Canfranc - The Abandoned Railway Station That Played a Key Role in the WWII Resistance Movement
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 4 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 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.
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 8 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. Whether over the mountains or under the mountains Canfranc was an important destination 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.
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.
Albert Le Lay came to Canfranc in 1940 and was appointed Chief of French Customs in January 1941. 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.
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. A notebook discovered by Blanco and Priede includes a list of some of the people Le Lay helped, as well as letters of gratitude from across the globe, reportedly including messages from artists Mark Chagall and Max Ernst.
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: The video is in Spanish, unfortunately I could not find an English language version, although there is some interesting footage for non-Spanish speakers. If there are any Spanish speakers out there who would be able to translate it would be fascinating to know what is being said :)
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.
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.
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.
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 the link in the 'Further Info' section below.
NOTE: video with some good footage of the Underground Laboratory
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.
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 whatever purpose the rest of the building is used for a section will be devoted to a museum commemorating the historical significance of this remarkable place.