Saturday, 12 November 2011

Monte Neme and the Wolfram Mines...

One of the truly compelling things about moving to a new area is discovering all the little walks and passageways, all the roads you’ve never been down, all the little hidden gems to be discovered and uncovered. Even though I won’t be in residence in the Little Fox House for another 6 weeks, I have begun to do a virtual tour of the area ready to take pilgrims out to places they could never have had a chance to see from the bus! Since I am taking a bit of a break from researching The Dove and the Yellow Cross while waiting for St. James’ Rooster to make it onto the shelves (and packing!) I thought maybe you might like to learn a little bit too and so in the next few weeks I am going to explore here some of the places of the History and Mystery of the Coast of Death in Galicia… Once La Casa del Zorrito is up and running I hope to offer some of these tours to those of you who are interested.

One of these places involved the Nazi exploitation of a little town called Carballo.

In the First World War a mineral called wolfram was discovered in the Monte Neme close the area of the Costa da Morte. Wolfram was used to harden steel and not surprisingly became in great demand especially on the eve of WWII as the Germans were rebuilding the navy denied to them by the Treaty of Versailles. Since they foresaw that there would be difficulties obtaining wolfram from Burma and China, their usual sources of supply, the Nazis turned to Franco.

Wolfram is very scarce in Europe. Only areas of Portugal, some parts of Caceres in Extramadura and Galicia had it in any quantity. Hitler appealed to the Generalissimo for the authorisation to exploit the wolfram as compensation for economic and military help during the Spanish Civil War. Two virgin sites were opened up: Casaio and Carballo just south of A Corunna. The Germans then created a company in Vigo called the "Estudios y Explotaciones Mineras de Santa Tecla" and by the end of the Civil War the mines were already producing in great quantities.

The Galician Wolfram had a decisive importance for the Nazis. It was practically their only supply source. The Nazis needed the Galician Wolfram to harden the steel for their armament trades and supposedly neutral Galicia became a meeting place for Nazi agents willing to get the material at any cost. The price of the mineral skyrocketed to amounts far exceeding its pre-war limits and the scramble for the grey gold began in Monte Neme. Needless to say, mining fever brought all varieties of adventurers and speculators. More than 1000 workers needed to be housed in the golden days of wolfram. Some stole the wolfram to sell on the black market but the sentences were grim for those who were discovered!

Money was plentiful and the little city of Carballo grew more and more, doubling its 1500 inhabitants in 1940 to 3000 in only ten years.

Women played just as important a part in the mines as men did. Not only did they do domestic service, but they also moved the carts, separated the ore, and brought water to homes and factories until running water was introduced. They carried firewood and gorse brush to the ovens and driers. No doubt their children also played a part. No laws against child labour in those days: the only moral code was whether your family ate or starved.

The constant dust in the air led to many deaths, most notably by silicosis, the bane of all miners. Stealing and smuggling led to many a body being thrown down a shaft on a moonless night...

The wolfram was used to coat different weapons to ensure a greater strength. The demand from both the Germans and the English made the price go up to 200 pesetas per kilo, a sizable sum in those days. The close of the hostilies of World War II meant the end of this first mining fever, since prices fell as other countries' minerals became available once more. Other new sources were discovered such as a large mine in Bolivia with cheap labour. A second fever did break out in Carballo in the early fifties due to the war of Korea but with the end of that conflict, the whole Galician wolfram lost its importance.

The exploitation of Monte Neme continued on - in fact, for a long time right up to 1980 – but it never regained the splendor of the war times.

Even closer than Carballo for me in Carantona, at the end of the lovely coastal walk known as the Insua route, are the remains of the old Amparo mine located in the so called Campo do Turco. All now is overgrown, of course. The walk itself begins at a picnic area overlooking the Camarinas ria. A little further around and a small promontory opens out into a vista stretching all the way to the pilgrim town of Muxia just across the bay. If there is a perfect spot on earth just to sit and reflect on your Being, this has to be it. The mine workings are signposted in one place and the subsidence can easily be seen in others.

I don’t think I’d want to walk too far off the track though...

Next time: Shipwrecks of the Costa Morte, old and new.


  1. Looking forward to the Costa Morte!!

  2. Very interesting I'm looking forward to more. I would love to see some photographs of your explorations. "The walk itself begins at a picnic area overlooking the Camarinas ria. A little further around and a small promontory opens out into a vista stretching all the way to the pilgrim town of Muxia just across the bay." Must be lovely!

  3. ... History and Mystery of the Coast of Death in Galicia ...
    My gut feeling says that this Death refers to early pilgrims rather than ships...

  4. Once I get established I'll be able to write a bit more about the beauty spots of the area (that's all of it!). For the time being I am concentrating on some of the peninsula's quirkier history.