Giant salt cellar rises by the Rhine

A model of the warehouse dome which is currently under construction (Rheinsaline)

One of Switzerland’s rare commodities is to get a new home crowned with the biggest dome in the country.

This content was published on July 23, 2004 - 08:13

The so-called “Saldome” on the River Rhine near Basel will house up to 80,000 tons of mined salt – more than doubling the country’s existing storage capacity.

It is being constructed by Schweizerhalle-based United Swiss Saltworks, which is responsible for 90 per cent of salt production in Switzerland.

Destined for completion in mid-2005, the central warehouse will be 31m high and 93m in diameter.

“The current 34,000-ton storage capacity at the Rhine mines is much too small,” said Jürg Lieberherr, chief executive of United Swiss Saltworks.

“This is the main reason for building a central warehouse for 80,000 tons of salt.”

The Rhine salt mines have an annual production output of up to 500,000 tons, a third of which is used during the winter season to keep Swiss roads clear of ice and snow.

Hard winters, like those in 1999 and 2003, put a heavy burden on stocks and saw temporary shortages of salt for several days until imports could be brought in.

Salt imports

Up until the 1830s Switzerland had to import all its salt, mainly from southern France.

The long trip up the river Rhone took up to eight weeks and made the commodity 16 times more expensive in Switzerland.

It was a German mining expert, Carl Christian Friedrich Glenck, who first found salt by the River Rhine near Basel. The first saltworks, dubbed Schweizerhalle, was inaugurated in 1837.

United Swiss Saltworks was formed in 1909, bringing together four private operators. The shares were bought by the 26 cantons, and domestic salt supplies remain in the hands of the country’s regional authorities today.

An agreement signed by the cantons in 1973 regulated the sale of salt and guaranteed supply to all regions at fair and uniform prices.

“Up to 1973, salt was smuggled into the country. But now there are standardised prices and duties,” said Lieberherr.

The only other salt mine in Switzerland is in the town of Bex in the southwest of the country.

Unique roof

Despite its respectable size, the Saldome pales in comparison to other salt warehouses around the world. But its dome roof is unique in Switzerland.

The architects are relying on a novel system of timber arches to support the roof. “It is one of the most efficient pillar-free systems,” said Christoph Häring of the Häring construction company.

The building is also seen as an example of sustainability because the timber comes from a nearby forest and the construction costs have been kept low.

“International competition [in the salt business] is tough. The high salary levels and high prices in Switzerland forced us to build a cost-efficient warehouse,” added Lieberherr.

swissinfo, Urs Maurer

Key facts

The saltworks on the Rhine near Basel produces up to 500,000 tons of salt a year – nearly 90% of Switzerland’s salt output.
The salt mine of Bex in southwestern Switzerland has an annual production of 45,000 tons.
In 1920 the Swiss used 12 kg of salt on average; annual consumption dropped to about 6kg at the end of the 20th century.

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