• Testata Sali Di Bario

The factory of Barium Salts

The large brick walls, the smokestack’s silhouette against the skyline and the huge warehouses almost deserted. The former factory of Barium Salts is now abandoned. It is a truly unique setting, a skeleton of industrial archaeology, located between the railway station and the river Adda. Whoever comes to Calolziocorte by train cannot but notice it.

Since the second half of the 19th century, in the near Valsassina, there were some active barite mines, whose product was used in several sectors, even in the dairy industry of the area where the barite was used to make the rind of some cheese harder. The Cugnasca-Baggioli firm located in Lecco was one of the businesses involved in the excavation, grinding and trade of the barite. However, its activities did not involve any chemical transformation. On 23 October 1900, the firm obtained permission to open the factory in Calolziocorte and to proceed with the chemical processing of the barite. In 1902, the firm was given a green light to experiment with the trial processing of sulphuric acid and barium hydroxide.

The choice of Calolzio was certainly not accidental: the factory was located as close as possible to the railway line Lecco-Milano in order to be able to easily import raw materials and export chemical products. The river Adda has always been a major line of communication and freight transport. Some photographs taken in that period show that barges were used to deliver the barite from Valsassina. The river was also an inexhaustible source of water for the different processes of the factory: the water was pumped up from the river and the cistern that we still see today was used to supply the tanks. To provide the industrial complex with electricity, a hydroelectric plant was built that used the natural flow of the Gallavesa stream: after falling in a state of neglect for years, even the small plant located in the gorge of the stream has now been upgraded and today the stream flows impetuous producing electricity again.

At first the industrial complex consisted in a two-storey office building made of bricks and sandstone, a factory building made of bricks with a series of architectural elements that recall a Romanesque style, other buildings along the river Adda and some other shed warehouses. The high smokestack towers over the area, coming out of a cylindric tower with corbels and other ornaments.

In 1908, Luigi De Ponti and his son Gaspare joined the Board of Directors of the factory and then little by little took over the company, buying its actions and taking control of the board of the factory, until its closing down in 1971 with the state shareholdings of AMMI (Italian Association for Mining and Metallurgy) and EGAM. After trying many different productive destinations and falling into the hands of different managements, the complex was definitely shut down in 1998. 

The area
A map in 1926
Products
Working hours in 1924

GASPARE DE PONTI

The management of the factory under the De Ponti family was considered “enlightened”: after the first few troubled years of business, the factory was able to increase its production considerably, starting to import the barite not only from Valsassina but also from Sardegna. Its products had indeed an extremely wide application range (from building yards to sugar factories, from the metalworking to the brick industry). Gaspare De Ponti was a leading figure for the entire community of Calolziocorte and beyond. He was born in Milan on 14 July 1883 into a patriotic family of nobleman from Milan. His father Luigi and his four brothers fought in the second and third war of independence behind Garibaldi’s line. Two of his brothers died in combat. He graduated in chemistry at the University of Pavia, in law at the University of Genoa and in electrochemistry at the Polytechnic University of Milan. In 1908, he joined the Board of Directors of the Factory of Barium Salts Spa with his father.

In 1911 De Ponti was already a member of the organizing committee of the Congress of Applied Chemistry of Torino and in 1920 he discovered a way to prepare a special baritic concrete to be used as a replacement for the lead plates in the protection system against X-rays and gamma rays. With the help of Professor Perussia, who was then the chairman of the Italian Radiological Society, he developed a preparation of barium sulphate that would be used for many years as the most common contrast medium for the radiological examination of the stomach.

 Apart from his professional engagement, Gaspare De Ponti was also a great politician and philanthropist. In 1914, he became a member of the municipal Council of Calolzio and he was later appointed provincial Councillor for the Liberal Party. He contributed to the foundation of the School of Industrial Design, the foundation of the Consumer’s co-operative of the upper Val San Martino and of the mutual health organization; he was once chairman of the Congregation of Charity and secretary and later chairman of the management committee of the nursery school Umberto I.

He helped financing the public works planned by the public administration of Calolziocorte in order to reduce unemployment with loans. Later on, De Ponti was appointed interim town administrator and, during the civil war, he acted as a mediator between the Germans and the resistance fighters, often managing to avoid retaliation. After the war, De Ponti became chairman of the Italian Federation of the Chemical Industry and was chairman of the association of industries of Bergamo.

He married Rosa Arborio Mella from Castelfero in 1924. They had four children: Edoarda, Luigi, Ferdinando and Luigi Giuseppe. Apart from the large factory, today also the main house of the De Ponti family still exists, in an eclectic style with Art Nouveau reminiscence, right on the other side of the railway line. Nowadays Villa De Ponti houses the headquarters of the Comunità Montana and of the Ecomuseo Val San Martino and is surrounded by its large botanical garden.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • The inhabitants of Calolziocorte called the entire industrial complex “Fabricù” which means “big factory".
  • Between the factory and the river Adda there is still a small artificial hill, which was once the old dump of the complex.

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FIND OUT MORE

  • BONAITI F. (a cura di), Calolziocorte 1807-1951: l'identità di un borgo, il destino di una città, Calolziocorte, marzo 2008
  • GARLANDINI A., NEGRI M. (a cura di), I monumenti storico-industriali della Lombardia. Censimento regionale, «Quaderni di documentazione regionale», n.17, Regione Lombardia, Milano, 1984
  • BENINI A. (a cura di), Archivio fotografico del lavoro: Lecco e il suo territorio (1900-1985), Milano, ed. Angeli, 1986.

 

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