Among the green valleys of Asturias in northern Spain are Las Cuencas Mineras, a region of more than 20 towns that for years lived from the mines and the black coal extracted from the bowels of the earth. Today there are few remaining mines and scarcely 1,200 active miners, and yet these pits remain as relics of the history and identity of Asturias.

When it came to be mined between the end of the 18th century and the start of the 19th, coal changed everything: the way of life, the towns, the hours, social movements, economic relations… It transformed a rural, agrarian society into an industrial economy, with the population concentrated around the centres of production. For two centuries, mining was one of the principal economic engine of Asturias. The crowning moment was during the First World War when, according to historian José Luis García Delgado, there were almost 50,000 miners in the region.

With their hard, dangerous work, the miners became heroic figures, says the director of the Asturias Museum of Mining and Industry, Santiago Romero. Every day they went down to the pit in “the cage”, and for hours extracted the mineral through brute force. They came out tired and black, but they fed thousands of families. Their solidarity, fellowship and sense of ethics have always been recognised and praised.

Foto: Hunosa

All these memories now live on in special museums created to preserve and praise this piece of history. One of them is the Asturias Museum of Mining and Industry, located in El Entrego, in the heart of the Nalón Valley, where as many as 20,000 miners worked. Built above the San Vicente mine, the museum preserves the typical building that marked the entrance to the mine. Inside the museum there is “a bit of everything,” says Romero, so that visitors can fully understand what life was like inside and outside a mine; they have recreated an infirmary, an electrical shop, the baths and dressing rooms… Although perhaps the most moving feature is the descent to the mine by means of the cage: one feels just what those miners felt every day. Down below, along a 1,000-metre tunnel, figures recreate how the coal was extracted, and visitors see how the tunnels were supported and inspect the train used to move the coal.

Foto: Turismo Asturias – Tomás Miñambres

It’s also possible to visit the Ecomuseo Minero in the Samuño Valley, which includes a visit to the San Luis pit and a trip on a train. For more adventurous visitors, the Sotón Pit offers a descent of 600 metres into a real coal mine (wearing suit, lamp and rescue equipment) with a team of actual miners. During the five-hour guided visit, the group of no more than 10 visitors climbs up chimneys and inclined surfaces, sees how the coal-cutting machine works, and learns about other elements in the mine.

Mining has left its mark on the culture and identity of Asturias. And this is understandable: thousands of families lived because of mining. “All Asturians are miners,” says Santiago Romero to explain the importance of coal mining in the region. And while the pits are now closed and silent forever, their history lives on in the collective memory: in the buildings that stand out in the landscape and in the old mines that have now been turned into museums to honour the past.

Foto: Turismo Asturias – Arnäu Spani

Cover photo: Hunosa