The Mine Of San Albino
By Pat Werner
As in so many things, the writings of Ephraim Squier are a very good way to get to know the real Nicaragua. Squier was the first American ambassador appointed by new President Zacary Taylor in 1849. Ephraim wasted no time in sailing to Nicaragua, and almost hyperkinetically, made a point of visiting most places that modern day visitors and residents visit, such as Managua, Masaya, Leon, Granada, Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan River, and most points in between. His masterpiece, Nicaragua, Its People, Scenery, Monuments, And Proposed Canal, published in 1854, with a second edition in 1860, still is probably the best description of Nicaragua ever written. What is not so well known is that Squier also wrote a companion volume, Notes On Central America, Particularly The States Of Honduras and San Salvador, focused mainly on economic resources, mining and projected inter-oceanic railroad lines. In that second volume Squier, in discussing the mining potential of the region, returned to Nicaragua, and described the gold and silver mines of Nueva Segovia. He quoted from a letter he had received from on Don, F.D. Zapata, prefect of Ocotal and Military Commandancy of Nueva Segovia, October 4, 1850:
¨ Appended hereto is a list of various mines of the precious metals and gold washing known to exist to the east and northwest of this city, which I have obtained from responsible persons for transmission to you. . .
8. Taking a course to the right from here and fourteen leagues from this city, are the mines of Santa Albino, and in their vicinity those of Tirado, both of gold.¨
Located on the shores of the Jícaro River 10 km from the town of El Jícaro, those mines, or rather the legend of those mines, have had an impact on the lore of modern Nicaragua. Niquinohomo´s most famous native son, August Sandino, left his hometown and traveled to Mexico, where he found work in the oil fields of Mexico during the latter part of the Mexican Revolution. He picked up knowledge of how industrial companies worked, and came back to Nicaragua at about the time of the Civil War of 1925 broke out, provoked by evil genie Emiliano Chamoro and his golpe de estado. Sandino also brought back a Smith and Wesson .44 caliber revolver. He found work at the San Albino gold mine, and soon had a responsible job. The mine was run by an American known as Mr. Butters, and the mine produced gold profitably. The mining operation was a lode operation, which meant that gold was found in veins in the hard rock, and mining consisted of high grading, or following the vein with mine shafts, or tiros, and mining the high grade ore. The ore was then pulverized to fine dust, and then bathed in a weak solution, of sodium cyanide, which dissolved the gold molecules and put them in a chemical solution. In order to break up the ore into a fine powder two different mills were used, a stamp mill to break up the ore into little pieces, and a ball mill, a large drum filled with steel balls, which pulverized the ore into fine dust.
Sandino left this work and formed his own band of liberal warriors to fight against the Conservative government of Chamorro, and later Adolfo Díaz. The Liberal Party`s army was led by José María Moncada, a local criollo from Masatepe. Moncada began by beating the Conservative forces at Pearl Lagoon on Christmas Day, 1926, and marched west towards Managua, always militarily successful. By May of 1927 the Conservatives were beaten, and Moncada ordered his generals to demobilize. Sandino met with Moncada in the casa cural at Boaco, the two men took an instant dislike to each other, and Sandino left without agreeing to demobilize. He went back to the mines of San Albino, issued a pronounciamiento, and went to war against Moncada.
Plans for an attack on the Marine barracks in Ocotal, then as now the alcaldía building, progressed, and in July, 1927, Sandino attacked Ocotal with perhaps 800 men. One of his chief weapons was a sort of native grenade, made of sticks of dynamite with pieces of steel wrapped in rawhide. The dynamite of course was from the mines of San Albino. The attack on Ocotal was stopped by American biplanes bombing and strafing forces around the alcaldía. Sandino retreated after the battle to San Albino, and engaged in a sort of semi comic exchange of letters with the Marine commander, Captain Hatfield. Rather than destroy the machinery of the San Albino mine, Sandino continued to work the rich mine, and produced enough gold to begin minting coins, in 5$ and 10$ denominations, probably of rather pure gold, as the gold from the mine was at least 18 karat purity.
Once recovered from the Ocotal attack, the Marines sent a patrol to the mine, and demobilized the processing plant of San Albino by cutting the large conveyer belt that operated the various stamp and ball mills. Sandino headed for his mountain top fortress, El Chipote, and the mine fell into disuse. The war dragged on for five years, came to an end in 1933, and Sandino was assassinated in 1934. Anastasio Somoza, as dictator, showed little interest in the mine. Ocotal historian Emilio Gutierrez Gutierrez reports that Somoza got a hold of the shares of stock of the San Albino mine, did nothing with them, and declared illegal all alluvial gold mining, panning for gold, on the Coco River by 1940. The San Albino mine was completely abandoned. The Somoza family took an interest in the Quilalí-Wiwilí area in the 1960´s but for agricultural development, not mining. Quilalí, for example, was one of the first places in Nicaragua, where teak wood trees were planted in the 1960´s. San Albino remained a place of abandonment and weeds.
By 1979 the Somoza regime fell, the Frente Sandinista de la Liberación Nacional came to power, and in May of 1980 the Contra War broke out when the Sandinista garrison at Quilalí, a mountain town close by San Albino, deserted, headed to the mountains, and began ambushing the Sandinista army. The Contra War began and the killing did not stop in the area until 1990. During the 1980´s the 10 km road from the village of El Jícaro to the mines, always neglected and slow travel, became the place of ambushes between the Sandinistas and the Contra. Anyone traveling that road, no matter how bad it was, traveled it at high speed, forgetting the pot holes and trying to dodge the bullets and rockets that occasionally chased passing vehicles. Eastern European journalists liked the foray into the war zone over a bouncy road at high speed in a Russian WAS jeep, like a sort of beefed up amusement park ride. Their guide sweated blood. Nicaraguan Congress Diputado Salvador Talavera, then called Commandante Esteban, routinely led Contra patrols past the mines, which are located on the shores of the Jícaro River. It was a six hours walk, following the river, to get to Quilalí, absent ambushes.
By the early 1990´s the area was mostly calm, with the occasional entry into the area of Recontra guerrilla leaders, such as el Lobo and El Bailerín, both very bad actors. I traveled there in 1994 with OAS guide, call him ¨Cash¨ , a former Sandinista commando leader, who had led one of the more successful attacks on Contra headquarters and hospitals on the Honduran side of the border near Banco Grande, Coco River. The place was quiet, and in complete abandonment. There are reportedly very good gold reserves in the hills around the mine, but it is unclear whether the Ministry of Finance, Investment and Commerce, has granted any concession, and it is obvious that no concessionaire is doing anything at the mine. The Sandinista government in the 1980´s declared the mines a national monument, but did little else to preserve the site, as it was in the middle of the Contra War battle zone.
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My old friend Danílo Lacayo called me one day and asked me to take him to the San Albino mines so that he could film a program for his morning television program. Travel writer Rachael Hanley, an old friend, was visiting Nicaragua, and also wanted to see the mine, so one fine day in May we drove to the mines. They are seven hours from Managua, and the road from El Jícaro to the mines had not been improved at all since the war years.
As one approaches the mine, several mine shafts are visible extending into the hills around the processing plant, with one large shaft located around the corner upstream from the processing plant ruins. The processing complex stands on about two acres on the banks of the Jícaro River. Clearly visible are ruins of the stamp mill, a couple of ball mills, and cement structures that look vaguely like Egyptian pylons, possibly where the settling tanks were located. The large pulley wheels that supported the conveyer belt, cut by the Marines in 1927, are still in place. Rusty machinery is everywhere, some with the name of maker Ingersoll Rand cast into their frames; before the First World War almost all mining machinery was produced by the German house of Krupp. Littering the ground are pieces of ore, some metallic in appearance, other chunks of what appears to be galena lying about. There are no guides, nor map to the ruins, and the inhabitants of the area, with heavy hammers, still pound promising looking ore into powder and look for flakes of gold, which has a kind of butter color, not the brassy yellow of fool´s gold, or iron pyrite. Not many visitors make it to San Albino.
In colonial times iron pyrite was much sought after as it was a necessary ingredient to forming a huge mud cake, called a torta, of perhaps 1,000 square feet, one foot thick, that was a duke´s mixture of powdered ore, pyrite, wood ashes, salt, water, and mercury. Mixed together and agitated by Indians or mules continually walking through the mix, the mixture turned caustic, released precious metals into the solution, which amalgamated with the mercury, forming amalgam in the shape of bunches of grapes. The process also produced very toxic fumes and burned holes in the skin of the legs of those unfortunate enough to have to tread this mixture. The Spaniards called it the Patio Process. Remains of this sort of processing plant can be found by the rich silver mines of Macquelizo, located 70 km west of the San Albino mine, complete with an iron pyrite mine, large vats for mixing the torta, the remains of a circular arrastra, or stone grinder, to reduce the ore to flour sized powder, and many mine shafts. If the mining at San Albino that took place before 1889, when the cyanide leaching process was introduced, was anything more than a couple of guys with hammers, this same Patio process would have been used.
The cyanide leaching process, perfected in Scotland, but marketed by I.G. Farben in the Second German Reich, and in use at San Albino in the 1920´s was much simpler, cheaper, and much more efficient. Within a decade of its introduction world gold production doubled, with many miners simply shoveling old mine tailings into vats of slightly green colored cyanide solution, letting this witch´s brew sit and steep, and then pouring in zinc powder or running the solution over grids of zinc. The gold precipitated out in the form of a muddy looking very heavy sludge that was almost pure gold. There was little romance in the process, but many exhausted gold mines with lots of refuse tailings instantly became productive again.
It was very hot the day we visited the mine, and Danilo filmed every aspect of the mine for his program. Old Rachael Hanley had a field day photographing the machinery and exploring the ruins. As usual, the mine had an unexpected surprise: Danilo´s truck got a flat tire with complications, and we baked in the Sun for two hours while the boys pounded on the rim of the tire. We finally got the spare in place and left. And as usual, the mine left an indelible memory of getting there.
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To visit the San Albino Mine, drive to Ocotal, and take the road to Jalapa. Turn off at the road to El Jícaro, and just before entering El Jícaro, take a dirt road veering to the right. Ask many directions as there are many branches to the road and absolutely no signs. The mines are 10 km from El Jícaro. The road is bad the entire way. Do not try to travel to the mines in the rainy season unless you have a team of oxen with you.
For more reading:
- On medieval mining techniques, Agricola, G. De Re Metalica, 1555, Dover Publications, 1990. Translated by Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover. The finest single source for ancient and renaissance mining techniques in a masterful translation.
- On colonial Hispanic and mining in the American west, including mercury amalgamation and the cyanide leaching process, see Otis E. Young Jr., Western Mining, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1987.
- On colonial mining in Nicaragua, see my Las Reales de Minas Y La Ciudad Perdida de Nueva Segovia, Instituto de Cultura, Managua, 1996.
- On Nicaragua generally, the best source still is Squier, Ephraim, Nicaragua, Nicaragua, Its People, Scenery, Monuments, And Proposed Canal, (facsimile, AMS Press, New York City, 1973).
- On the economic state of Central America, mining, and the possibility of railroad development, see Squier, Ephraim, Notes On Central America, (facsimile, AMS Press, New York City, 1971).
- On Sandino, the best source in English still is Neil Macauley´s, The Sandino Affair, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1971.