Mina de São Domingos
To see a google map of the area from Mertola to Mina São Domingos click here
I have been sailing up and down the river Guadiana to Pomarão on a regular basis for the last 12 years and so have known that ships had been sailing up the river to Pomarão to load copper ore from Mina de São Domingos until 1966. But had never actually visited the mines until we finally visited São Domingos over a weekend in May 2008.
We drove initially east on the A22 then turned left onto the N122 to the north of Castro Marim traveling north just to the west of the Guadiana river past Alcoutim and then joining the river at Mértola where stopped for lunch. After lunch we crossed the river and rode east and then north east for a total of 17 kilometers to São Domingos.
The hotel where we had booked to stay the night 'Estalagem São Domingos' was on our right as we came into the village, being anxious to see something of the village and the mine we carried on and whilst having read something of the history and therefore knowing that the village had been purpose built for the four thousand workers that worked 24 hours a day in the mine, we were surprised by how attractive the village is with its streets laid out in a gradual curve on both sides of a road that goes through the middle of the village.
The houses are all semi-detached in long attractive streets, all painted white with terracotta tiled roofs and consist of just one room originally containing a small double bed, a table and two chairs and a fire place for cooking. Many are being lived in and most now consist of two houses joined into one with a door in the original dividing wall. Many in recent years have been given modern windows and doors, but otherwise remain the same as they have been for the past 150 years. The mining company supplied everything that the community might need in this purpose built village including an impressive church. Under an agreement between the Government, the Municipality of Mértola and La Sabina the owners of the mine, the majority of the houses formerly owned by the company were sold to their occupants. The proceeds have been devoted to renovating the mining companies offices, converting it into a hotel with 31 rooms, adding a section of modern accommodation as well as an amateur observatory.
Archaeologists claim that the mine has been worked for as long as 4000 years by Greeks, Carthaginians and Phoenicians. Reputed to be the oldest mines in the world, the area has a particularly rich history and the mineral wealth was legendary . It was tales of the Iberian Peninsula's mineral wealth that drew Phoenician merchants to its shores, laying the foundations for a succession of Greek, Carthaginian and Roman invasions. Later from 12 AD to 397 AD the mine was worked by Romans who initially came to the area to mine for gold and silver but then over the next 385 years excavated down to a depth of 40 meters and removed 750,000 tons of pyrite and copper.
Rio Tinto just 70 kilometers to the east has a similar history, but is a larger mine and it is said that in 1000 BC it was in fact the legendary King Solomon's mine, the name of a nearby village is still called 'Zalamea la Real'. To see a google map showing the Rio Tinto mine & Zalamea la Real click here
Following the Romans leaving the area in 397 the mine was not worked intensively again until 1855 when a company called La Sabina was founded as a public limited company in Huelva, in Spain. It was established in Portugal in 1874 as La Sabina, and was granted the mining rights at the Minas São Domingos copper mine. The mining rights were leased to the British firm Mason & Barry, which exercised them until 1966 by which time all the usable copper ore was finished. In 1972 La Sabina bought all the property and rights registered in Mértola from its predecessor company. The large terraced houses shown to the right were for the British managers of the mining company and were adjacent to the mining companies offices.
Over the total of 110 years more than 25 million tons of ore was removed from the ground in the São Domingos region. There were two different types of mining there, firstly a complex gallery system at depths that went down to 400 meters and secondly open cast mining that went down to a depth of 100 meters below the surface. During the early years in the 19th century the ore was brought to the surface by donkeys, later mine cars were used pulled by a steam engine. The ore was also taken to Pomarão by train where it was tipped directly into ships from a pier that extended out over the river, the remains of this wooden pier are still there.
The large opencast mine is now filled with water and as can be seen in the photograph at the top of this article, the water has become polluted with the various ores that have leached into it from both the surrounding ground and the slag heaps that surround the mine. The local government have started a rehabilitation project which is designed to remove pollution from the region and therefore protect the environment.
The hotel where we stayed is a building that was originally the mining companies offices, now it is a comfortable 5 star Estalagem (country hotel). In the dining room we had an excellent dinner and after dinner were invited up to the hotels observatory where a visiting astronomer showed us various planets which we observed through a powerful telescope. This for me was the first time I had looked at planets through a telescope and seeing for instance Saturn with its rings was an exciting experience. The hotel offers astronomy evenings several times a month, to be informed of these dates go to www.hotelsaodomingos.com and register so that you will be sent by email the hotels newsletter.
We returned to the Algarve the next day riding west through Mertola and on to Almodôvar where we turned south on the N2 to Faro, a very good road that winds its way through the beautiful hills that separate the Alentejo from the Algarve.
November 2012 I received a very interesting email from a mining engineer Robin Oram with some fascinating comments from a friend John Higgins who is also a mining engineer and actually worked at Mina São Domingos as a student in 1955. I am very grateful to them both for their information. Martin.
I was drawn to your web site during a restaurant search, and was impressed by the scope of your sailing work and travel tales. I live in Santa Barbara de Nexe having first worked in Portugal in 1986 and then retired here.
Courtesy of an old friend and colleague, John Higgins in Brazil, may I offer some current detail to your record on your story of Mina de São Domingos. Like me, John Higgins is a retired mining engineer (ACSM), and he visited us recently. John is an expert on the Mina de S D history, being a mining historian and having worked there as a student in 1955, and his father before him.
John spent 3 days there in September talking to some of the locals, and he gave them historical drawings, photos, reports, for eventual use in their museum.
He wrote to me last week and described what he saw there. So, given his approval to forward this, I thought his note might complement the last part of your own comprehensive description. As follows:-
Good to hear from you, and thank you for the well written article by Martin Northey. With no other industry there, except for farming, the little town is quiet but the people are all of Alentejo stock and I felt that they were proud of their mining history. They have made a lovely beach at the side of one of the lakes which is popular for swimming, as well as sun tanning on the sandy beach. They have a life guard on duty during the summer and the water is tested every day to comply with EU standards.
A couple of bars and small restaurants as well, no blaring music but friendly population. It might be a bit dull for youngsters but for me I could hang around there for most of the summer! The mining areas including the treatment plant and the two smelters are a mess still, but there is great possibility there for a large industrial museum. They have a small museum in the old cinema but they need funds to develop the area.
We stayed in the hotel which was originally the house of the Sabina family. They still own a massive area of land in that part of Alentejo and while driving through the winding roads you will see large boulders painted white and with ‘Sabina’ written in black, which mark the boundary of the Sabina land.
A Mina São Domingos friend spent three days with me including a trip to Pomarão to see the old ship loading facilities, and it was interesting for both of us to compare my photos of 1955 with today’s ruins.
He now has my original (student vacation) report which may go into a museum in the future. It worked out well because his wife got on with Lídia and they could chat away in Portuguese. He also took me to visit two of the old explosives magazines one of which with a big arched door is now the ‘home’ for a horse!