Santa Rosalia’s Mining Boom and Bust – 8/11/2020

Santa Rosalia has a long and interesting history starting with the Cochimi Indians who lived in the area for thousands of years, leaving evidence of their lives through their cave paintings. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, it was not possible for us to go and see any of the caves in the area.

Missionaries settled in the area and in 1868 José Rosas Villavicencio discovered some blue-green nuggets (boleos), which were taken to Guaymas for analysis and discovered to be rich copper ore. José was paid 16 pesos by two Germans to show the location of the nuggets that he found and this led to prospecting in the area. From 1870 to 1884, it is estimated that approximately 42 000 tons of copper was mined in the area, along with around 6 000 ounces of gold.

By 1884, a French company, The Compagnie Boleo (El Boleo Copper Company), had bought up many of the small independent mines and was granted by the Mexican government a 99-year lease of some 200 square kilometres. What followed was migration of entire French families to the new town of Santa Rosalia.

The Boleo Mining Company constructed the town of Santa Rosalia, along with a network of roads, ranches, farms, houses, businesses, schools and water lines to supply the needs of both the mine and the miners and their families. Ships were continuously arriving from Europe bringing engines, rails and railway cars along with other mining equipment. Lumber was brought from Canada and Oregan to build homes and businesses. Over the years the company drilled hundreds of kilometres of tunnels, as well as built a smelting foundry, a railway to haul the ore and a pier for shipping it to Washington state for refinery.

Santa Rosalia’s distinctive French influence can be seen in the homes and businesses that used timber in their construction to create porches and balconies, similar to that of New Orleans. Generally, homes in the Baja were constructed with cement blocks as there were no trees in the area; for construction, all timber had to be imported, and a fire department became a necessity.

The town of Santa Rosalia did have a very distinctive class system, with the workers’ homes built on the lowland near either the foundry or the port and the government and support staff living in the Mexican quarter on the higher slopes. The French quarter was located on the highest most advantageous point of town.

During the 1950s there was a fall in production and the mining equipment was becoming well-worn; El Boleo decided to shut down, compensating its remaining workers and giving away company homes. Today, remnants of this by-gone era are easily seen along the waterfront, which is full of abandoned buildings and hulking metal structures that housed steam generators.

The mining past can be seen throughout the town, with ore cars hidden in home entrances, carts outside restaurants and even locomotives on the town roundabouts.

Two of the original seven locomotives used by El Boleo during mining, now scattered around town.

Ore carts hidden in-home entrances and wooden carts decorate the exterior of restaurants celebrating the past.

One of the old caves along the waterfront road

Mining of copper, cobalt, zinc, and manganese continues today north of the town of Santa Rosalia by a Korean company.

Another interesting site to visit is Iglesia de Santa Barbara, a prefabricated steel church with an iron framework. The church came from a Belgium warehouse thanks to Carlos la Frogue, the manager of the French mining company, El Boleo. It was shipped to Santa Rosalia and installed in 1897 in its current position.

It is believed that the church was designed by Alexander Gustav Eiffel as a prototype of missionary churches to be constructed in French Colonies and built to withstand tropical storms. The church was exhibited in the 1889 World Fair where both it and the Eiffel Tower were awarded prizes. Lack of historical records has meant it has been difficult to accurately determine the church designer and analysis of the church’s structure has led some to believe that it was possibly designed by French architect Bibiano Duclos, rather than Eiffel. We may never know who really designed it.

Interestingly, the church is protected by Saint Barbara, who is the chosen saint for those who face danger and accidents from explosions. With the adoption of gunpowder in mining, Saint Barbara became the patron for miners, tunnellers and other underground workers; rather fitting for this copper-mining town.

Even if you are not interested in history, it is an interesting town to explore and wander the old streets. The town decorates for different holidays throughout the year; we were there just after the day of the dead and the town’s parks and roundabouts were still decorated.

Halloween displays around Santa Rosalia including a gigantic La Calavera Catrina