"Zinc Mining in Udías and Novales" Ontoria by AsturArcadia

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In the early 1850s the geologist Pío Josué y Barreda undertook a series of surveys in the Comillas, Udías and Ruiloba districts, in search of zinc. In 1853 Jean J. Chauviteau claimed mining rights here, and two years later founded the Sociedad Minas de la Compañía Chauviteau. At around the same time Pérez del Molino started working a zinc mine near Novales, a village famous today for its huge number of lemon trees – the latter thrive on account of the high concentration of zinc in the soil. On the rocky headland to the east of Comillas beach calcining kilns were built, together with a jetty.

Between 1856 and 1889 the mines in this district yielded in total 370,000 tonnes. In 1884 ownership of the workings passed to the Real Compañía Asturiana, whose principal mines were at Reocin, near Torrelavega. During the first decade of the twentieth century the RCA decided to realise a wholesale modernisation of its mining installations in Udías. A 186 metre deep shaft was opened at Madroño (also known as Peñamontero), halfway between Cobijón and Novales, in a roadless area of limestone uplands. To link this rather isolated location with the flotation beds and calcining kilns, situated on the hillside above Cobijón, a 2.3 km, 500 mm gauge railway was built, clinging to the rugged hillsides high above the ‘hoyos’ – vast, totally enclosed, roughly circular depressions. The line abounded in civil engineering structures – a high embankment, several cuttings, and two tunnels, each about 100 metres in length. The locomotive depot and works was situated near the flotation beds and calcining kilns, at Casad de la Mina. Here, too, was a junction, with two branches. One line, about 700 metres in length, provided access to the spoil tips, and ended at the head of a 350 metre long inclined plane, up which ore from Mina Buenita was raised. The other branch traversed a 70 metre long tunnel, at the far end of which a 280 metre long inclined plane rose to Mina Teresa and Mina Juana. Near the adits started a second inclined plane, 380 metres long, rising to Mina La Rasa and Mina Paula. In total, this branch was about a kilometre in length. There was a third branch, too, leaving the ‘main line’ about 500 metres north of Casas de la Mina, and accessing the adit known as the Galería María, which ran deep into the hillside to the Caverna de Udías, a vast underground labyrinth of galleries, inclined planes and shafts, with exits in Toporias, Cobijón, Peñamontero and even as far away as Novales.

Once the ore had been washed and calcined, it was transported, originally in horse-drawn carts, and from 1925 by a 3.5 km ropeway, to a staithe above a siding on the Santander to Oviedo main line (Ferrocarril del Cantábrico) adjacent to Ontopria halt. From there the zinc continued its journey by rail to the quays at Hinojedo on the Besaya estuary, and by sea to San Juan de Nieva, the nearest port to the RCA’s zinc smelter at Arnao, near Salinas.

Motive power on the Udías line was provided by an 0-4-0T, ‘María’, ordered from Couillet in 1906, and of similar design to the 550 mm gauge steam locomotives which worked the extensive network over at the Reocin mine and on the branch between the latter and Hinojedo. A second 0-4-0T, ‘Udías’, was acquired from Decauville in 1911. Then in 1925 Orenstein & Koppel delivered Rojillín, another 0-4-0T. In the underground galleries Rohol petrol locomotives, also built by O&K, were used. Between Casas de la Mina and Peñamontero it was a long, steady climb, only tackled by empty trains – the descending ones were loaded with ore. Limestone areas have fickle drainage systems – surface streams tend to be few, and to disappear underground and reappear in odd places. Watering of the locomotives probably took place at a spring situated in a cave just below the railway, on the west side of the latter, about halfway up to Peñamontero.

The economic situation in the 1920s put paid to many marginally profitable mining activities, and the RCA decided to abandon the Udías workings in 1931. The locomotives were moved to Reocín, and regauged to 550 mm. Remarkably, all three survived. ‘Udías’, together with one of the Rohols, in one of the RCA workshops adjacent to the head offices in Reocín, ‘María’ in a shed belonging to Torrelavega town council, and ‘Rojillín’ plinthed in the open air at the blocked up eastern portal of the long tunnel just west of Salinas used by the original 800 mm gauge railway between the quays at San Juan de Nieva and the smelter in Arnao.

Between 1959 and 1962 or 1963 the mines in Udías were briefly revived, but the ore was taken out by road. The mine near Novales, later owned by a Teruel-based company, survived until the early 1990s, but was plagued by flooding, this adding to the cost of exploitation.

We ‘discovered’ Udías and its abandoned railway and mining installations in the winter of 1988/9, when the old bakery at La Gándara, above Cobijón, was being restored and converted into a very agreeable bar, restaurant and hotel (the only place in Cantabria, and possibly in the whole of Spain, where you can sample a genuine Austrian ‘Sachertorte’). The industrial remains are remarkably well conserved – start at Ontoria with the staithe, and continue to La Gándara noting the reinforced concrete pillars of the ropeway (one of these has a painted advertisement for the aforementioned hostelry). At Casas de la Mina there are the ruins of the flotation beds, though unfortunately the last of the calcining kilns was demolished in the late 1980s. The old mine office was built in what is known in Spain as ‘Estilo Inglés´. Also here were the dormitories for the miners. The trackbeds of the mineral lines can be walked – that to Peñamontero wass officially designated a ‘Vía Verde’ a few years ago, and at Peñamontero the headstocks and winding gear survive reasonably intact. The shaft is covered by a concrete apron, which has holes perforated in it (be careful when walking on or near it, it may not be very safe). Drop a stone down the shaft, and wait several seconds before you hear it strike the bottom.

  • Last visit to Ontoria: Nov 2002
  • Intro Updated May 16, 2009
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