History of mining in Navarre


Areas of charcoal production and metallurgic centres at the end of the C.XVIII and beginning of C.XIX (Enciclopedia Auñamendi)

Areas of charcoal production and metallurgic centres at the end of the C.XVIII and beginning of C.XIX (Enciclopedia Auñamendi)

The evolution of mining activity in Navarre presents features in common with the rest of the peninsula and cannot be detached from that of its very close or neighbouring territories, with which it bears, on the one hand, geological and metallogenic similarities and, on the other, significant historical economic and social ties.

As in the rest of the Peninsula, there is evidence of mining activity in Navarre dating back to remote times although its importance has undergone very significant variations, depending on the degree of social and economic development, together with market and technological circumstances. Therefore, lengthy periods of largely non-existent mining activity have alternated with other cycles of mining growth and development, with the latter being the most common and important from the XIX century onwards and to-date.

Mining activity in Navarre first appeared in the Neolithic age, as evidenced by findings from the Urbiola Cave, known as the cave of “the green men”, from where malachite and azurite was probably mined in the Bronze Age.

In the era of Carthaginia as well as, above all, Roman domination, there was mining activity, mainly of copper and argentiferous lead, although they lacked the magnitude of others that existed in Spain.

After centuries in which mining activity was scant throughout the entire region, new policies favourable to mining reactivated the sector during the XVI-XVII centuries. During that period, diverse mines became active in Navarre (Betelu, Imizcoz, Urrobi, etc) to obtain metals such as alum, copper and, above all, iron, the exploitation of which led to the proliferation of foundries.

By the XIX century, mining had fostered the construction of mining railways that quickly turned into means of transportation for passengers and freight: Branch lines included: Irún-Endarlaza; San Sebastián-Pamplona (Plazaola-Pamplona leg); Artikutza-Rentería and Olvega-Castejón.

Ferretería Betelu S.XVIII

Ruins of the Betelu foundry (Foto de A. Sarasola / IGME)

Some sectors promoted the installation of factories, such as the asphalt factory of Bacáicoa, and local steelworks such as the Mina Ley Foundry in Vera which, once the mining activity had been shut down, turned to industrial activities (Fundiciones de Vera or Funvera).

The lengthy mining history of Navarre has created, particularly in the northern area, a real mining culture. When metal mining entered into decline in the middle of the XX century, two mining operations appeared in Navarre that represented important milestones in mining production at a national level. They consisted of the extraction of potassium salts and magnesite. The mining of both substances increased employment and considerably increased the value of mining production. Apart from in Navarre and Aragón, potassium salt resources are only found elsewhere in Spain in Cataluña, while existing magnesite mines were very small in size.

The production of potassium salts in Navarre, from the 60’s through to 1997, represented around 30% of the national total, although in some years it amounted to some 50% of national production.


The long gone Plazaola railway

The long gone Plazaola railway, which from 1914 linked Pamplona with San Sebastian, had its origin in a small mining train that linked the old Plazaola mines, located in Berastegi, on the border between Gipuzkoa and Navarre. (Archivo Enciclopedia Auñamendi)

It was in this decade that initial work began on locating potassium salts in Navarre. In 1926, a large potash mining area was recorded and, subsequently, the IGME (Geological and Mining Institute of Spain) carried out a study on the water in the areas of Tafalla and Pamplona. In light of the results, it was decided to explore the potential potash area by means of three boreholes, one in Salinas de Pamplona, another in Olaz and the third in Guendulain. In 1929, the mining engineer Joaquín del Valle Lersundi discovered the potash deposit in the Pamplona basin. The information available led everyone to believe that the potash deposit in Navarre occupied a large area.

Invoice from the Gaseosas de Benito Aramendía factory

Invoice from the Gaseosas de Benito Aramendía factory. Curious document that certifies the presence, in 1932, of “potash Germans” in the area of Sangüesa. (Archivo Sangüesa)

This decade saw prodigious studies and drillings in search of the highly valued potassium salt.

In 1930, a borehole was carried out in Salinas de Pamplona, which reached 9 metre layers of carnallite at 78m. In light of these results, it was agreed to proceed, throughout 1931, with two more boreholes, in Subiza and Guendulain. In addition to these three boreholes undertaken by the State, the Potash Society of Navarre carried out a further two boreholes, although they failed to produce positive results. But there were more. Given that Salinas de Javier registered the presence of potassium salts in the composition of its brine, drilling work was begun in the area. Experts from Germany participated in this work.

Plans of the turret for the extraction machinery used in the Guenduláin and Beriain wells

Plans of the turret for the extraction machinery used in the Guenduláin and Beriain wells (blog of Josetxo Paternain patermendaza.blogspot.com)

Various concessions expired in this decade and, in 1945, the State’s reserve of the potassium basin of Navarre is already being referred to.

In July of 1949, a ministerial order was published in relation to the potassic area of Navarre and its exploitation began for the National Institute of Industry, INI, which, through the National Company

ADARO, began the drilling of two wells and two boreholes: the wells were Beriaín and Guendulain, and the boreholes, Subiza and Zariquiegui.

Potasas de Navarra.

Potasas de Navarra. First open pit mine. Beriain Well. (blog patermendaza.blogspot.com / Josetxo Paternain)

At the beginning of the decade, exploratory boreholes proliferated in Navarre, with twenty-one being carried out in just one year, 1952.

On the 29th of May of 1957 the Potash Mining Company of Navarre was constituted by Government Decree, with head office in Beriain

In 1959 the mining concession of Nuestra Señora del Perdón was granted to ADARO, consisting of 8.400 hectares, on the outskirts of Pamplona. Authorization was also granted to constitute the Potasas de Navarra, SA mining entity, with other foreign collaborating companies. Two years later the Beriain shaft facilities had been completed, together with the Esparza de Galar double inclined access ramp or decline.

Potasas de Navarra S.A.

Potasas de Navarra S.A. Funicular waste system (blog patermendaza.blogspot.com / Josetxo Paternain)

In 1962 the factory is authorised to open, with the capacity to produce 100.000 tonnes of potassium salt, approximately half of the final capacity forecast. Completion of the decline and links with the Beriain and Guendulain shafts were completed in mid-1963 and, production began in the second half of that year. In the following years, production gradually increased and improvements were made to the facilities, notably the extensive, 4km, conveyor belt joining the Gueriain well to the processing plants in Noain.

Plaza Larre in Beriain

Plaza Larre in Beriain – Galar. (Photo Mariano Estornés Lasa, 1970 / Enciclopedia Auñamendi)

At the beginning of this decade Navarre underwent intense industrialization, a product of the industrial promotion plans designed by the Provincial Council. One of those plans included a mining effort dedicated to the extraction of potash, which by then had been operating for years in the Province. From a region that had been pre-eminently agrarian and labour-exporting, it became a very industrial one. Pamplona became surrounded by a belt of factories, receiving thousands of immigrants who created and populated new neighbourhoods in the city. Under the aegis of the mine, a new village was born, Potasas, now Beriain.

Newspapers at the time paid special attention to the work being carried out in the mine

Newspapers at the time paid special attention to the work being carried out in the mine

In 1986 the mines passed into public hands. The mining entity went from being the National Potasas de Navarra Company to Potasas de Subiza S.A. The new company constructed two new declines, close to the locality of Subiza, similar to the Esparza ramps. One of them was set up to carry personnel and materials, via an Apod chairlift, which carried personnel from the surface to the end of the decline. The other device consisted of a Monorail installed on the other gable end of the plane and was used for transporting materials and equipment.

The other decline had a conveyor system to carry mineral ore extracted from the deposit. Likewise, this decline also served as the ventilation outlet allowing a through flow of ventilation air and purging any potential contamination of gases and dust produced by the diverse start-up, transportation and other functions pertaining to the mining operation.

The Brotherhood of Santa Bárbara in procession on the streets of Berian

The Brotherhood of Santa Bárbara in procession on the streets of Berian with the bearers of the image dressed in old mining uniforms. (Foto Cordovilla / Diario de Navarra)

Potasas de Navarra began work and production in 1962 and, over time, came to have over 2.000 workers on the payroll, being the largest Company in Navarre.

It collaborated decisively in the transformation from an agrarian to an industrial and service-led society, implementing organizational, engineering and internal services systems within the company, and became the first company in Navarre to implement computers and information technology.

The activities of Potasas de Navarra was followed in 1986 by Potasas de Subiza, which finally ceased mining activity on 30th of April of 1997.

The inhabitants of Berian, previously Potasas, still remember the patron saint of mining, Santa Bárbara every year, carrying her image aloft upon the shoulders of former miners in street processions.