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Canfranc - The Abandoned Railway Station That Played a Key Role in the WWII Resistance Movement

Updated on August 17, 2017
The now abandoned Canfranc Railway Station in the Spanish Pyrenees
The now abandoned Canfranc Railway Station in the Spanish Pyrenees | Source

In a remote valley high in the Spanish Pyrenees is Canfranc International Railway Station. Built in 1928 after much collaboration and delay, this imposing building was only to be in use for 42 years. During its relatively short lifespan, however, it was host to much drama, mystery and intrigue and was the setting for one of the most heroic acts of WWII. From international spies and gold-smuggling Nazis to underground laboratories, the story of Canfranc Station is as remarkable and unique as the building itself.

Canfranc - The Early Years

The idea to build a Trans-Pyrenean rail link connecting France and Spain was first proposed in 1853 but it would be another 60 years before work would finally begin on the railway tunnel connecting the two countries. The 5 mile long tunnel took four years to construct and was the greatest engineering feat ever witnessed in Europe at that time.

To accompany this ambitious project, King Alfonso XIII of Spain and President Gaston Doumergue of France wanted a station that would be the envy of the world, a Mecca that would attract wealthy travellers from far and wide. With a scale and grandeur more befitting the streets of St.Petersburg or Paris, Canfranc station was to be the glittering showpiece on the newly opened Trans-Pyrenean rail line.

Finally, in 1928, after several years of hard labour, the build was complete, and at a grand opening ceremony attended by dignitaries from both nations, King Alfonso XIII and President Doumergue proudly declared the station open for business.

The opening ceremony of  Canfranc International Railway Station on 9 July 1928 with King Alfonso XIII of Spain and President Doumergue of France
The opening ceremony of Canfranc International Railway Station on 9 July 1928 with King Alfonso XIII of Spain and President Doumergue of France | Source

The newly opened building, a 240m long behemoth of epic proportions, boasted facilities that could rival even the most glitzy resort. Its stuccoed ceilings, marble staircases and cathedral like interior made Canfranc a palace fit for a king whilst its luxury hotel, bars and restaurants ensured that well heeled guests would be entertained in style.

Newly opened Canfranc Station
Newly opened Canfranc Station | Source

Looking back, it’s a little difficult to imagine what possessed these men to build such a colossal structure halfway up a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps they were thinking along the lines of, ‘if we build it, they will come’. Unfortunately Alfonso and Doumergue did not foresee the economic and political turmoil that was to plague Europe for the next two decades. If it hadn’t been for this Canfranc may well have fulfilled its founders' lofty ambitions.

However only eight years after opening, Canfranc closed its doors as the Spanish Civil War brought unrest to the area. The station wasn’t to be opened again until 1940 when it would begin a new chapter as Nazi stronghold and centre of resistance activity.

Nazi Gold and Wartime Refugees

In the early years of the war Canfranc was a popular route for refugees escaping Nazi persecution in the occupied territories and was an important hub for onward travel throughout the rest of Spain and Portugal and on into North Africa and to America. This route became more dangerous after Nazi occupation of the station and nearby village in November 1942, but undeterred and risking capture and imprisonment many continued to arrive at Canfranc being smuggled through the station with the help of the local Resistance.

Spanish refugees crossing border
Spanish refugees crossing border | Source

As well as wanting to stem the flow of refugees southwards, Hitler also sought to take control of Canfranc for its strategic location and because it was a handy route on which he could transport tungsten and iron from Portugal to his ore-hungry munitions factories back home. In return, the obliging Portuguese and Spanish governments received payment with gold stolen from murdered Jews and plundered from banks across Europe. It has been calculated that between the summer of 1942 and the winter of 1943 86.6 tons of gold were smuggled through the station. Although historians have always known of the illegal transport of Nazi gold it was only when documents were accidentally discovered in 2000 that they became aware of the key role the station played during that time.

Albert Le Lay - The Schindler of Canfranc

After the discovery of the Nazi gold documents in 2000, Spanish documentary makers José Antonio Blanco and Manuel Priede decided to investigate further and it was these investigations that led to the fascinating story of Albert le Lay, the man dubbed by local press as the Spanish Schindler and by his contemporaries as ‘the King of Canfranc’. Blanco and Priede's recently released documentary ‘El Rey de Canfranc’ tells the little known story of this courageous man and the pivotal role both he and the station played during World War II.

It was in 1940 that Albert Le Lay arrived at Canfranc and the following year he was appointed Chief of French Customs. In his official capacity as Head of Customs, Le Lay would have been responsible for overseeing the movement of all goods into and out of the station, but unofficially, this quiet and unassuming man was leading a double life as secret agent.

Albert Le Lay, hero of Canfranc
Albert Le Lay, hero of Canfranc | Source

Working as part of a spy network based at the station, Le Lay played a crucial role in facilitating the transfer of messages and equipment between the Allies and the Resistance. It is thought that the first radio transmitter used by the Resistance in France was smuggled in via Canfranc under the watchful eye of Le Lay.

As well as being a conduit for vital information and equipment, Le Lay also helped smuggle refugees through the station, feeding, clothing and giving them shelter as well as providing passports and visas that would assist their onward travel away from the occupied territories.

Canfranc at this time was a hotbed of clandestine activity. Life for Le Lay and his fellow agents would not have been easy and would have become much more perilous after Nazi occupation of the station in 1942. However, despite the danger, Le Lay and his comrades continued their covert operations.

Unfortunately, Le Lay’s luck ran out in September 1943 and having been warned of his imminent arrest by the Gestapo, he made his escape along with his wife and young son under the ruse of going for one of their daily strolls. Once outside the village Le Lay managed to reach the British Embassy in Madrid and from there he continued to Gibralter where, posing as a sailor he boarded a ship for North Africa and then to Algiers where he joined the exiled Free-French Government.

After the war Le Lay returned to Canfranc where he continued to work for a number of years before retiring with his wife in Saint-Jean-De-Luz where he died in 1988 aged 89.

It is not known for sure how many people Le Lay helped escape Nazi persecution, however, as investigations continue and more details are revealed, the full extent of what happened at Canfranc during those years will hopefully be revealed. Although throughout his life Le Lay always downplayed his wartime role believing he had simply done what had to be done, with the release of the documentary the story of this courageous man will hopefully become more widely known and he and all those who worked alongside him will receive the recognition they deserve.

NOTE: This video is in Spanish and includes some interesting footage for non-Spanish speakers.

The Post-War Years

After the turbulent war years, Canfranc eventually settled back into routine as the main stopping off point on the Trans-Pyrenean route. However, the station never did live up to the dreams of glory envisaged by its founders. The Spanish government’s refusal to alter their tracks to European Standard Gauge meant costly delays as passengers and freight had to be transferred from French trains at one end of the terminal to Spanish trains at the other end. These delays cost time and money and the line never became profitable. These issues along with economic crisis and the political turmoil of the war years seemed to stymie the project from the start.

The final nail was thrust into the Canfranc coffin on a gloomy day in March 1970 following the derailment of a goods train on the French side of the mountains which destroyed a sizeable portion of the track as well as demolishing the Estanguet bridge. Fortunately no-one was injured, but it was the perfect excuse for the French Government to close their section of the line for good, no doubt believing it would not be worth their time and effort to repair.

The Underground Laboratory

Following the accident and the closure of the French section of the line the Trans-Pyrenean railway tunnel became defunct. However it was given new life fifteen years later when a team of physicists realised it would be the perfect place to conduct their experiments. Thus, in 1985, work began on the Canfranc Underground Laboratory.

The Trans-Pyrenean railway tunnel at Canfranc today, currently used for access to the Underground Laboratory
The Trans-Pyrenean railway tunnel at Canfranc today, currently used for access to the Underground Laboratory | Source

Located under Mount Tobazo at a depth of 850m, the Laboratorio Subterraneo de Canfranc (LSC) is a collaboration between the University of Zaragoza, the Government of Aragon and the Spanish Ministry of Economics and Competitiveness. The main purpose of the Laboratory is to conduct research into particle and astroparticle physics.

One of the labs at LSC
One of the labs at LSC | Source

The original lab built in 1985 has since been replaced by a larger adjoining facility, with work completed in 2010 and today, research at the LSC continues apace with current experiments including the search for dark matter, the nature of neutrinos and geodynamics. The LSC also hosts regular international seminars and conferences where scientists from across the globe come together to ponder the phenomenon that is our Universe.

It is possible to visit the Laboratory by applying to take part in a guided tour of the facility. For more information please check out the LSC website.

NOTE: video with some good footage of the Underground Laboratory

Zaragoza tourist train at modern day station building
Zaragoza tourist train at modern day station building | Source

Canfranc Station Today

Although the French side of the line has been out of use since 1970, the Spanish have always kept their side running with a twice daily tourist train from Zaragoza and a freight train which makes regular trips to the nearby grain silo. However, other than repair work to the roof and the exterior, the interior of the original station building is still more or less in ruins, and a building of much more modest proportions is currently used on the other side of the tracks.

As for the future of Canfranc station, it’s looking a little more promising. Both the French and the Spanish seem keen to reopen the Trans-Pyrenean line connecting the two countries. In a reversal of their former reticence, the French have already begun work on repairing and upgrading the line between Oloron-Ste-Marie and Bedou, which is due to be completed in 2015. Meanwhile, on the Spanish side of the mountains, the Aragonese Government has set a deadline of 2020 for the reopening of the original line and the restoration of the station building.

Inside of old station building today
Inside of old station building today | Source

It is unclear at this time what exactly the building will be used for if it is restored although a number of suggestions have been put forward. It seems likely that if it is restored the building will have multiple uses and the Aragon Government seem keen to ensure that a section of the building is devoted to a museum commemorating the historical significance of this remarkable place. To keep up to date with what's happening at Canfranc check out the Turismo de Canfranc Twitter feed and Facebook page.

One of the many dilapidated train carriages in the grounds surrounding the station
One of the many dilapidated train carriages in the grounds surrounding the station | Source
A markercanfranc railway station -
22888 Canfranc, Huesca, Spain
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    • ruthwalker profile image
      Author

      ruthwalker 3 years ago

      Hey Anne, thankyou for reading, it's a pretty amazing place, I didn't know anything about it either till a couple of months ago, came across it when I was looking up some other stuff on the net, would be a great place to visit :)

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 3 years ago from Australia

      What an amazing hub, I knew absolutely nothing about this place. Now it's on my bucket list, thank you

    • AG Blair profile image

      Amanda Blair 3 years ago from Scotland

      ........got a few ideas about the next Hub, but soooo busy these days, will get round to it soon hopefully :-)

    • ruthwalker profile image
      Author

      ruthwalker 3 years ago

      M'kay :) Yeah its not very obvious. Aye, think you need to have quite a few hubs before google takes much notice, from what i've read anyway. Cool, look forward to reading your next hub :)

    • AG Blair profile image

      Amanda Blair 3 years ago from Scotland

      Ahh, well I already have done that....

      You could do that for me too :-)

      It's quite hard to find that bit of the Hub though; it could be made more prominent I think.

      Btw I'm thinking of my next Hub.....I think the more you write, the better you are to find on search engines etc.??

    • ruthwalker profile image
      Author

      ruthwalker 3 years ago

      Aw, it's ok :) I'm not sure about the 'voting up' thing either, think it's maybe when you vote something 'useful, awesome, interesting, beautiful' or whatever, but don't quote me on that :p

    • AG Blair profile image

      Amanda Blair 3 years ago from Scotland

      you're welcome - it seems to be a popular article; hope i can get some more exposure for it :-) if i knew how to 'vote up' i'd do that too, but i'm just new on here, so i don't :-P

    • ruthwalker profile image
      Author

      ruthwalker 3 years ago

      Thank you very much AGB, am glad you enjoyed it, thank you for pinning, tweeting and FB'ing, muchos appreciated :)

    • AG Blair profile image

      Amanda Blair 3 years ago from Scotland

      excellent Hub Ruth, I really enjoyed reading that - even though I wasn't sure if I would be that interested in the subject matter. I think there is something for everyone in that article. Great job indeed! Shared on FB, Twitter and Pinned :-)

    • ruthwalker profile image
      Author

      ruthwalker 3 years ago

      Hey ravi1991, thankyou for reading, am glad you liked it :)

    • ravi1991 profile image

      Ashutosh Tiwari 3 years ago from Lucknow, India

      @ruthwalker

      A great HUB.

      Voted up !!

    • ruthwalker profile image
      Author

      ruthwalker 3 years ago

      Hey HSchneider, thankyou for reading and for the comments :) It's a really interesting place, would be good if they did manage to do something with it and give it new life in the future, it's got so much history attached to it, hopefully they will find the money to restore at least part of it.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Wonderful history of this amazing piece of architecture, Ruth. Hopefully it also will have a fine future. Great job.

    • ruthwalker profile image
      Author

      ruthwalker 3 years ago

      Hi there, it's an amazing building isn't it, they don't make them like that anymore. Always lol a little when I compare the present day station building with the original building, is so tiny in comparison. Would be nice to see the original restored and put to some sort of use rather than let it fall into ruins. Thanks for reading :)

    • pctechgo profile image

      pctechgo 3 years ago from US

      If walls can talk...

      It would be nice to see some of the architectural design of that era return. Even on railroad stations the architects of the day created very nice designs. They could have made a simple "box" building but instead they incorporated architectural deign elements and made the building look special. It may be the design and look that adds flavor to anything written about it today.