hierro y Ferrocarril de Carreño (narrow track). The second high loading bay, locally known as el embudo (the funnel), began operating on the third Ribera alignment in 1910 by tender to Sindicato del Musel and was connected directly to these branch lines. Coal from the Caudal basin reached the port along the north-western railway line and iron ore from the Arnao mines arrived along the Carreño line. El Sindicato was also awarded another tender to build a loading bay on the 2nd alignment, known as “los calderos” (the cauldrons).

The extension and consolidation work planned in the different projects continued after the port had been commercially opened. The work on Espigón I was completed in 1913 and the Ferry Terminal was completed on its four alignments in 1923, the first two being opened to traffic in 1928. At the end of 1930, the second alignment of the Ferry Terminal began operating a new loading bay known as Parque de Carbones, which helped shorten the long stay of coaler steamships and from which up to 25% of all the coal leaving the port was loaded.

In terms of the main port traffic, right from the start the most important was the exporting of coal, which represented 80% of the cargo moved, distantly followed by the unloading of the iron ore used by the regional iron and steel plants and the entry of wood for the mines following the boom in the sector as a result of increased demand during the First World War. As of 1914, the sea trade in Gijón was given another boost through the raising of freightage and the increase in coal exports. In 1922, total cargo movements in El Musel stood at 1,218,558 tons and reached a maximum of 2,638,686 tons in 1929 before dropping to 2,017,177 tons in 1935.

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