[Help] [Aide] [Up]

Science Tribune - Article - January 1997


Bavaria and its salt-works in the 19th and 20th centuries

Wolfgang Jahn

Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte (For more information)Postfach 10 17 47, 86007 Augsburg, Germany
e-mail : 082132950@t-online.de. To send a message (click here)

Salt was produced, from the Middle Ages right through into the 19th c, in way over 150 localities throughout central Europe. These included smaller works producing only a few hundred tonnes of salt per year and major salt-producing centres with an annual capacity of many thousands of tonnes. Of these works, only a few are still active today.

Today, salt in Bavaria means salt from the salt-works in Reichenhall and brine from the salt-mines in Berchtesgaden. The Reichenhall salt-works, one of the most modern salt production centres in Europe, nowadays produces way over 200,000 tonnes of salt per annum.

Salt in Bavaria - two hundred years ago - meant salt from a whole range of small salt-works sprinkled throughout Upper Bavaria, Franconia, and the Palatinate. In such localities - in Traunstein, Rosenheim, Bad Kissingen, Bad Orb, and Dürkheim - only a few scattered remains of the old salt-works have survived to bear witness to this illustrious past.

How did this development - from numerous small salt-works to just one powerful salt producing centre - actually come about ?

The Bavarian salt-works

Before the heyday of the Bavarian salt empire, there were seven salt-works, each with its own individual history.

The Reichenhall salt-works : This is the oldest Bavarian salt-works. The history of the Reichenhall salt-works began around 700 AD, the date of the first written testimonies to salt production in this area. Reichenhall, in south-eastern Bavaria, on the national frontier to Austria, lies on top of massive salt domes which are washed out by underground water. The salt-laden water rises to the surface and reaches the light of day in the form of salt springs. This salt-water, known as brine, is collected in a man-made well.

For centuries the brine was lifted from the well by large water-driven scoop-wheels and directed to vats in the various boiling-houses. Here, in wide iron pans, the salt water was brought to the boil - a process consuming immense quantities of wood. The water contained in the solution evaporated to leave a damp mass which was then dried, filled into wooden barrels for transport, and brought by wagon to retailers and consumers.

Salt from Reichenhall went mainly to recipients in Bohemia, Württemberg, Franconia, Swabia, and Switzerland. Reichenhall salt, by virtue of its rare purity, was always in great demand. Indeed, it is to this fact that the city owes its name: "Reichen Hall" (= rich in salt).

At the beginning of the 19th c, the Reichenhall salt-works was producing some 10,000 tonnes of salt per year. Although only fifty people, working in shifts, were employed in the actual process of producing salt, several hundred workers were needed to ensure the punctual delivery of wood to keep the fires going.

The Traunstein salt-works : The need for a continuous supply of wood was the decisive factor in the foundation of the Traunstein salt-works at the beginning of the 17th c. Calculations, taking account of all the business and logistics factors involved, revealed that it was in fact cheaper to bring part of the precious salt water to the densely forested area around Traunstein rather than transporting the necessary wood to Reichenhall. A 32 km long conduit and pipe system - a construction of considerable technical sophistication - was built to convey the brine to the new boiling rooms in Traunstein. The Traunstein salt-works was thus right from the outset always dependent on the supply of salt water from Reichenhall. Its production capacity, thanks to various technical improvements, reached 10,000 tonnes per annum.

The Rosenheim salt-works : Wood remained, well into the 19th c, the principal fuel for firing the salt-pans. The rising demand for salt thus brought with it an increasingly heavy consumption of wood. It was in order to spare the forests around Reichenhall and Traunstein that the Bavarian government decided, at the beginning of the 19th c, to set up a new modern salt-works in Rosenheim, i.e., half-way between Munich and Reichenhall. Again, a conduit and pipe system was built to convey the salt water from Reichenhall to Rosenheim. State-of-the-art pump systems were used to overcome the differences in altitude encountered in the Alpine foothills. With its four boiling-pans Rosenheim was initially set up for a capacity of 12,000 tonnes per annum.

The Berchtesgaden salt-works : The rich saline deposits in the Berchtesgaden mountains have been exploited ever since the 12th c. Miners would use the process known as solution mining - a technique still used in more or less unchanged form today. First, they would drive horizontal galleries into the mountainside, from which they would sink vertical shafts. Then, along these vertical shafts they would hollow out cavities in which they could, by introducing fresh water, dissolve the salt contained in the rock. This salt-laden water would be pumped up to the surface and processed in the Berchtesgaden salt-works at Frohnreuth and Schellenberg.

In its capacity as a prince-provostry, Berchtesgaden was nominally self-governing but, given its geographical situation, it was highly dependent on the cooperation of its immediate and powerful neighbours - Bavaria, Salzburg, and Tyrol (Austria). Berchtesgaden always produced much more salt than it could ever sell within the confines of its own small territory and this salt could only be transported and sold with the consent of Salzburg and Bavaria. In fact, most of it was purchased by Bavaria which then resold it at a handsome profit.

At the beginning of the 19th c, Berchtesgaden lost its independence and was annexed by Bavaria which - now that unrestricted access to these inexhaustible salt reserves had been gained - totally reorganised its salt production. The Berchtesgaden salt-mines thus became an important brine supplier for the salt-works in Reichenhall. In 1817 the engineer, Georg von Reichenbach, constructed a new brine conduit - a brilliant feat of technology for its time - that overcame the problems posed by the mountainous terrain between Berchtesgaden and Reichenhall. Salt water extracted from the Berchtesgaden salt-mines could thus be piped to Reichenhall for processing.

The Kissingen salt-works : There is proof that salt was already being produced in Kissingen in northern Bavaria in the early Middle Ages. Kissingen belonged to territory governed by the Bishops of Würzburg who, in the 16th c, took energetic initiatives to reorganise the whole salt-works operation in order to improve profitability. The salt-works was leased to a private entrepreneur and new technology was introduced. For instance, the Kissingen salt-works were the first to run a graduation system on a large scale in order to enrich low-grade brine. However, despite all these efforts and because of the low saline content of the brine, production hardly rose above 700 tonnes of salt per year. Thus, the main sales outlet for Kissingen salt remained within the Bishopric of Würzburg itself. With effect from 1803, the Bishopric - and with it of course the Kissingen salt-works - joined the Kingdom of Bavaria.

The Orb salt-works : The small salt-works in Orb, situated in the Spessart area in Lower Franconia, has a long history of salt production. It often changed hands, belonging at different times to the Elector of Mainz, the Prince of Aschaffenburg, and the Grand Duke of Frankfurt, and, from 1814 to 1866, to the Kingdom of Bavaria. In the middle of the 18th c, it was operating with twelve boiling-pans. Here too, the low-grade brine had to be enriched and refined with the aid of long graduation works, up to 2400 m long. But, despite all these efforts, production never rose above 2000 tonnes of salt per year.

The Dürkheim salt-works : The town of Dürkheim is situated near to the River Rhine in the Palatinate. Brine springs in Dürkheim are documented for the first time in 1387 but the springs in question probably had only a very low saline content. In 1595, the Palatinate Elector constructed a new salt-works to remedy the shortage of salt in the Rhineland area but salt production came more or less to a prolonged standstill in the wake of the Thirty Years War (1618 -1648). In fact, not until the beginning of the 18th c was salt produced here again with any continuity. Thanks to the construction of new boiling-houses, brine reservoirs, salt storehouses, and, most important, five graduation works, production reached around 600 tonnes per year. The quality of Dürkheim salt enjoyed especially high acclaim. It was reputed to be far superior to all other types of salt produced in Germany.

After 1815, as a consequence of the political upheaval following the Napoleonic era, the Palatinate - and with it Dürkheim - passed to the Kingdom of Bavaria. The small Dürkheim salt-works was integrated into the Bavarian salt-works administration, thus dramatically affecting its standing. However, despite complex and expensive enrichment procedures, the saline content of the brine could not be raised much above 1% and, as early as 1845, serious consideration was given to the possible closure of the salt-works. Moreover, sales of Dürkheim's salt had always been restricted to the confines of the Palatinate; now Dürkheim faced open competition from the high-power salt-works in southern Germany. Calculations of running costs very quickly revealed that, under these circumstances, Dürkheim salt was simply not profitable and, time after time, plans were proposed to shut the works down. They were finally sold in 1868 by the Bavarian administration to the City of Dürkheim (see below).

The turning point in the Bavarian salt empire

The great and the small

The Bavarian salt empire was at its most extensive in the first half of the 19th c. In those days, seven salt-works (Reichenhall, Frohnreuth, Traunstein, Rosenheim, Kissingen, Orb, and Dürkheim) were supplying Bavaria and the surrounding areas with salt. They were producing altogether over 32,000 tonnes per annum, although the works at Reichenhall, Frohnreuth, Traunstein, and Rosenheim accounted for over 90% of this amount. Clearly, there was an imbalance between the four big salt-works in south-eastern Bavaria and the other three smaller salt-works.

There were great differences also in technical equipment. Whereas the conduit from Berchtesgaden brought to the salt-works in south-eastern Bavaria an uninterrupted supply of high-grade brine, ensuring that production remained at a constantly high level, the smaller salt-works were always struggling with the problem of the low saline content of their local brine. For example, whereas Reichenhall was processing brine with 25% saline content, Kissingen's brine barely attained 2%. Since brine with a lower saline content required substantially more fuel in the boiling process, the smaller salt-works were faced by costs for wood and other fuels that were way above average. It was, in the long term, primarily these running costs that weighed against the survival of the smaller salt-works.

Liberalising the salt trade

The repeal of the salt monopoly in 1867 forced the salt operators to act. Various German Lšnder, such as Prussia, Bavaria, and Württemberg, agreed to liberalise the salt trade in order to encourage free competition between all producers; from then on, salt was to be freely tradable.

The Kingdom of Bavaria reacted to this fundamental change in salt policy with correspondingly radical measures. These included the closure of the smaller salt-works, which, deprived of the protection of the salt monopoly, were now, in this liberalised market, no longer competitive. The Bavarian salt-works administration therefore sold off the Palatinate salt-works to the City of Dürkheim, which, until 1913, continued producing salt at its own cost. At around the same time, the salt-works in Orb, as a result of territorial modifications, returned to Prussia. Only the salt-works in Kissingen, operating just one pan, was able, until 1966, to continue production. After the smaller works were thus hived off, the Bavarian salt-works administration concentrated its activities on the main salt-works complex in south-eastern Bavaria, from Berchtesgaden to Rosenheim.

Salt consumption in Germany at the turn of the century

As changes evolved in eating habits and industrial expansion intensified, the demand for salt soared. In Germany, in 1870, total salt consumption per capita of population was still around 11 kg, of which some 7 kg were table salt. By around 1900, total salt consumption rose to almost 18 kg per capita with the contribution of table salt rising only imperceptibly. By 1912, the ratio of total salt to table salt had shifted even more drastically, with total salt consumption of 24.6 kg per capita, of which table salt accounted for only 7.9 kg, i.e. not even a third.

These far-reaching shifts in salt consumption can only be understood against the background of Germany's industrial development at that time. Salt was used primarily in caustic soda production, but also in the iron and steel industry, in paint factories, soap and oil production, and in the leather goods, glassware, and earthenware industries. Consumption of industrial salt rose from 330,000 tonnes in 1895 to over 900,000 tonnes in 1912.

Rock salt versus salt from natural brine

The absolute increase in salt consumption had dramatic effects on the relationship between rock salt and salt from boiling natural brine. Rock salt established itself increasingly as the salt for industrial applications and, in 1912, only an eighth of total consumption was covered by boiled salt. This development can be attributed to the much greater availability of rock salt and to its lower price (45-60 Pfennigs compared to 3 to 4 Marks per 100 kg).

The fierce competition between rock salt and boiled salt initially forced operators to cut their running costs. There were, of course, economic forces at work. For centuries boiled salt's predominant hold on the market had, at least in southern Germany, remained unchallenged. However, the situation changed dramatically with the opening of the large potash mines. At first, the rock salt excavated with the raw potassic salt was just a bothersome by-product but, towards the end of the 19th c, it was used increasingly as salt for human and animal consumption and in applications in crafts and industry. Rock salt thus became a serious competitor to boiled salt.

The rivalry between the rock salt producers and the salt-works intensified during the First World War (1914-1918), when production at many salt-works was hampered by the acute shortage of coal. In the years after 1918, the competitive situation remained distorted and unbalanced because rock salt was cheaper to produce and did not require fuel.

Streamlining of the Bavarian salt-works in the face of competition

Competition from rock salt placed massive pressure on the Bavarian salt-works to rationalise and streamline. The first measure decided by the Bavarian parliament was to close down the Traunstein salt-works that had become technically obsolete. The Traunstein works was generating around 6000 tonnes of salt per annum and employed some 70 workers. It was finally shut down in 1912.

The strategic considerations of the Bavarian salt-works administration had two objectives, firstly, to intensify expansion of the Reichenhall salt-works and, secondly, to make savings by cutting investment in the other salt-works. Production was to be substantially increased in Reichenhall while at the same time reducing running costs through the introduction of new technologies. Thus, in the period from 1924 to 1932, the whole Bavarian salt-works system was placed on a new, more viable footing by the implementation of three significant measures :
1- new salt-generating technology was introduced with the construction of the new Reichenhall works;
2- a hydro-electric power station was constructed in Jettenbach to supply cheap power;
3- the Berchtesgaden salt mines were fully integrated into the Reichenhall production process via a modernised brine supply line.
Between 1925 and 1927, a completely new salt-works was erected in Reichenhall some 2000 m away from the old. Thanks to the new evaporating system, driven by electricity from the Jettenbach power station, it was now possible to produce 12,000 tonnes of granulated salt per annum with a finer grain than previously. In 1929, in the old salt-works at the foot of the Gruttenstein, the fires under the pans were extinguished for the last time. In the following decades production at Reichenhall rose to 50,000 tonnes.

The policy of concentrating on the Reichenhall salt-works and neglecting all the others led, within the span of just a few years, to a pronounced imbalance in the organisation of the salt-works. After the closure of the Traunstein works in 1912 (see above), the technically obsolete salt-works in Frohnreuth had to be shut down in 1927. With Berchtesgaden thus losing its one remaining salt-works, the salt mine became the most important supplier for the salt-works in Reichenhall. In 1960, this function was further consolidated by the construction of the new - 19 km long - brine supply line to Reichenhall over the Hallthurm pass. It has twin parallel pipes, with a pipe diameter of 20 cm, and each pipe has a supply capacity of 60 cubic meters per hour. At present it delivers around 550,000 cubic meters of brine per annum.

Solution mining

Brine is still obtained today employing roughly the same principle as in 13th c; the technique is known as solution mining. Fresh water is first introduced into an artificially created cavity to dissolve the salt out of the rock. The insoluble constituents sink to the floor. When the fresh water is 26.5% saturated with the dissolved salt, the cavity is evacuated and the salt-laden water - i.e. the brine - is pumped to the surface. In its modern form, solution mining is possible in cavities up to 100 m high. In Berchtesgaden such solution mines remain operative for some 30 years. In this period, on the assumption that the mountainside has an average saline content of 50%, it is possible to obtain around 1.1 million cubic meters of brine. These figures illustrate the extent to which the Berchtesgaden salt mines have, in the course of the 19th and 20th c, become the raw materials reserve for the salt-works in Reichenhall.

From salt-works to spas

The close cooperation between the geographically neighbouring works of Berchtesgaden and Reichenhall explains why all the other Bavarian salt-works lying further afield with no brine supply of their own - and thus always reliant on provision from the Berchtesgaden-Reichenhall supply line - ended up operating at a loss and were finally condemned to closure. The last salt-works of the once far-flung Bavarian salt empire to meet with this fate was the salt-works in Rosenheim, shut down in 1958. It had been, ever since its foundation, the second-largest in Bavaria and was, until the mid-20th c, still generating around 20,000 tonnes of salt per annum and employed some 75 workers.

How were the old salt-works used after being shut down ? All the major brine sources, initially almost exclusively used for salt production, are nowadays health resorts offering brine baths. Brine baths had already opened in many salt-works localities in the middle of the 19th c when salt was still being produced or started operating shortly after production ceased, thus bringing new economic prosperity. For example, a brine bath centre was founded by a local pharmacist in the city of Orb in 1837. It developed satisfactorily and provided economic stimulation, especially after salt production ceased in 1899. Kissingen was a well-known spa as early as the 16th c. In the 19th c, its reputation became international and, since1883, it has been entitled to call itself "Bad Kissingen", The old graduation works is still used today for medicinal brine, and the mineral waters have many therapeutic uses. In Reichenhall ("Bad Reichenhall" since 1890), the spa tradition dates back to the beginning of the 19th c. The number of visitors rose rapidly once it had gained the reputation as the spa for the Bavarian monarchs. After the old graduation works had fallen into disrepair and were no longer needed by the salt-works, the health spa administration constructed a new graduation works in 1909/10 which, in its present form with its roofed walkway, acts as an open-air inhalatorium.

Salt production in Bavaria today

In the last thirty years the Reichenhall salt-works has become, in terms both of production and technology, a highly modern salt-works acting as a major market player in open competition with other German and European salt producers. Its objective is to structure production to ensure products of the widest possible diversity and of a quality that meets the most exacting demands, above all in the table salt sector. Reichenhall salt is nowadays used not only as table salt but also in other applications such as in de-icing and in ion exchange systems, for example in dish-washing machines. Present production exceeds 250,000 tonnes per annum.

The substantial increase in turnover over the years has led to yet further expansion of the production plant. By the middle of the 1980s most of the evaporation equipment - in uninterrupted operation for over 20 years - had so deteriorated that it had to be replaced. To raise product quality and to cut energy consumption still further, a new vaporising plant, consisting of three evaporating units, has been put into service for pre-processing and purifying the brine and the whole production process has been switched to being driven by electric power.

In conclusion, the historical development of the Bavarian salt-works is characterized by a process of change and concentration during the 19th and 20th centuries. The increasing demand for salt meant that the operating techniques of the many small salt-works became obsolete. Today, salt in Bavaria means a single powerful salt-producing centre made up of the salt-mines of Berchtesgaden and the salt-works of Reichenhall.


Emons H-H, Walter H-H. Alte Salinen in Mitteleuropa: Zur Geschichte der Siedesalzerzeugung vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart, Leipzig 1988

Treml M, Jahn W, Brockhoff E (Eds). Salz Macht Geschichte (Collection of essays and catalogue), Augsburg 1995