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CANAL SYSTEMS AND PIPELINES BUILT TO SUPPORT SLOVAK MINES SET THE STANDARD FOR EUROPEAN WATER-MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS

Slovak mining regions display cutting edge of structural engineering

THE MEDIEVAL ore-mining region of central Slovakia has a landscape highly influenced by man, with technical masterpieces surrounded by pristine nature. Much of it, around the beautiful mining town of Banská Štiavnica, is protected as a United National Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.
From the beginning of the mining industry in Slovakia, during Celtic occupation of the area in the 13th century, the ore mines were permanently flooded underground, creating a continual drainage problem for the miners. The great depth of the mines meant that even the laborious and time-consuming bucket method of drainage was impossible.
However, in the 19th century, the problem was solved by the digging of extremely long adits or galleries inside the mines. Some had existed before (the oldest being the Bieber drainage adit, begun in the 14th century) but the resources for more extensive galleries only became available later. The adits connected the lowest place in the mines with the nearest river, the Hron in central Slovakia, and the water was carried out of the mines that way.


THE CAST-IRON aqueduct carrying water across the valley of Kysihýbeľ.
photo: Martin Turčan

THE MEDIEVAL ore-mining region of central Slovakia has a landscape highly influenced by man, with technical masterpieces surrounded by pristine nature. Much of it, around the beautiful mining town of Banská Štiavnica, is protected as a United National Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

From the beginning of the mining industry in Slovakia, during Celtic occupation of the area in the 13th century, the ore mines were permanently flooded underground, creating a continual drainage problem for the miners. The great depth of the mines meant that even the laborious and time-consuming bucket method of drainage was impossible.

However, in the 19th century, the problem was solved by the digging of extremely long adits or galleries inside the mines. Some had existed before (the oldest being the Bieber drainage adit, begun in the 14th century) but the resources for more extensive galleries only became available later. The adits connected the lowest place in the mines with the nearest river, the Hron in central Slovakia, and the water was carried out of the mines that way.

One such example is the Kaiser Joseph II drainage adit, also called the Voznická gallery after the nearest village. It was built between 1782 and 1878, and once completed, it was the longest underground passage in the world. At 16,538.5 metres, it was longer than the Sankt Gotthard railway tunnel in Switzerland.

A new version of this adit, dug in the 1980s, is still in operation, although it is not working at present because of unstable rock in the area.

Within the galleries, the water was drained from the mines using various devices, such as the Stangenkunst or Bremsräder, which were powered by water wheels, and various hauling and pumping machines powered by water pressure built up in a cylinder.


THE OTTERGRUND reservoir, overlooking an area of outstanding natural beauty near Banská Štiavnica.
photo: Martin Turčan

Paradoxically, these devices required very large amounts of water. As a result, Slovak engineers like Matej Kornel, Jozef Karol Hell, and Samuel Mikovíni, had to figure out a way of storing water to run the machines. They experimented with techniques used in the first atmospheric steam engine in Europe, built by the British engineer Thomas Newcommen in 1711.

Since the surrounding mountains had a poor water supply, they had to collect the water from neighbouring valleys and "catchment areas".

In this context, a catchment area is a patch of land bounded by natural features such as hills or mountains, from which all runoff water flows to a low point - like water in a bathtub flowing to the plug hole, or water flowing off a roof to a drainpipe. In the case of a natural catchment area, the low point could be a dam, a location on a river, or the mouth of a river where it enters the ocean.

Once collected, the water had to be taken to a number of above-ground reservoirs, or teichs, built especially for the purpose of powering the drainage equipment.

The system of canals supplying the reservoirs above the mines and connecting those reservoirs with the equipment inside the mines is one of very few such systems in the world. The only comparable working network is the Oberharzer Wasserregal in the Clausthal-Zellerfeld and Sankt Andreasberg mining region of Germany.

The Piarg group of water reservoirs in the Štiavnické vrchy mountain area has the most extensive system of canals in this mining region. Originally there were five reservoirs, then the system was extended to 10. Now, six reservoirs full of water remain.


AN ADIT on one of the canals feeding the reservoir systems.
photo: Martin Turčan

There are 24,100 metres of canals, and the adits measure 1,714 metres in total. The canals feeding the reservoir system built on the slope of the highest mountain in the area, Sitno, are 16 kilometres long.

The most interesting point of this entire water-management system is a place called Krížna, where four water-gathering canals meet. The water from various catchment areas used to flow into a small shaft here, equipped with a valve through which the water outlet could be regulated. A cast-iron aqueduct enabled the water to be carried across the valley of Kysihýbeľ from the village of Banský Studenec to Banská Štiavnica, where it was used for various purposes.

A different water network called Turček, this time consisting of pipes, carried water from the river Váh catchment area located above the village of Turček to the river Hron catchment area. This pipeline was built in the 15th century. An impressive stone aqueduct crossed the valley near the then-mining town of Kremnické Bane, which is now a small village. The whole pipeline system was a technically daring construction, measuring almost 20 kilometres in length.

These days, the water brought by this pipeline from the Váh catchment area is used for the production of electric power by three power stations. One is built underground in an unused mine under the town of Kremnica, and the other two are above ground near the city of Kremnica

A similar network, called the Špania Dolina water pipes, carried water from the Váh catchment area above the spa town of Korytnica, past the mountain pass Hiadeľské Saddle and crossed the watershed near one of the highest-positioned Slovak villages, Polianka (1,043 metres above sea level). Then it carried the water down to the ore-mining village of Špania Dolina into the Hron catchment area.

Built in the 16th century, this unique wooden structure, impressively cut into vertical rock under the Jelenská skala cliff, was originally 40 kilometres long. The system was in use until 1907.


AN AQUEDUCT in the valley of Kysihýbeľ.
photo: Martin Turčan

The paths winding around these canals and reservoirs are suitable for mountain biking, hiking, and cross-country skiing.

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