A visit to the São Domingos mines in southern Portugal is a mix of interesting elements: the former company town celebrates the work of the old miners and displays how human action and industrial exploitation changed the incredible landscape.
Lying in the Iberian pyrite belt, the São Domingos mines are located in Mértola, Portugal. In 1854 Nicolau Biava and Juan Malbouisson discovered the mine. Around the site, they found remains of ancient Roman and Islamic mining operations such as shafts and galleries. Then, together with other shareholders, they created a company called La Sabina, with the purpose of exploring the Portuguese mines. After a concession from the Portuguese government in 1858, the company granted the exploration of the mine to a British company, Mason & Barron. The Company built the town and everything necessary for miners to stay in Mértola.
A Company Town in Southern Portugal
“São Domingos is a remarkable example of a company town. Its social-spatial organization made it the most developed mining area in southern Portugal in the nineteenth century.”
In the old town, there were houses for miners and their families, houses for owners, a sports club, hospital, market, church, cinema and school. All have a typical architecture. The cinema showed three films a week and all the proceeds from admission went to destitute miners. In the sports centre, there were five football, cricket and tennis teams for the miners to compete against each other.
For Every Door Home, an Entire Family.
Beginning in 2004, a project to reconstruct the site began. The Serrão Martins project launched an effort to reconstruct some of the miners’ homes. Pieces of the old miners’ houses picked from the trash, or donated by local families made their way into the museum exhibition. Old photos, home utensils and furniture sets the scene. However, mining equipment is also in the house. Gasometers, or the flashlights that miners used in the mines hang on the walls. They work with a carbide stone that was a calcareous stone, which in contact with the water creates a gas, and that was what made the light.
Conditions in the houses were crowded. Everyone in the family slept in the same room. Sometimes parents and children had to sleep in the same bed. Most of the miner’s houses also don’t have windows, only doors. Roofs were made of natural fiber, facilitating air circulation. Behind every door, an entire family lived and worked.
Recovering the Memory of the Place
At the Miner’s House — Center of documentation, it is possible to look back and understand a miner’s life. The Serrão Martins foundation collected oral histories of the last miners, preserving the memory of the town. They did workshops and interviews to record the testimonials of the community, motivating people to talk about themselves and build their memory. For instance, rats were a miner’s best friends because they prevented the miners from a landslide or a slip into the mine. While many of the miners have already died, some of their grandchildren still live in the town. The Serrão Martins Foundation also recovered the cinema to make an inventory. Inside the cinema, it’s possible to find pieces of all social circles in the mining city.
Technical Environment in a Mining Landscape
To maintain the structure of the mine, the mining company had an electric power station. It initially burned coal, then cheap gas and fuel. It was the first one built in the Alentejo region. Beside the power station, there were the ore docks, for ore unloading and separation. There the bundles of minerals were pulled by steel cables until unloaded on the trains. The transport was by train. After passing through the docks, the miner was taken to Moitinha and crushed.
Then, the crushed ore went to a smelter in Achada do Gamo, with the cooper cementation tanks. There were still some railway facilities, such as the Telheiro station, the Salgueiros station, which served as a place for maintenance of railway equipment until the final station of the route at Pomarão. Furthermore, Tapada Grande was the old water reservoir that provided clean water to the complex. In the summer, tourists and locals come to enjoy the fascinating landscape from the shore of the Tapada Grande.
Going to São Domingos mines is also recognise how the landscape is affected by the exploitation for industrial purposes. Mining operations caused the soil to get very acidic, but some plant species thrive in it. The particular ecosystem, born by the centuries of works and changes in the natural landscape.
In Portugal, there’s a project to routes of mining places here and plan your next visit to discover the landscape and their outstanding industrial heritage.
Take a look at the video and let’s go with me discover the place!
Photos and Video: Anna Karla Almeida
Special thanks to the Fundação Serrão Martins.