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A short history of the Port of Avilés

The Port of Avilés as it stands, and its future development in the 21st century cannot be properly understood without looking back to its origin.

To this end we need to cast ourselves back to medieval times, when fishing was beginning to develop as a commercial activity. Back in the 12th century our port was known for its monopoly on the unloading of salt as a result of having been granted a contract by the Castilian crown for alfolíes, or salt warehouses, given that salt was an essential product of the time, the production of which was local at first, but which later needed to be brought in from France, Portugal and Cadiz to meet the increasing demand. Likewise, the port was also renowned for its important traffic in Castilian wool destined for the European market (a fact that reveals the first example of intermodality and the definition of the port's sphere of influence), as well as for the exporting of flax, wood and wine. Moreover, the boost to port trade was also based on the fact that it was to become the prime supplier of the city of Oviedo, whose economic importance at the time was due to its status as a welcome shelter for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

Port traffic fell considerably between the 15th and 18th centuries, among other reasons, because of the worsening physical conditions at the port due to the build-up of sand, a problem that has persisted to this very day, and for which maintenance dredging has become a crucial element in port operability.

Panoramic view of the port before the iron and steel industry came to the town. Panoramic view of the port before the iron and steel industry came to the town.

Documentary evidence exists as regards a Royal Order issued in 1488 by the Catholic Monarchs (King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella) in Burgos pursuant to which a license is conceded to local authorities enabling them to collect a sysa (lit. a duty on foodstuffs) the proceeds from which were to be used to repair the estuary bar, given that this closed off the navigation canal thus impeding the passing through of ships.

Indeed, in the 16th century during the reign of Philip II, and after further complaints by town businessmen as a result of the problems of entry to, and manoeuvrability inside, the port, work was done on the rebuilding of a cay, or dock, at the spot known as Puente de los Pilares, which had also undergone improvement work, and where centuries afterwards, the Puente de San Sebastián bridge would be built, serving to connect the town of Avilés to the neighbouring district of Gozón.

The 17th and 18th centuries witnessed no improvement in port conditions, which, as a result, led to a loss of traffic due to continuous silting and the impossibility of regular navigation along the ship's canal. Although several different proposals had been put forward to remedy such difficulties, economic problems and the lack of a suitable port organisational structure meant that none of these would be brought to fruition.

Even worse again, was the fact that Avilés, at the beginning of the 18th century, would lose its importance as the main regional port to the Port of Gijón. Furthermore, Customs and Maritime Administration were centralised there, not to mention the establishing of Gijón as the main supplier to the regional capital, a circumstance that gave rise to improvements in the road connections between it and Oviedo. All of the foregoing led to the town of Avilés entering into serious economic decline and experiencing a sharp drop in population.

In the 1830's, faced with either developing, or wasting away, the port was in dire need of urgent improvements to transform the estuary's profile and to improve port entry and navigability conditions.

Loading of wood at a local dock Loading of wood at a local dock

Passengers represented the most important port traffic during the course of the 19th century. Due to the impoverishment of the populace, there was a massive exodus to the new world in the hope of making good quickly. Thus came about the emigrant traffic from Spain to the Americas. On their return, the ships that had ferried the passengers to these distant lands brought back with them products to supply the new and successful importation businesses that had sprung up. This trade also brought with it an increase in the shipping business, giving rise to the setting up of new shipping companies. At the end of the century, and with the arrival on the scene of the steamship, this traffic was displaced to the neighbouring town of Santander.

The 19th century also saw the forming of the current layout of the commercial port, which coincides in time with the setting up of the Real Compañía de Minas in Arnao, which was to be the first industrial project in Asturias, albeit financed with Belgian capital. This company used the port to move its goods from the dock at San Juan de Nieva. Up until that time, most traffic was handled through the local docks, where port activity gradually began to fall off in favour of the docks at Raíces and that of the aforementioned San Juan de Nieva, which had been refurbished as a result of the coal traffic, a vital component in port development as of the middle of the 19th century. At present, 80% of port traffic is moved from there, the main client being, Asturiana de Zinc, S.A., heir to the erstwhile Real Comapñia de Minas. Indeed, the former has become the leading port client as a result of substantially increasing its traffic upon the fall-off in iron and steel industry activity at the end of the 20th century.

Panoramic view of the San Juan de Nieva dock with the rocks that make entry into the port difficult, where a dredger can be seen working on the navigation canal. This dock was modernised upon the increase in coal traffic at the end of the 19th century Panoramic view of the San Juan de Nieva dock with the rocks that make entry into the port difficult, where a dredger can be seen working on the navigation canal. This dock was modernised upon the increase in coal traffic at the end of the 19th century
Well into the 20th century, in 1915 to be exact, the Port of Avilés Board of Works was set up, while later on the port was to undergo a radical make-over with the carrying-out of an enormous iron and steel project. Around the 1950's, work began on what was to become Ensidesa, the state iron and steel company that was to bring about a transformation of both port and town alike. The population of Avilés grew exponentially while the port underwent a radical change. The traffic generated by Ensidesa was substantial, so much so that it quickly became the port's main client, accounting for 70% of port movements.
Completion of the building of the San Agustín dock, with the old, local dock in the forefront of the photograph. Iron and steel products were loaded and unloaded from here Completion of the building of the San Agustín dock, with the old, local dock in the forefront of the photograph. Iron and steel products were loaded and unloaded from here

After 20 year's of economic prosperity, the industrial restructuring at the end of the 1980's and the shifting of the company's main facilities to Veriña saw Ensidesa traffic fall off alarmingly giving rise to substantial under-use of the quays at the San Agustín dock.

It was precisely at this time of crisis when the Port of Avilés decided to reconsider its future in order to try and recover a large part of the business that had been lost. To this end, in addition to holding on to existing clients and the traffic that had been won over the years, the port started to make its presence felt at both national and international logistics and transport fora and embarked on a dissemination action concerning the competitive benefits it offers: location, dynamism and specialisation.

Even though the old iron and steel works, which today goes under the name of Arcelor Mittal, is not the port's main traffic provider, it is still one of its main clients, along with Asturiana de Zinc, and other companies, the presence of which are essential to the future of the Port of Avilés.

In addition to the foregoing, this future involves the refurbishing of the infrastructure of this historic port, to which end we can point to the start that has been made by the building, at the beginning of the 21st century, of the sand containing jetty at the entrance to the port, as well as the 150-m extension of the fishing dock, not to mention the refurbishment of the San Juan de Nieva dock in order to redistribute and increase traffic, given that this work has resulted in the lengthening of the mooring berth and the increasing of its draught (10 m and 12 m), while at the same time enlarging the storage area.

At the beginning of this century, the Port of Avilés is facing up to future challenges by carrying out the modernisation work demanded by the new needs arising from the globalisation process and competitiveness requirements by means of developing the right shore of the estuary. Therefore, current port activity and capacity demands the developing of infrastructures in the only area pending development, both by way of the construction of quays, as well as by means of the search for storage and handling areas, not to mention goods diversification.

The Port of Avilés is looking with great enthusiasm to the future of its facilities. As a result of the assignment of European Cohesion Funds (approximately €30 million), the extension of our quays on the right shore of the estuary is gradually becoming a reality. The area is bieng equipped with some 1,000 m of quays boasting draughts of up to 14 m, and a logistics activities and storage area in excess of 375,000 m2, which will give rise, after the first construction phase alone, to an increase of traffic to the order of around two million ton. Neither are access points to the area being overlooked, given that these will be ensured by an increase in the capacity of the AS-328 and through the provision of rail services by way of San Agustín dock.

In this way, the future of the port can be said to have been least for the time being.