Posted by: puebloman | September 10, 2013

History of Cutar in objects 6: The silver mine

The silver mine at Cutar.

The silver mine at Cutar.

Many of you, dear readers, seeing the title of this piece, will be looking for a map – or perhaps a screwed up piece of paper with cryptic clues, crossed bones, a skull and a treasure chest. Well I could tell you exactly where this silver mine is, but I’m sworn to secrecy and once I told you I’d have to kill you. So perhaps its best all round if I talk about its location only in general terms, lest one moonless night you are wakened by the tap tap of a stick on our newly finished cobbles, and you sit up in bed and cry “Lord oh lord, be this the dreaded  tap of Blind Pugh, come for the treasure map? Arrr!”

So. If you walk to the river side of Cútar village and take the concrete road, it will plunge down and round in long looping coils to the bed of the  dry river Cútar. You cross this and then strike up into the hills opposite, planted with a host of young mango trees. Somewhere there in the foothills of the Sierra Tejeda is an old silver mine and last week my friend Claus took me out there to measure and map it.

Claus has lived in the village for more than thirty years and is one of my favorite people. Retired now, he spends his time doing bhuddist things and making low energy light fittings. In a previous life however he was a gold digger. Not a fancy gigolo after moneyed ladies of a certain age, no, he was an exploratory geologist, responsible for making educated guesses regarding the viability of mineral prospects in sites all over the world.  Villagers who know about his past sometimes ask for an informed opinion re the prospects of their land. That’s how Claus came across the mine.

The tunnel is of shale. "Might it collapse?" I ask "I think it'll be standing for longer than we are" replies Claus (flash photo)

The tunnel is of shale. “Might it collapse?” I ask “I think it’ll be standing for longer than we are” replies Claus (flash photo)

As we cross the river Claus kicks a rock in the dry bed. “I call this stuff “Grot”.

It’s pre-Cambrian – unimaginably old, and largely shale. Shale is mud compressed into rock by the tectonic action of Africa pressing against Europe and buckling the southern rim of Spain into its Sierras and  foothills. Here It is very red and that means iron. “You’d need about a million tons of this stuff before you had enough iron to make something” says Claus. Ah. Well. No fortune there then.

We reach the mine. It is a single level tunnel, more or less the height of a man and about a metre and a half wide. It’s 4 in the afternoon but the atmosphere is still hot and airless so it’s a relief to get into the cold of the tunnel. The mine bores straight into a peak of newer Carboniferous limestone which is like spongey calcium so prone to flash flooding, but not at this time of year. The limestone accounts  for the famously “hard” water of the region, full of “Cal” or calcium – the stuff that furs up your kettles.

The tunnel is populated by bats, three or four times the size of pipistrells.

"Surely you don't get calcium walls and stalactites in a tunnel only 100years old?" I said " Ha ha ha!" replied Claus

“Surely you don’t get calcium walls and stalactites in a tunnel only  100 years old?” I said ” Ha ha ha!” replied Claus

The mine is totally un viable. The miners were following a seam of “sulphate” a compound of silver,but the seam was thin and didn’t expand into a viable prospect. Claus believes that the tunnel was cut by hand using cold chisels and block hammers over a period of two to four years by a team of men who voided the tunnel using wheel barrows. He dates it at around 1920. There are a few green smudges on the wall that indicate copper. “You want a green copper smudge, there it is” says Claus. He’s a hard man.

To understand why a generation of men should commit themselves to a massive project that produced nothing, you have to understand the particular desperation of the 1920’s.

Spain had done very well out of the first world war because of its neutrality. Both the British/American armies and the German/Italian armies had appreciated rations of dried fruit – an energising and non perishable food stuff. When soldiers had gorged themselves on raisins and fig bread, they could blow each other to buggery with shells and artillery manufactured around Malaga. The steel industry then was in its hey day. At the end of the war both industries lost their market. The ‘flu epidemic of 1918 killed moire people than did the first world war, and influenza ravaged Spain.

Phylloxera, the vine disease of the 1900’s continued to destroy grape harvests in the Axarquia, so it’s understandable that the fantasy of a “silver strike” should have gripped the men who worked uselessly and fruitlessly in this mine.

The one viable air shaft. Climbable

The one viable air shaft. Climbable

We made our way to the end of the mine, sometimes standing, sometimes crouching until we reached a pool of clear water. A farmer had already warned us that though the water used to be the “purest and best” in the district, it was now regularly doused with insecticide and anti fungicide before being run over the mangos. So we didn’t drink it.

We measured the tunnel bit by bit. I would stand at a bend, Claus stood at the next bend and he would shoot his electronic measuring gizmo at my ample belly, recording the distance and the bearing. A hundred and thirty metres all together. We came across two air shafts. One had collapsed. The other Claus had climbed, but thought it might be a bit much for me (how can a buddhist be so competitive?). There were some dead-end branchings and some water holes.

We emerge once more into the stultifying heat, and see the real gold all around us. Mangos. Hill upon hill of them and battalions of babies with their trunks painted white against the sun. “Of course” says Claus “Once supply exceeds demand the price plummets. Just like gold”. How can he be so hard? And him a buddhist?


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