Everything is exceptional when it comes to the Arnao mining well, historical mentions support its pioneering character in almost everything that has to do with mining:
It is the first coal deposit documented in Spain. The first underwater mine Europe. The first to use the railway in our country (1836). The first headframe and vertical shaft, the “grandfather/Güelu well” (1856) of the Asturian mining industry. The first Spanish mine that employed women. The first worker town attached to a mine...
It was also a kind of testing ground for many forms of mining used later in Asturias, such as gunpowder drilling, the systematic removal of coal, iron roads….
A little history of the Arnao Mine
The first references to this coal vein, located on a cliff in the municipality of Castrillón, date back to 1591, when the friar Augustine Montero he requested written permission from Felipe II to exploit it. The monarch granted him the license to do so in exchange for, among other things, a substantial payment to the Crown. In any case, it was an ephemeral exploitation. Two galleons loaded with coal were sent from Avilés to Lisbon, after which activity ceased. According to the experts, Fray Agustín Montero was two centuries ahead of the real possibility of extraction, since two centuries would have to pass to deepen the well and erect the headframe. This first well will have 80 meters underground, with an underwater gallery of about 250 meters. Over the years the depth would reach 250 meters and they would develop kilometric galleries. The technical advances and the infrastructures that allowed this progress were the work of the Royal Asturian Mining Company (RCAM), founded in 1833 by Ferrer, Riera and Lesoinneque (with Belgian capital).
For those years it is built in Arnao the first railway with animal traction from Spain, which will connect the mine with a small jetty. In 1835, a brig called "El Cid" carried the first shipment of coal Asturian to Adra (Almería). In 1853, and given the impossibility of using coal for the iron and steel industry, a zinc casting in Arnao that will serve to take advantage of the 40.000 tons of coal extracted each year. This factory turned the Avilés region into a world reference for this metal. In 1858 the same queen Isabel II he visited the Arnao mine, seeing first-hand the use of steam power and even going down into the underwater galleries. In 1863 the railway line was expanded, adding a new section between Salinas and Arnao. In 1891, the train track would finally connect with the port of Avilés. Years before, the mining company had acquired the famous locomotive «Eleonore» (renovated in 2010, it is located in the Arnao mine square), the oldest narrow gauge locomotive in Spain. Two other machines would work alongside it until 1959, the year in which a modern zinc factory was built in San Juan de Nieva, in the vicinity of the Avilés estuary.
After successive leaks of seawater and several strikes by miners seeking to improve working conditions, the Arnao mine ended up closing its doors. It was in 1915, when a considerable waterway flooded the mine. In July 2013, the Arnao mining facility reopened as a museum.
The first miners, those of Arnao
Apart from being one of the most primitive mines in the country, Arnao is also an obligatory reference in the history of the Spanish working class. Its first miners were people who lived in the surrounding area and who had been working as peasants or fishermen. The possibility of having a fixed salary made them opt for the mine. At first they did not go down the tower, but they slid by barrels hooked to ropes. Children slipped through the narrowest passages, who at the age of 12 supplied water to the workers. At the age of 16 they were already beginning to bite in the galleries. The foreman distributed the lamps and the oil, which was deducted from the salary. The machine to lift the ore is moved by oxen, while the women had the hard work of transporting it below, to a space where they classified the coals before depositing them in the boats. The men's work in conditions of high temperatures and little oxygen forced them to take off their clothes and work half-naked. they had no watches and their traditional way of working in the fields or the sea, guided by the rhythm of the sun, the moon and the stars was worthless underground. They always ended up working more hours than stipulated.
Those beret and espadrille minerss made it possible to extract the mineral until the beginning of the XNUMXth century. The Real Compañía Asturiana de Minas, for which they worked, sought from the beginning a model of life and society for them. In the vicinity of the mine emerged a mining town following paternalistic guidelines imported from Europe. The farm owners wanted to separate their employees from the rest of the area's inhabitants, in order to offer them a "new" social position and apparently "privileged" and "enviable" services. The first space for worker housing materialized around the mining well: the neighborhood called "La Mina". Another residential area was the "Factory neighborhood", which ran along the bottom of the valley. In both cases, its inhabitants had to face extreme humidity and the entrance of fumes from the zinc factory. The town was completed by the commissary, the Ave Maria schools and the hospital. In the upper, and more ventilated part of this area, the residences of the superior employees and foremen were located. Above them loomed the director's chalet.
The vestiges of these mining activities and the town have been part of the Cultural Heritage of Asturias since 2006.
The Arnao Mine Museum
The interpretation center of this site represents a value enhancement of its industrial heritage, as well as a documented vision of its economic model and all its sociological implications. The museum occupies the old XNUMXth century mining building, used as a worker's casino since 1915. At the top, the museum itself, the information panels are full of reasons to stop in front of them. Thanks to various audiovisual and photographic resources, models, objects and tools, we can faithfully approach the work in this particular mine and its most objective data. For example, in 1833 the Arnao mine had 11 workers, a year later it employed 38, and in 1835 the workforce reached 130 people, including, for the first time in mining history, 3 women: Victoria, Josefa and Teresa.
Guided visit to the Arnao Mine
After touring the exhibition, and if we have reserved it in advance, we can join a guided tour that allows access to the interior of the mine. We started in the original headframe from 1856 and preserved in perfect condition, including the original cage that carried the miners.
in the visit we will descend about 20 meters, the only level that can be visited because everything else is flooded by water. The miners descended about 80 meters and then descended on foot to a depth of 205 meters with few security measures.
Inside the galleries, we watched the explanations with astonishment and tried to imagine the working conditions that prevailed down there. The fact that the mine was abandoned at the beginning of the XNUMXth century allows us to enjoy remains and vestiges of great historical-archaeological value, something that does not occur in other mines whose closure has been more recent. For example, an old forge or the straps with which they tied the oxen and mules that dragged the wagons. The gallery with nineteenth-century brick and limestone vaults is a true jewel of industrial archaeology. The miners with graffiti on boards and marks on the walls tried to name the galleries in order to orient themselves.
The well is divided into two areas, one for ventilation and another that descended 60 meters through zig-zag stairs. The miners used to climb these stairs, loading the coal into a kind of bags or backpacks that could weigh between 20 and 25 kilos.
It is also worth visiting the mining town with houses, a commissary, the director's chalet (pending restoration) or the schools, in the back of which, on the ground, we discover relief maps made at the time, as well as geometric figures for teaching children.
It is convenient to go slowly and enjoy all these historical jewels.
***NOTICE: the museum will be closed for renovations until May 2024.
Schedules and practical information of the Arnao Mine
Approximate duration of the guided tour: 50-60 minutes.
Recommended for all ages.
It is important book it a few days in advance so as not to have last-minute surprises, as the capacity is limited to 12-14 people.
There nearby parking free outdoors. In summer season the occupancy is usually very high.
Fees for the museum, headframe and descent to the galleries
Single adult (from 15 years old) €4,50
Individual child (from 4 to 14 years old) €2,50
Adult group (minimum 12 people) €3,50
Child group (minimum 12 people) €2,00
Guided visit to Arnao, a working-class town from the XNUMXth century
Price per person €3,00
From June 1 to September 30 and Easter: Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 15 p.m. and from 16 p.m. to 20 p.m.
From October 1 to May 31, Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 14 p.m. and 16 p.m. to 18:30 p.m.
Text: © Ramón Molleda for asturias.com