Sunday, 8 April 2018

Picturesque Ascona and Brissago islands: Dynamite Disaster !

The quiet and picturesque town of Ascona, situated in the heart of Lago Maggiore in the Canton Ticino, had a bolstering dynamite factory in the past. Several explosions and accidents forced to relocate the operations to the islands of Brissago. However, the politics played some role, so that the company moved finally to Varallo Pombia in Novara, Italy. The factory managed to exist long enough, producing half a million of kgs of explosives, mainly used for the construction of the railway tunnel of Gotthard (1872-1882) in Switzerland.

The factory, producing dynamite explosive materials in Ascona, was established in 1873 in the area of Medere, most likely where, at present, is situated the retirement house Belsoggiorno. The factory of Ascona, providing the necessary amount of explosives for the construction works of the Gotthard tunnel, produced Alfred Nobel's dynamite under license and operated under the name of "Chavannes, Brochon and Compagnie", legally registered in Geneva.

Ascona, dynamite production sites
@map.geo,admin.ch - map of 1874
Dynamite production was a sort of alchimist procedure, back in time, resulting in multiple occurrent  disasters and accidents. The first notable accident for Ascona happened on Thursday May 14, 1874. Big explosions took place in two depots with 150 and 250 Litres of nitroglycerine. Its shockwave was so loud that many house windows in Ascona were broken.

Throughout the summer, several accidents continued to affect the production of the factory. The nasty fate of dynamite production in Ascona culminated with a major explosion on December 13, 1874, when houses were shaken as if by a big earthquake, with cracking in walls and ceilings. A subsequent great fire took place in which 4000 kilograms of nitroglycerin were inflamed with a terrible echo of successive explosions, heard in a radius of six km. Worker Federico Cattomio, aged of 23, born in Paris, France, was actively engaged in the prevention of the inflammation and reported killed.

Schw. Bundesblatt on Ascona dynamite
controversy (1875) Link
The municipality of Ascona decided to prohibit reconstruction works in the area. Supported by the Cantonal Council, a law was passed in 1875 stipulating that any future explosive related factories should be constructed, in Ticino, provided that a radius of at least five Km from habited places was mantained. Chavannes, Brochon and Compagnie was obliged to pay a compensation of 16'000 Francs to the municipalities of Ascona, Locarno, Losone and Magadino for the caused disasters. 

Meanwhile, chief engineer of Gotthard tunnel Louis Favre (1826-1879) was under a huge pressure. Without a closely situated dynamite producing factory, this dangerous explosive goods had to be transported by sledge across the Gotthard pass. A pulling began. Favre attempted to coerce the local government to move the production to the inhabited island of Brissago, but it was considered too close to surrounding villages, also it was feared the negative impact for local fishermen. Thus, the factory had never commenced operation activities on the islands that remained empty till the famous arrival of the Baronin Antonietta de Saint LĂ©gier (1856 - 1948) for whom Insubrica Historica has a special publication in planning.

Chavannes, Brochon and Compagnie didn't stopped to look for a solution, most likely because of the fact that explosive business was considered to be highly lucrative even though the many disasters'. So the company moved to Varallo Pombia in Novara Province where between Porto della Torre and Panperduto, a dynamite factory was rebuilt in 1876 which managed to produce about half a million of kg of dynamite used for the construction of the Gotthard railway tunnel. With the end of the tunnel works, in 1880, the factory ceased its operations.

Sources:
  • The decision of the Federal Council concerning the appeal of Messrs. Chavannes, Brochon & Cie. in Ascona, for the creation of a dynamite factory on the islands of Brissago on Lake Maggiore. (From August 11, 1875.) (in German: Bundesratsbeschluss in Sachen des Rekurses der Herren Chavannes, Brochon & Cie. in Ascona, betreffend Erstellung einer Dynamit-Fabrik auf den Inseln Brissago im Lago Maggiore. (Vom 11. August 1875.) (Link)
  • Die Eisenbahn = Le chemin de fer, Ueber die Natur und Gefahren des Nitro-Glycerins und -Dynamits, Heft 21, Band (Jahr): 2/3 (1875), pag. 193-196 (Link)
  • Virgilio Gilardoni, Fonti per la storia di un borgo del Verbano. Ascona. Archivio Storico Ticinese Bellinzona, Bellinzona, p. 45
  • L. Galli e C. Mazzella, Una fabbrica di dinamite a Varallo Pombia per il traforo del Gottardo 1876-1880, Bollettino Storico della Provincia di Novara, fascicolo 1 1970, pag. 82-96 (Link)
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