History of mining in Aragón

Introduction

Aragón is one of the autonomous communities of Spain with greatest wealth in its sub-soil. Mineral resources for very diverse uses can be found beneath it´s surface. Of particular note are the coal deposits located in the mining basins of Oliete, Utrillas-Aliaga and Mequinenza, mined primarily for use in thermal power stations.

Due to both the variety and type of existing mining operations, Aragón is a market leader in the extraction of non-metallic minerals such as clay, specifically special clays that are used in the manufacture of household and industrial absorbent granular and refractory clays, which in turn are used to manufacture ceramic tiles, flooring and bathrooms.

Another of the non-metallic minerals extracted in Aragón and which is notable for its strategic importance, is halite (rock salt), used in the production of chlorine and lye, and the greatest concentration of which is found in Remolinos, and in lower quantities in some areas of the province of Huesca.

Also worthy of mention is the extraction of metallic minerals. Today they are almost a historical legacy but there is still the odd mine in existence. In the past, the extraction of iron ore from Sierra Menera was of enormous importance to this area, which in turn supplied the iron and steel industry of Sagunto.

The mining basins
Mines of Utrillas La Calera. Source: http://mti-minas-aragon.blogspot.com.es

Mines of Utrillas La Calera. Source: http://mti-minas-aragon.blogspot.com.es

The Mining Basins (Cuencas Mineras), with 1.407 square kilometres, are located to the north of the province of Teruel and they have over nine thousand inhabitants distributed throughout thirty municipalities. The history of mining in this area is ancient, dating back to the Mesozoic.

There is evidence of searching for materials in the soil of Utrillas dating back to the C.XI, specifically lignite, very much in demand at the time by merchants from Levante for its ongoing sale to their Genovese counterparts.

But it is from the XVIII century onwards that mining begins on a large scale, a development that will result in the XX century in a huge mining platform using guides and underground extraction.

It was at the beginning of this last century that one of the main companies dedicated to mining coal on a large scale was born, the Minas y Ferrocarriles de Utrillas Company. This organization, founded in the Casino Mercantil de Zaragoza in 1900, created the Utrillas Reserve, with branches to Escucha and Valdeconejos, and subsequently, from 1948, extending as far as Palomar de Arroyos. El Cabezo de las Eras and La Serna were the first coal mines exploited by the Compañía de Utrillas.

The historical legacy of this region, which lived through its golden years in the XX century, left a significant imprint on its people, who have seen both their past and their present marked by the mining sector. The modernizing of the Cuencas Mineras Region has passed through use of its land and nature.

Region of Andorra and Sierra de Arcos
Mine La Oportuna 1950

Mine La Oportuna 1950. Source: http://mti-minas-aragon.blogspot.com.es

To speak of mining in this Region, is to speak of coal, the most widely mined mineral in the area. There is not a single village in this Region that has not had a mine within its municipality.

Its appearance, growth and decline followed a pattern very similar to that of other areas in the country and, to a larger degree, to the mining basins bordering the province of Teruel.

The origins of this mining arose with the use of charcoal, obtained from wood. Around the middle of the XVIII century, the growing use of this source of energy led to the over-exploitation of forests. So this type of fuel started to become scarce and more expensive, whilst its demand increased for incipient industrial uses at this time and even for domestic use. Various sites thereby sprung up for the extraction of mineral carbon.

In the middle of the XX century, part of the industrial turnaround in Aragón coincided with the Spanish Civil War. The first golden age of coal in this area took place between the years of 1940 and 1958, experiencing spectacular growth in its production due to the drop in imports and increased demand.

Growth of the mining industry, and specifically the coal industry, is intrinsically linked to that of transportation. In 1947, work began on the Andorra-Escatrón railway that would serve to supply lignite to the Escatrón thermal power station, the destination for practically all of the coal extracted.

Due to growing demand, mining operations expanded in the region. Mines such as La Oportuna, in Alloza, La Andorrana, in Andorra, or La Innominada between Alloza and Ariño, were opened. All this activity generated significant demand for labour, which to a large degree was covered by the arrival of immigrants from other areas of the country.

After the expansion experienced during the forties and fifties, in the 60’s the first significant crisis hit the sector, with a drop in production and, consequently, employment.

However, around the middle of the 70’s, demand for coal picked up and the Second Golden Age for the extraction of this mineral takes place, multiplying its production eight-fold.

At the end of the 80’s and beginning of the 90’s, coinciding with the entry of Spain into the European Economic Community, and acceptance of the ECSC treaty (European Coal and Steel Community), the primary objective of which was to establish a freely competitive common market, there began a phase of rapidly reducing mining operations, some due to depletion of the deposits and others due to lack of profitability.

Use of the most affordable energy sources, such as oil, and the impetus of other new ones, such as renewables, ended up taking over almost completely the extraction of coal in the region of Aragón. The last coal mine in Aragón is located in Mequinenza and is currently in the process of being closed down.

The salt mines of Remolinos
Extracted salt

Extracted salt

Located close to the capital of Aragón, they were probably exploited back in the Roman era. At the end of the Middle Ages there is evidence of intense activity promoted by the King and Queen of Aragón.

Known as Zaragoza salt, its extraction was resumed in 1997. Since then, it has been generally active, extracting up to 15.000 tonnes of salt a day, for both national and international markets.

Today, the Remolinos mines are also part of an industrial and educational tourist project set up to help revitalise the area.