Notes about the lead mines of the Sierra Almagrera, Almería, Spain
The Sierra Almagrera mountain range runs for 8 kilometres north-eastwards from the
fishing village of Villaricos, Almeria. At its broadest point near the inland village of
Los Lobos it is 1.5 km wide. The Sierra is composed of micaceous schist, generally a
soft dark rock that glistens with mica, interspersed with hard pods of white quartzite.
The mountains are criss-crossed with mineral veins that contain predominantly lead
and silver, as well as zinc, copper and iron, and occasional traces of gold. One mineral
in particular, Jarosite has made the area famous. It is a yellowish-brown iron-rich
mineral and was first described in 1852 after its discovery in the Barranco Jarosa, an
intensely mined area immediately to the east of Los Lobos. Jarosite has come under
the spotlight again in recent years, when NASA discovered traces of it on Mars.
The minerals were first mined intensely in Roman times, mainly for the lead and
silver. Lead was of particular value to the Romans and was used in plumbing and also
to make ‘potent’ cosmetics. To support these operations the Roman settlement of
Baria was founded, at the mouth of the Rio Almanzora, at the southern end of
Villaricos. Recent archaeological excavations there have revealed an extensive
settlement. When mining was at its peak in the 19th century, Roman mine workings
were frequently encountered, and walking around the mountains today, some of the
shallow and narrow Roman workings can be identified on hill tops following the line
of a mineral vein.
Following the Roman activity little seems to have been mined in the Sierra
Almagrera, until a chance discovery was made in 1839. According to the story, ore
was discovered by a poor weaver called Valentin from Cuevas de Almanzora, who
was out shooting rabbits, he observed anomalies in the rock and concluded that the
ground must contain ore. He dug around in the Barranco Jaroso and quickly found a
lump of ore. It was beyond his means to test it, so he took it to a smelter in Granada,
where it was identified to be silver rich lead. Being penniless, he brought his
discovery to the attention of Soler a rich fellow townsman, who eventually with
fellow adventurers established the El Carmen mine in the Barranco. The mine proved
exceedingly rich, and so Soler quickly established further mines in adjacent areas.
This trend continued and the area became famous world-wide for its richness
throughout much of the 19th century. The ore was smelted to release the metal, the
smelters were located around Los Lobos and Villaricos, Flues from the smelters can
be seen snaking around the sides of low coastal hills to the north of the latter village.
Towards the end of the 19th century, as the mines were getting to a deeper, water was
getting into the workings, and so elaborate pumping schemes were introduced.
However by the early 20th century mining activity was starting to dwindle. This was
due to three main reasons, firstly pumping water from the workings was becoming
difficult and expensive; secondly, the price of lead ore was very low, so Spanish lead
mining frequently gave low profits if any; thirdly the world metal market was being
swamped by a glut of lead ore from places like Broken Hill, Australia. So with this
pressure, mining in the Sierra came to a standstill in 1912.
However, there was final phase of mining. In 1944 the Spanish government, issued a
decree for a company to be established to work the mines for national interests. On
the 8th November 1945, the Minas de Almagrera S.A. was constituted. The company
established its headquarters at El Arteal at the southern end of the range, below the
Barranco Frances, which had also previously been intensely mined. The remit of the
company was to take over mines drainage, intersect and prove and work the mineral
veins. To achieve the first objective, the Santa Barbara Adit (tunnel) was driven a
total distance of just over 4 kilometres in a north-easterly direction from El Arteal
following the spine of the Sierra Almagrera. It accommodated a double-track railway
system over some of its length that fed directly to an ore-dressing mill. The mill
housed an ore separation technique, known as oil-flotation, a method that was in its
infancy in 1912. Its advantage was that the metallic ore could be extracted profitably
from relatively poor grade vein material. In addition, offices, workshops, electrical
installations were constructed, as well as bath houses for the miners, and rows of
barracks to house the workforce and there families. It is believed mining ceased at El
Arteal sometime in the early 1960s.
Sierra Almagrera: Lower Barranco Jarosa
A visit to the Sierra Almagrera today reveals a unique mining landscape. To operate a
mine, firstly the miners would have to lease a concession from the landowner, and this
would have to be formally registered with the Spanish Governments Department of
Mines. In the Sierra the Barranco Jarosa and Frances contain the greatest
concentrations of concessions. Invariably the mineral veins were accessed by deep
shafts, as there wasn’t often sufficient distance to drive a tunnel within the
concession. The shafts were essential for accessing the ore and providing ventilation.
Consequently shafts are everywhere and usually unprotected so a visitor to the Sierra
must constantly bear this in mind. Even the highest point, Tenerife (368m) has an
unprotected open shaft within a few metres of its concrete marker. As mines got
deeper, hand-winding, or the use of mules, was replaced by steam power, and so stone
headgears and houses for steam engines are scattered around the mountain side. The
introduction of steam-powered machinery provided another problem, where to get
water for the boilers? This was overcome by constructing channel systems to catch
rainwater, and the water was then fed into large cisterns. The routes of the channels
now form a network of footpaths that skirt the highest peaks. There is still one steam-
winding engine in existence on one of the mine sites, near to the Barranco Jarosa. It
was manufactured by the Reading Iron Works, of England, and was probably brought
into the area in the 1870s. Recently, the Junta de Andalucia conserved the engine in
Steam engine manufactured by the Reading ironworks, Reading, United Kingdom.
Areas like the Barranco Frances, just above El Arteal, still bear testament to the
intensity of mining. A stone wall still encircles the mine yard, which in its day would
have housed workshops, carpenters, blacksmith, storage and ore treatment facilities.
Flues lead away from this area from old hearths and steam operated facilities. An
adjacent two-storey building probably housed offices and barracking. At El Arteal,
where final mining operations took place, there are also considerable remains. These
include a transformer house with the company logo still attached, mine offices,
general mine buildings. Adjacent to the ornate portal to the Santa Barbara Tunnel,
which lies just south of the main site, there are two round miners bath-houses which
have recently been converted into living accommodation. About 60m in front of the
portal there is a steep drop to the site of the flotation mill. To the south lies the
recently landscaped tailing dump, now used for growing lettuces!
In the surrounding area, there are other mines like those at Las Herrías and the Tres
Pacos, near Cuevas de Almanzora, for example. At the latter site the iron ore had to
be roasted, or calcined, to make mineral separation easier. Five circular calciners
dominate the site as well as mine offices and workshops. The ore from this site was
transported by aerial ropeway to the coast, just to the north of Villaricos, to be loaded
onto ships. To get there, the ropeway had to cross the Sierra Almagrera and there is
still evidence of its route, including stone support towers that look similar to stone
headgears, and a deep cutting through the ridge.
It cannot be emphasised too much that a visit to the Sierra Almagrera must be done
with extreme caution because of the number of open shafts, some of which are even
located in the middle of footpaths. It is not a place to take small children or animals.
17th January 2010
Flue of a coastal smelter north of Villaricos.
Sierra Almagrera: Concessions c1890