Seventy years ago, in March 1952, Tignes, a village perched high up in the Alps in Savoie, was slowly drowned in the rising waters of an artificial lake created for a new hydro-electric dam.
Right up to the end, some inhabitants refused to move from their homes until they were escorted out by the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité).
This year the creation of the Barrage de Tignes will be celebrated with sadness for the loss of the old village, but also with pride for the endurance of the Tignards, as the inhabitants are called, who went on to recreate their village further up the mountain. It is now a prosperous and world-renowned ski station, and the highest skiable area in Europe.
100 years ago Val d’Isère overtook Tignes as a ski resort
Before the arrival of the dam, most of the inhabitants were farmers living to the rhythm of the transhumance.
Life was hard in the harsh climate. Then, in the late 19th century, some inhabitants began to turn to tourism as a way of making money:
“The first visitors were the English, who came to climb the peaks in summer,” says Tignes archivist, Pierre-Yves Arnaud.
“Local people started providing visitors with accommodation. The 1920s and 30s saw the start of skiing holidays, but ideas to develop a resort never got off the ground. This made it easier for the government to choose this valley for a dam rather than in nearby Val d’Isère, which had started its ski resort earlier.”
The dam was first proposed in 1929, but abandoned due to the recession and the Second World War. Then, in 1946, the new government declared the dam to be an urgent matter in the public interest as part of the reconstruction of France after the war.
Villagers were forced to leave
The village was divided over its proposed future, says Mr Arnaud:
“There were those who saw it as a new opportunity offering a chance to develop tourism, and who accepted that they could not win against the State. Others, mostly farmers and the older generation, were determined it should never happen.
They were the ones who stayed until the bitter end, when 87 families were evacuated. Some of the older villagers never got over the shock, and died some months later. I have talked to members of those families and their children born later, and even if they were not alive at the time, emotions still remain high.”
A new Tignes began to thrive
A new centre for the commune was chosen nearby at a place called Les Boisses.
A new mairie and school were built as well as a church, identical to Saint Jacques, the one lost beneath the waters. Six bells were cast in memory of the old Tignes and the nearby hamlets, which were also destroyed.
The villagers were determined to survive, and their motto was Tignes Semper Vivens.
“Gradually the idea of a ski station took shape,” says Mr Arnaud. “It was hard. The first two developers went bust, but in the 1960s there was government aid, and the project progressed. Between 1962 and 1968 its population doubled. Some who had moved away after the dam was built, came back.
In the 70s the commune centre was moved from Les Boisses to the new Tignes. It is the only purpose-built ski station to have included housing for the locals, and the first building was council housing. It is also the resort with the highest number of full-time inhabitants, at 2,500 a year.”