The Ruta de Luis Siret takes you to the abandoned mining village of El Arteal and through Las Herrerias on the flanks of the Sierra Almagrera
Pozo la Alianza
It is hard to find any mining activity in Almeria that does not, somehow, involve the Belgian mining engineer, Luis Siret. His name is associated with Copper Age sites such as Los Millares, archaeological sites and mining areas all over Almeria including the Sierra Almagrera where in 1881, at the age of twenty one, he was appointed as a Mining Engineer. Much of the history of the mining in the Almagrera can be experienced, with a little imagination, by undertaking this walk that was only opened in 2020. It is a walk through history as well as good exercise. This 5 kilometre walk takes you through an abandoned 20th century mining village on the western flanks of the Sierra Almagrera, to a mine headframe and through various mine workings, returning via a 19th century mining village situated on a ridge just southwest of the edge of the Sierra. The whole route is well marked with signposts and bars of yellow and white paint on rocks, wooden posts and pylon legs.
The Ruta de Luis Siret starts on the AL 8106 1.8 kilometres north of the junction with the coastal road, the A7107, at Villaricos but before we start, park at the Torre de Cristal and walk onto the beach. The beach is called Playa de Luis Siret. At the northwest end of the beach two mysterious tunnels disappear below the road and into the hill behind the town. If you care to trace them they take you through a necropolis used by the Phoenicians and Romans and north to the La Herrierias mining area, which is where the walk takes us.
The tunnels are the seaward end of a 60 cm railway line that Luis designed and had laid from Las Herrerias to a cantilever pier at Villaricos in 1897. The whole thing was constructed in 40 days, including a metal bridge across a barranco. This was made possible by the design of the track. One man could pick up a two metre long section of track that consisted of two rails and two sleepers. They were laid on a gravel bed and bolted together, very much like constructing a Hornby model railway. It was a very rapid process. The line did not have steam engines, it had donkey trucks. The ore was put into wagons and a donkey pulled the string of trucks.
Back to the walk. Park up on the waste ground on the west side of the road. On the opposite side of the road you will see a clutch of signposts referring to the Ruta Luis Siret. We are going to take the sign that points north up the barranco. You can walk up the barranco itself or the track immediately to the right. You will be walking past rows of crops that have been sown on what used to be the mine tailings. After 1.2 kilometres, on your right you will see eight rows of barrack style buildings. This is the abandoned village of El Arteal that has a curious and brief history.
Siret's Engine House
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. (M.A.S.A.) was constituted. The company established its headquarters at El Arteal at the southern end of the Almagrera range, below the Barranco Frances, which had previously been intensely mined. The remit of the company was to take over the mines drainage and to intersect and prove and work the mineral veins. To achieve the first objective, the Santa Barbara Adit 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 had only been used for thirty years or so. Its advantage was that the metallic ore could be extracted profitably from relatively poor grade vein material.
The town of El Arteal was built by M.A.S.A. in 1952 to house mine workers and their families. There were about 200 homes, all fitted with bathrooms, running water and water heaters, a great improvement on the standard housing available at the time. The town also included a hospital, a cinema (with sound proofing), a Guardia Civil station, a bakery and a social centre. Unfortunately, within a few years, the mines began to close and the town became increasingly abandoned after 1958.
Up the hill, behind the town is the electricity generating station and scattered along the entire west flank of the Sierra Almagrera are various ruined structures that we will mention in more detail later when we reach a better vantage point.
Continue past El Arteal for about 300 metres and then turn left and cross the barranco. For some time after rain there are pools of standing water here that prove a haven for all sorts of birds. More importantly you are looking at water that has seeped through the lower mining levels that proved such a headache for the miners in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The path winds up a hill. On your right is a stone tower of unknown purpose with electricity insulation points fixed too it. Cross the tarmac road and ascend the track opposite. You will notice the track is rusty red in colour, created from the iron rich spoil heaps from one of the mines.
The huge pit on your left is Corta Santa Matilde, an open cast mine that we will come to shortly.
Two hundred metres up this track, a sign indicates a mirador to your right and the path goes alongside a plastic greenhouse. At the end of the greenhouse, turn right and immediately left alongside another greenhouse, 50 metres to another path taking you left. Make your way to the headframe gear you can see ahead of you. This is the vantage point we mentioned earlier.
House of Luis Siret
The shaft beneath the headframe is the Pozo La Alianza, registered in 1870 and exploited between 1900 and 1926 by la Minas de Almagrera S.A whose director was Luis Siret. From this one mine came argentiferous lead and iron. The village on a ridge in the valley below is Las Herrerias.
Now turn and look at the whole of the Sierra Almagrera to the southeast. In the foreground to the left is a chimney. This is one of two chimneys that threw the fumes from a foundry into the atmosphere. The foundry was called La Atrevida and was owned by Antonio Abellán Peñuela, who later became the Marquis of Almanzora. The foundry itself was built in the village of Las Herrerias in 1850 and operated until 1899.
Working our way to the right down the Sierra we can see towards the top ridges, remains of the following mines: Mina Tres Carmenes, Mina Paraiso, Mina Desamparados, Mina la Justica, Mina la Recompensa, Mina la Iberia, Mina Casa las Vacas, Mina la Manchega, Mina Roseton and Mina Numancia (just below Roseton). These are just 10 of the 1,740 concessions granted in the Sierra Almagrera. They were set so close together that driving a horizontal shaft into the hillside was impossible, the only way to reach the mineral veins was by digging down to them.
Turn to look over Las Herrerias once more. It was only in 1849, whilst the Esperanza Company were looking for mineral riches to compare with the lode discovered ten years earlier in the Sierra Almagrera proper, that they discovered the two hills that embrace Las Herrerias were the two millennia old tailings from the workings of Phoenician and Roman surface mines and that they still contained workable amounts of lead and silver. They were granted the concessions of Santa Maria de Nieva and Virgin de las Huertas. The village grew as a result of the mines and the foundry.
Retrace your steps to the iron-coloured path and turn right. On your left is the open cast mine of Corta Santa Matilde mentioned earlier and, it too has a tale to tell. Back in the 19th century the area was better known as Las Rozas and it had long been the site of ancient, shallow, mine workings. In those days of course, the pit was not there. The landscape was of rolling hillocks penetrated by small adits. In 1870 a sample of mine waste from these workings was sent to be analysed. It contained silver. News soon spread and resulted in the ‘Las Herrerias Silver Rush’ to distinguish it from the ‘rush of 39’. About fifty concessions were granted in an area slightly larger than that occupied by Corta Santa Matilde, so you can visualise how small each concession was. Around half were soon found to be worthless and abandoned.
The remaining concessions worked the old mines and, apart from silver, found the iron tools used by the previous workers two thousand years previously along with wooden supports, clay lamps and, more sinister, human bones, presumed to have been slaves. Here was the wealth that funded the Phoenician and Roman town of Baria at the mouth of the Almanzora river at Villaricos.
The lucky ones found native silver in the form of ‘nests’. The silver was in exquisitely shaped sculptures made of filaments of the metal in cavities in the bedrock, impossible to create by hand. In 1875, the Union de Tres extracted 50 kilograms of silver in this form in just 24 hours whilst in the Iberia mine nests weighing more than two kilograms were found. One nest, from the Milagro de Guadalupe concession was presented to the Pope who granted the mine owner a Pontifical title. He became known as Conde Miguel.
Beneath the silver, the mines in the southerly sections found iron ore and started to extract this using open cast mining methods. Once the mines had reached a depth of between 30 and 65 metres, the miners found that water was seeping in from the Almanzora river. At first the water could be controlled by raising it in buckets. It was an operation carried out by two teams of men each working 12 hours. The mine owners refused to spend money on pumping machinery and could not come to any agreement about a cooperative venture.
In 1875, the owners of Union de Tres installed a steam pump that controlled the water in their own shaft and those of their neighbours, allowing them to dig deeper. Meanwhile, other mine owners waited for a neighbour to install a pump so that they would benefit from it without having the expense. Many concessions stopped work and, by 1882, much of Las Herrerias was abandoned.
A feasibility study carried out by Union de Tres showed that a large central pump that would drain all the mines was achievable and that the best place to install the intake pipe would be at the bottom of the deepest shaft, their own, thus entitling them to a discount on the cost of installing and running the pump. Needless to say it took until 1884 to reach an agreement and a company was formed specifically to carry out the operation, the Sociedad Desaguadora Unión de Tres. The pump (desague) was installed in the Santa Ana shaft.
Meanwhile the French had arrived in the Corta de Santa Matilde in the guise of La Compañía de Águilas. They were conducting open cast mining operations having bought out the previous owners. Their concessions were perilously close to the Almanzora river and, in 1884, soon after the Santa Ana desague had drained the mine shafts, the Almanzora burst its banks and flooded Corta de Santa Matilde and every mine. The Santa Ana pump was unable to cope with the sudden ingress of water and work came to a standstill.
It was not until 1887 that La Compañía de Águilas, responsible for the problem in the first place, made a futile attempt to drain the area utilising eleven pumps and the Santa Ana pump that, miraculously, still worked. Despite bringing in more pumps from their concessions elsewhere it was not possible to lower the water enough to block the ingress. In 1888, La Compañía de Águilas gave up, partly due to the flooding problem and partly because they predicted the fall in value of silver, and ceded their rights to the Santa Matilde to a Spanish company who were similarly unable to fulfil their promises. The mines at Las Herrerias again stopped working.
It was not until 1891 that a British company, H. Borner and Company, contracted for the exploitation of iron ore in the southern part of the Las Herrerias concessions. The Herrerias to Palomares railway was repaired to bring in the pumping equipment and a canal was dug to carry the pumped out water back into the Almanzora. By 1892 the water levels in the southern areas had been lowered enough to construct a contention wall to divert the Almanzora away from the mining area.
With the mines in the south dried out, the owners of the deeper mines to the north approached Borner but they could not reach an agreement as to how to compensate Borner for the work. A German company, Brandt and Brandau, together with their engineer, Luis Siret, put together a plan to drain the whole of Las Herrerias. Everybody agreed to the plan apart from, H. Borner and Company. Borner’s pulled out of the area altogether, taking their pumps with them. The water level again rose and the contention wall was breached, once again putting the mines of Las Herrerias underwater.
Siret pushed on with the Brandt and Brandau plan and installed his pump in the grounds of the now disused Araucana foundry. Siret’s company, Société Minière d’Almegrera, took over the service contract in 1901 and, in 1905 replaced the steam engine driven pump with an electrical pump using electricity generated in the Las Rozas power station that had been built by Société Minière d’Almegrera.
The Société Minière d’Almegrera dominated the mining after 1905, buying concessions until they owned the whole of Las Herrerias. The war of 1914 – 1918 and the aftermath of the First World War produced the same problems for the French that afflicted the British and mining at Las Herrerias declined.
In the late 1980s, the Basque company, Minersa, extracted barites and eventually reached the mineral bearing strata below. The pit is now only about half its ultimate size and a third its ultimate depth. The pit occupies the concessions previously held by the mines; Union de Tres, Iberia, Atravida and Conciliacion.
Before leaving the mining area, it is worth following a signposted track that leads over the small ridge to the northwest of Corta de Santa Matilde into the village of Las Herrerias. The dominant building is the church, commissioned by Luis Siret after the death of his wife in 1895. It has a noticeable north European style to it with its tile hung spire. The abandoned Atravida foundry above the village was taken over by Siret and converted into a hospital and pharmacy. He, or rather his company, was also responsible for a school, shops and a social club.
One establishment that did the Société Minière d’Almegrera no favours was the company store, another building that was part of the Atravida foundry. Part of the wages paid to workers was in the form of tokens that could be exchanged for food and other essentials at the company store. Not surprisingly these stores could fix the price of their stock which led to profiteering.
Now make your way back over the ridge to the Corta de Santa Matilde and turn right until you reach the end of the pit.
Walk across the spare ground ahead into the end of a rather pleasant street at the end of which you cross a larger road into a track between plantations. On the left at this junction is the engine house and chimney that Luis Siret used to eventually drain the mine workings. If you look carefully over the wall and between the trees you will see the two large, almost vertical, iron water pipes, part of the pumping mechanism.
Resume the walk by crossing the track to head southeast. After 200 metres you will see a house enclosed by a wall on your right hand side. This is one of the homes owned by Luis Siret. Outside there is an informational plaque with photographs of Luis and his family. At one time the house contained a personal museum created by Siret himself with mementos of, not just his involvement with the mining industry but also his archaeological work. Plans to open the house as a public museum fell through for lack of funding.
Continue walking for another kilometre through fields planted with salad crops then follow the track as it takes a sharp left hand turn. After another 300 metres turn right and cross the barranco. You will find yourself back at your vehicle.