According to recent archeological research, the beginnings of the exploitation of lead deposits in this area date back to the 8th century BC. The first people to mine lead were probably Celtic tribes, who specialised in processing of silver. It is difficult to trace the origin of the town's name. In various documents, we can find names like Lchus, Hilcus, Ilcus, Ilkusz and finally Olkusz. First mention of Olkusz in historical records dates back to a commentary to the Bible written by Rashi in 11th century.

In 1257, Prince Bolesław the Chaste moved the Poor Clares convent from Zawichost to Skała and promised to donate two grzywnas (eight ounces) of gold a year to the order; the funds would come from the profit made through selling lead mined in Olkusz. The city charter of Olkusz did not survive to this day, but the town was most probably granted Magdeburg rights by Bolesław the Chaste. The earliest conformation of Olkusz having city rights comes from 1299 and this date is officially quoted as the beginning of the town's existence.

From the very beginning, Olkusz was a mining town. It was established and developed thanks to lead ore, which had been extracted in the region since the end of the 13th century. Trading in lead brought significant profits and was dominated by townsmen from Kraków. Lead extracted near Olkusz was later transported to Hungary and exchanged for silver[1.1].

At first, Olkusz was located about 2,5 km west of the present town, but after some time the settlement was moved to a more favourable area. The new location contributed to intense development of the town, made possible thanks to its vicinity to a trade route connecting Kraków with Wrocław. Nonetheless, the exploitation and sale of lead ore were still the most important sources of income. In the 15th century, in the town's glory days, 300 lead mines operated in Olkusz, with smelters being opened in the same area. Seeing that lead was easily available in the region, a royal mint was opened in Olkusz in 1579. In the 17th century, Olkusz was one of the biggest cities of the then Krakowskie Province. Unfortunately, due to wasteful exploitation of resources, natural disasters such as fires and floods of the Baba River, as well as epidemics and war activities during the Swedish Deluge (1655–1660) and the Northern War, the economic magnificence of the Silver Town came to a halt at the turn of the 17th century. The mines were flooded, so the exploitation of lead stopped.

In 1794, Olkusz was taken by the Prussian Army and soon after, it came under Austrian rule. In 1808, the town became a part of the Duchy of Warsaw, but eventually, it was incorporated into the Russian-controlled Congress Poland. At the time, Stanisław Staszic made unsuccessful attempts to reopen the Olkusz mines.

After the Olkusz District was formed, the town gained significance as an administrative centre. Among new buildings raised in the town were: offices of the district authorities (1826), an office of the municipal council (1833) and a hospital (1849). At the same time, many buildings of unique historic value were demolished; among them were the city walls along with the gates, an Augustinian monastery and the town hall. In the second half of the 19th century, Olkusz started to develop rapidly, especially after the years 1883–1885, when a train station on the Iwanogrodzko-Dąbrowska Rail Line (i.e. the Dęblin – Dąbrowa Górnicza Mainline) was built in the town. The railway line made the town independent of its own mineral resources. In 1907, Peter Westen opened a metalware factory in Olkusz; later on, he also ran an enamelware factory. These new investments allowed for the town to develop economically while marginalising the importance of mining. New working-class housing estates, service facilities, residential buildings and council houses were built. In the 19th century, the number of the town's inhabitants increased from 720 to 6,800 people.

WWI did not cause serious damage to the town, apart from the train station being blown up. At the time, the Polish Rescue Committee was active in Olkusz. In 1916, the Committee established a general secondary school for boys and actively promoted education on a large scale. After Poland regained independence in 1918, the town's population almost doubled. Towards the end of the 1930s, there were about 12,000 people living there. The interwar period saw the establishment of a new school and a power plant; new facilities were built, among them a sports park, a sewage system and sidewalks along the streets. The authorities of Olkusz were actively engaged in a large-scale project of building a holiday and health centre in Bukowno; the construction of the complex began right before the outbreak of the war.

The German Army entered Olkusz on 5 September 1939. The town was incorporated into the Third Reich; the border with the General Government ran through the nearby village of Rabsztyn. On 16 July 1940, the Nazi authorities executed 20 Poles – political prisoners brought to Olkusz from Mysłowice and Sosnowiec – and 5 inhabitants of the town. On 31 July 1940, which came to be known as the “Bloody Wednesday”, Germans brought hundreds of residents of Olkusz to squares located in the town and tortured them for a whole day; the action served as a retaliation for the assault on a German police officer. The same year, mass arrests started to be carried out. About 40 people, mainly members of the intelligentsia and various left-wing activists, were sent to the concentration camp in Dachau. In 1941, the town's name was changed to “Ikenau”. The Red Army liberated Olkusz on 20 January 1945. The period of German occupation resulted in great losses for the town, both in its population and infrastructure.

After the war, Olkusz started to develop quickly again. A large number of new industrial investments appeared, which led to new job opportunities opening up for the town's inhabitants. The modernised and nationalised “Emalia" Factory came to be one of the most important national producers of enamelware, bathtubs and sinks. A mine of non-ferrous metal ores called “Olkusz” was built from scratch. Thanks to a newly built broad-gauge railway line, the town, along with the nearby Sławków, gained a connection with the Soviet railway system (through Hrubieszów), which served mainly to transport iron ore to the ironwork in Katowice. Thanks to the developing industry, the town's population grew rapidly and new residential buildings were constructed throughout Olkusz. In 1999, the town became a county capital in the Małopolskie Province.

 

Bibliography

  • O. Dziechciarz, Przewodnik po ziemi olkuskiej, vol. I, Olkusz 2000.

  • Dzieje Olkusza i regionu olkuskiego, ed. F. Kiryk, R. Kołodziejczyk, vol. I, Warszawa – Kraków 1978.

Translated by Natalia Kłopotek

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Footnotes
  • [1.1] Molenda D., Dzieje Olkusza do 1975 roku, [in] Dzieje Olkusza i regionu olkuskiego, ed. F. Kiryk, R. Kołodziejczyk, vol. I, Warszawa – Kraków 1978, p. 149.