I peered into the water, edging closer to study the colours. A deep, dark blue bled into purple, which blended into a blood-red that faded into a vibrant yellow at my feet. It was strangely reminiscent of Microsoft Powerpoint gradient images. Around me a wall of stone was slowly crumbling into the rainbow lake at its heart. A mossy green crept around the fragmented stones. I shook my head. It’s strange to know that biology is not the source of this vibrant scene.
What happens when you dig up minerals and concentrate them on the surface? Answer: the area transforms into a bizarrely over-saturated landscape. Water contaminated with high concentrations of iron becomes tinted with a rusted red and exposed copper undergoes a chemical reaction which leaves it encased in a pale green layer called patina. Other minerals reflect vivid purples, yellows and blues.
This kind of altered terrain has long inspired photographers, with images from all around the world featuring tinted lakes and patched shores. The exotic mineral concentrations also draw international teams focused on teaching rovers how to study minerals on other planets. You may recall a similar environment in my post on the out-of-this-world volcanic landscape around Mount Teide in Tenerife.
The difference between this lonely lake and the vast bowl around Mount Teide though is that it wasn’t an awesome volcano which unearthed these minerals.
It was the raw power of man.
As kids my brother and I loved trying to dig to China. Our greatest achievement was a hole up to our chests if I remember right. We stopped there so we wouldn’t collapse the Earth.
As we grew up and our sister joined us we learned about how absurdly tiny our hole had been. First we were introduced to pits dug by backhoes, then we visited the biggest dump truck in the world (at the time) in Sparwood, British Columbia and finally the dinkiness of our hole really hit home when we stood inside the bucket of a behemoth bucket excavator.
Soon after we also discovered the enormity of open-pit mines from images online.
The mines surrounding Tharsis in the Spanish province Huelva are my latest exposure to the strength of humanity’s ingenuity, machinery and greed.
They have sported signs of mining activity dating back as far as the ancient Phoenician’s colonisation of the area. Later the Roman’s would also take advantage of the local copper deposits.
From this point the mines were supposedly dormant until a French engineer named Ernest Deligny staked his claim in 1855. Together with a fellow Frenchman, named Eugene Duclerc, Deligny started mining for copper through their company C’ie des Mines de Cuivre d’Huelva.
Hey wait, maybe Duclerc is an early form of my last name, Declercq? Am I secretly the heir to a vast copper fortune? *_*
“Unfortunately Deligny and Duclerc proved to be less than effective as engineer and manager and, in 1860, the directors of the company replaced them with Victor Mercier.”
Darn it Victor! You stole my fortune! And University of Glasgow report… you stole my dreams.
The traitor, ahem, new manager was beset with problems and turned to a group of British alkali makers, headed by a Scottish man named Charles Tennant.
With this partnership the company became Tharsis Sulphur and Copper Co Ltd.
The alkali makers were interested in the pyrites Mercier was mining in Huelva. It turns out when copper is extracted from a mineral called pyrite it creates sulphur as a by-product. At the time sulphur was greatly in demand for creating soap, glassware and using in bleaching and dyeing for textiles.
With the wealth generated from the demand for sulphur, the Glasgow-based company began to make an impact in the copper market as well.
Their attempt to process the final by-product of copper extraction, iron, proved too difficult but the company they built for the attempt—the Steel Company of Scotland—bumped along until the 1890s nonetheless.
Their greatest achievement in Spain was a railway connecting Tharsis with a pier named Corrales, where steam ships were ready to take the ore away.
Unfortunately for the company resources are finite and the mines began to show copper exhaustion in the 1890s.
Two world wars, a depression, strikes and the Spanish Civil War did not help things in the 1900s.
By the 1960s the Spanish were sick of being economically exploited by foreign interests and the company was sold to a Spanish company called Campañia Española de Minas de Tharsis SAL.
From there it passed on to Nueva Tharsis SAL, a labour company created in 1996.
After that the mine eventually shut down.
Today some of the mines are open to the public. There was a path circling the one we visited, complete with a small shelter at the top of the hill. The funny thing is that the road sign for the mine on the A-495 highway indicates that its location is 0.3 kilometres further up the road, but the sign basically stands at the entrance (of the smaller mine we visited). When you see the sign, you’re there. Don’t drive any further.
It’s a short casual walk and there’s a wall between you and the lake everywhere, except at one point, so you can bring your kids along with no worries. Yay geology field trips! There’s also a chance to learn about green energy since wind turbines now crop the green hills around the mine.
If you’re only after a simple walk the turbines providing a picturesque, utopian backdrop for the strange industrial walls of the old pit.
What was once a place ravaged by human technology has now been left to its own devices. What will you find there?