• Besshi Copper Mines Heritage of Industrial Modernization

    Middle Period (Oxen and Horses and Steam Engines; Toen and Adit No. 1)
    From 1876 to 1902

    From manpower to machinery. From oxen to locomotives

    In the early years of the Meiji era, mining, smelting, and transportation were modernized to increase copper production. This section introduces the industrial revolution that took place deep in the mountains.

Toen Inclined Shaft, Adit No. 1, and remains of the Takahashi Smelter

Adoption of foreign technology rapidly modernized mining, smelting, and transportation.
This section introduces the key enablers of this transformation.

The South Entrance of Adit No. 1 (photographed in 1881). The photo shows a tramway and a mine wagon used for transport. Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Pathway for ox-drawn wagons (photographed in 1881). A pathway was carved out of the steep mountainside for transport using ox-drawn wagons. It was a challenging route. Once Adit No. 1 opened, this pathway was no longer used. Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Takahashi Smelter (photographed in 1881). A blast furnace incorporating the latest Western technology was installed at the Takahashi Smelter. The Takahashi Smelter was washed away in the flood of 1899 and never rebuilt. Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives

Introduction of the very latest know-how and technology

The Besshi Copper Mines Masterplan formulated by Louis Larroque based on his observations and investigations at the Besshi Copper Mines during 22 months from 1874 to 1875. The original title was “Report on mining of Besshi Mountain and smelting of copper ore.”

In 1874, Sumitomo hired French engineer Louis Claude Bruno Larroque in a bid to modernize operation of the copper mines. Some 180 years since their inauguration, the Besshi Copper Mines were grappling with several tough issues. Such deep shafts had been excavated that groundwater was constantly well up, causing a lot of trouble and constraining the miners’ freedom of action. The old-fashioned method was good enough for smelting rich ore with high copper content but not up to the task of smelting lower-grade ores with copper content of 3% or so, which meant such ores were left unexploited. Moreover, porters carried the ore to the foot of the mountain via a steep mountain pathway and so transportation was totally reliant on manpower.

Larroque spent almost two years thoroughly analyzing the circumstances of the mines and prepared a report on modernization measures utilizing the latest know-how and technology. Based on Larroque’s masterplan, extensive modern facilities were constructed at Kyubesshi from 1876 onward. As a result, the output of the mines, which had been less than 6,000 tons in 1868, exceeded 50,000 tons in 1893, and the Besshi Copper Mines contributed greatly to the emergence of Japan as a formidable industrial power.

Remains of Toen Inclined Shaft: The shaft enabled mechanization of ore discharge

The Toen Inclined Shaft was the main route for transporting ore. To facilitate hoisting of mined ore using mechanical power, the shaft was excavated at a sharp angle of 49 degrees along the inclination of the deposit of the Besshi Copper Mines and it was connected with eight horizontal branch galleries.

With a width of 6 meters and a height of 2.7 meters, this shaft was on a grander scale than previous shafts. The plan called for this shaft to reach Misuma, a zone with rich ore, which was waterlogged as a result of a major earthquake in 1854. The Toen Inclined Shaft was 526 meters in length.

The project began in 1876 and took 19 years to complete. In 1882 when the shaft reached a depth of 150 meters, a hoist powered by horses was introduced. In 1890, with the installation of a hoist powered by a steam engine, full-scale modern mining systems were established and the output of the mines surged. The remains of the pithead of the Toen Inclined Shaft are still visible, including the stone walls that enclosed the machinery yard where the steam hoist was installed.

The machine room in which a steam hoist for the Toen Inclined Shaft was installed. The pithead of the Toen Inclined Shaft.
Sharp inclination heading underground
Sharp inclination heading underground

Remains of Adit No. 1: Large tunnel traversing the Besshi Copper Mines from north to south

North entrance of Adit No. 1. Located at Kadoishihara at an altitude of 1,100 meters on the northern side of the Besshi Copper Mines, crude copper was carried out from the tunnel and loaded into railway wagons.

The transportation of copper ore to the foot of the mountain and of items to the Besshi Copper Mines had long been completely reliant on manpower. Even the use of horses was difficult on the tortuous mountain tracks of the Besshi Copper Mines. However, it would not be possible to dramatically increase copper production without greatly improving the efficiency of transportation. In 1800 a 39-kilometer pathway for ox-drawn wagons was opened, connecting the mines to Niihama via the pass, but transportation along the pathway was often disrupted by severe weather. Therefore, a plan was formulated to construct a tunnel from north to south beneath the Dozangoe Pass.

On the southern slope of the mountain, the Daidaikou, an existing tunnel formerly used for removing water from the Toen district, was excavated further. On the northern slope, excavation started from Kadoishihara. The bluish bedrock was hard and the rock overhead contained clay. The project was challenging because of the risk of rock falls. Despite many suggestions that foreign assistance should be sought, Saihei Hirose, then Director-General of Sumitomo, insisted on accomplishing the project solely through the efforts of the Japanese.

In 1886, after four years of excavation, Adit No. 1 with a length of 1,021 meters Adit No. 1was completed. There were hardly any errors in terms of the direction and the altitude. A tramway was laid in the tunnel for wagons, some drawn by laborers, others by horses. Adit No. 1 remained the principal transport artery for the Besshi Copper Mines until 1911 when Adit No. 3 superseded it.

Remains of Takahashi Smelter: Greater efficiency by introducing Western smelting technology

Conduit beside the Takahashi Smelter. Slag was not released into the river.

The Takahashi Smelter was the first Western-style blast furnace at the Besshi Copper Mines. It was a brick-lined crucible furnace. Equipped with a fan, instead of a bellows, this furnace was able to handle large quantities of ore at high temperature.

Larroque’s plan was to smelt low-copper-content ore at the Takahashi Smelter and then transport the resulting blister copper to Niihama, because the cost of transporting such poor ore would be prohibitive. In 1800, two blast furnaces were constructed at the Takahashi Smelter based on Larroque’s design drawing. However, they failed because no practical trials were conducted prior to the start of operation. Subsequently, in the late 1880s, Western-style blast furnaces were constructed at Takahashi in the Besshiyama mountain and at Sobiraki in Niihama at the foot of the mountain.

The conduit in the photo was constructed in 1898 to cover the river in order to prevent slag discharged from the smelter from being released directly into the river. There was a slagheap near the smelter.

In 1899 a major flood devastated the Takahashi Smelter, which had been in full swing since its establishment, and the smelter’s functions were subsequently integrated with those of the Sobiraki Smelter in Niihama.

Remains of the Koashidani district

Koashidani, center of the Besshi Copper Mines in early Meiji era. Bustling town with a theater and a school

Koashidani Theater (photographed in 1890). Decorated with flags and lanterns to celebrate the bicentenary of the opening of the Besshi Copper Mines. When not in use as a theater, the building served as an office for the Civil Engineering Department and the Forestry Department. For festivities, the theater was decorated and theatrical troupes were invited to perform. Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Besshi Elementary School/Junior High School, a private school established by Sumitomo (photographed in 1890). To serve the growing population of Koashidani, the school was relocated from Mettamachi and new facilities were constructed. Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives

Town vanished in the forest

Town vanished in the forest

In line with the increase of the mining output from Toen in the 1880s and the opening of Adit No. 1 in 1886, the center of gravity of the mining operations shifted from Mettamachi, where the Mine Headquarters was located, to the Koashidani district. In addition to company housing for the mining manager and accommodation for the workers and a reception hall, an elementary school and a theater were built and a thriving mining community was established. Walls of stone and brick can still be seen scattered among the flourishing woodland, enduring witnesses to the bustle of days gone by.

Meiji Restoration felt in Besshiyama

Chimney at the remains of the brewery. At its peak, annual sake production at the brewery was running at 100 kiloliters.

The modernization pursued by the Meiji Restoration also had an impact on the way of life of the people working at the Besshi Copper Mines. Following the enforcement of the educational law by the Meiji government in 1872, Sumitomo established a private elementary school in Ashitani in 1875. According to the records, the school started with an enrolment of 37 youngsters, comprising 32 boys and 5 girls. Modern medicine became available with the opening of a hospital in 1883.

Following the start of mining in the Toen Inclined Shaft in 1882 and the opening of Adit No. 1, which was a major transportation route, in 1886, the Mine Headquarters and the housing for miners and their families were relocated to the Koashidani district near Toen.

If you hike for about 20 minutes along the trail that runs south from the Besshi Copper Mines, you will come across the remains of stone walls in the forest, where the Koashidani district once stood. A brewery was established in Koashidani in 1870 to make miso and soy sauce and to brew sake for people working in Besshi. Walk a little further up the slope from the remains of the brewery and you are in the center of what used to be the Koashidani district. In addition to company housing, there was a reception hall for welcoming important visitors. An elementary school was relocated from Mettamachi to newly constructed premises in Koashidani in 1888. Even a full-scale theater was constructed in 1889. Equipped with a revolving stage, the theater could accommodate an audience of 2,000 people. In May for the festival of the mountain god, celebrated theatrical troupes were invited from Kyoto and Osaka for kabuki and other performances.

Remains of Yamane Smelter: short-lived research base

Yamane Smelter built atop Shojiyama mountain with a view of the Niihama plain

If you drive from Niihama to the Besshi Copper Mines, you will see a chimney on a hilltop. The chimney is the remains of the Yamane Smelter atop Shojiyama mountain. Built in May 1888, the 19-meter-high rectangular prism-shaped brick chimney is imposing.

Thanks to the enhanced efficiency of mining operations, the quantity of ore smelted in the Besshi mountains increased by 30% between 1877 and 1885. However, the volume of blister copper produced remained flat from 1880 onward because of a shift to lower-grade ore, including ore that had been discarded during the Edo period. In fact, an increase in the cost of copper production was unavoidable and a more efficient smelting method was desired.

The Yamane Smelter was constructed to resolve such issues and its design was based on an epoch-making concept, that is, to smelt all the ore available.

Low-grade ore has about 3% copper content, with iron and sulfur, at over 40% each, accounting for most of the rest of the ore. In smelting, ore is first sintered in a furnace to remove the sulfur. At the Yamane Smelter, sulfurous acid gas, a by-product of this sintering process, was recovered and sulfuric acid was produced. Sintered ore was reduced to a powder and steam heated in a water tank. Then, copper content melted into a supernatant liquid and iron content oxidized, becoming iron oxides that sank to the bottom of the tank. Copper sulfate contained in the supernatant liquid was extracted and filtered to obtain copper. Cobalt oxide remaining in the effluent was also commercialized for the first time in Japan. The Yamane Smelter attracted great attention.

The method used at the Yamane Smelter was more advantageous than the conventional method and the plan called for Sumitomo to enter the iron-making industry by reducing the remaining iron oxide. However, smoke pollution due to sulfurous acid gas that could not be fully recovered started to damage agricultural produce in the area. In addition, demand for sulfuric acid was less than expected. The Yamane Smelter closed in 1895.

Although short-lived, the Yamane Smelter paved the way for Sumitomo’s entry to the iron-making and chemical industries.

Mine railway connecting Besshi and Niihama

Laying the railway revolutionized transportation. Remains of the bridge piers and the tunnel remind visitors of the age of steam.

The lower railway along the Kokuryo River in Niihama (photographed in 1898) Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
The upper railway running along a precipice at an altitude of 1,000 meters (photographed in 1909) Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Ishigasanjo Station, the terminal of the upper railway (photographed in 1898) Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives

Besshi Mine Railway


The Besshi Mine Railway was constructed in 1893 to establish a transportation route connecting Niihama on the coast to the southern foot of the Besshi Copper Mines.

The railway was divided into three sections: the upper railway, a 5.5-kilometer section from Kadoishihara at an altitude of 1,100 meters near the North Entrance of Adit No. 1 to Ishigasanjyo at an altitude of 850 meters; the aerial cableway connecting Ishigasanjyo with Hadeba at an altitude of 164 meters; and the lower railway, a 10.3-kilometer section from Hadeba to Yamane and Sobiraki (Niihama) where the smelters were located.

The upper railway was Japan’s first alpine railway. However, the upper railway was abolished in 1911 coinciding with the opening in that year of Adit No. 3 connecting Tonaru to Hiura in Besshiyama, which ended the role of Adit No. 1.

The lower railway remained in operation and also started a service for general passengers in the Showa era as a means of transport for local residents. In 1977 shortly after the closure of the Besshi Copper Mines, operation of the lower railway was terminated.

Locomotives underpinned the prosperity of the Besshi Copper Mines

The mountain road from Kadoishihara at the north of the Besshi Copper Mines to Ishigasanjyo is almost flat. Although it looks like an easy walk, you have to make several detours into the valley because of precarious or collapsed bridges along the route.

This road is the remains of the Besshi Mine Railway that was in service here and was used for transportation of ore. It consisted of the upper railway, the lower railway, and the aerial cableway connecting them. The most impressive section was the upper railway running along a precipice 1,000 meters above sea level. In a section of only 5.5 kilometers, there were 133 sharp bends with a minimum radius of 15.24 meters and 22 valleys. The construction of this upper railway was one of the most challenging railway projects ever undertaken in Japan.

Construction of the lower railway started in May 1891 and it entered service in March 1893. Construction of the upper railway started in 1892 and was completed in August 1893, five months after the opening of the lower railway.

The opening of the railways heralded the age of the machine at the Besshi Copper Mines, ending the reliance on manpower and oxen for transportation. Ore discharged from the Toen inclined shaft by steam hoist were transported through Adit No. 1, and then loaded on railway wagons at Kadoishihara Station on the upper railway. Via the aerial cableway, the ore was transported from Hadeba to Sobiraki by the lower railway. This route was also used for transportation of various items, including fuel, to Besshi. The amount of cargo transported to and from the Besshi Copper Mines increased 3.5-fold from 23 thousand tons in 1891 to 84 thousand tons in 1894 following completion of the railways, which underpinned the prosperity of the Besshi Copper Mines.

Brick-built bridge abutments that supported the upper railway
Monoiwadake Tunnel, remains of the lower railway near Yamane