Vallalta Mining Center and the hamlet of California

Agordino Dolomiti

Vallalta Mining Center and the hamlet of California

In addition to the nearby Val Imperina Mining Center, the Agordino area had in the past another important mining site, that is the Vallalta Mining Center in Gosaldo; whereas the Val Imperina Mining Center produced copper (and sulfuric acid in more recent times), the Vallalta one mainly dealt with the extraction (and refinement at a later time) of cinnabar (mercury in mineral form) from the area located at the foot of the Sasso Largo, Cima della Sella and of the Piz di Sagron at the confluence of the rivers Mis and Pezzea nearby the old village of California (yes, you read that right). Nowadays very little remains of this place after a couple of terrible floods and decades of neglect, but a trip to Vallalta can be anyway an interesting experience for mining history enthusiasts and for people who like to explore the places related to the ancient life in the Dolomites UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site.

Mining in the Municipality of Gosaldo began in the 18th (the first official concession for the use of the Vallalta Mines dates back to 1740) and it continued alternately until 1963, thus for more than two centuries and a half. The cinnabar extracted from the Vallalta Mines was initially carried to Murano (an isle close to Venice) where it was subjected to the refining process; transport was made mainly by mules all the way to Murano (more than 120 km – 75 miles) through the Val Paganina with very high costs and with factual difficulties caused by the location of the mines and by the poor security of the roads. The walking itinery known as “the Mercury Route” (la Via del Mercurio) is today walkable in both directions and it is included in one of the many enhancement projects of the National Park of the Dolomites of the Province of Belluno.

In 1770, the mining concession was bought by two Venetian entrepreneurs who introduced more efficient extraction methods: the transportation costs continued anyway to be too expencive and to prevent the breakthrough of the plant so that the business was abandoned until the beginning of the 19th Century and after this date it continued however erratically for almost 50 years.

Since the acquisition of the quarry site by the Società Veneta Montanistica Company it was decided to refine the cinnabar on site in order to reduce the huge transportation cost; several furnaces were built around the mining area of Vallalta in addition to a new mining tunnel, the O’Connor Tunnel. Working the cinnabar on site brought certainly benefits in terms of costs reduction, but it had dramatic consequences on the area: pollution increased quickly (during the refinement process, cinnabar produces sulfur, sulfur dioxide and mercury vapor) and the disperion of remarkable amount of metal. This second phase of the mining of Vallalta lasted only a decade and it was followed by many different managements until the last one by the Nuova Società Mineraria Vallalta: each management was able only to survive for some time, but with many difficulties and without success and the Vallalta Mining Site was closed permanently in 1963. The factors that definitely determined the failure of the mining in Vallalta were: lack of planning and organization of the mining, the search for an immediate gain, the lack of investment and of a long-term plan.

The Vallalta Mining Center experienced its moment of maximum development between the 60s and the 70s of the 19th Century, when more than 150 miners (including many women) worked in Vallalta; in that period, Vallalta was included in the list of the Top 10 European mininig sites for the amount of produced mercury. The Vallalta Mining Center is located a few steps far from the boundary between the Province of Belluno and the Trentino; in the nearby Sagron-Mis Mining Site, workers exploited the same mineral deposit as in Vallalta: in 1922 the tunnels of the two mining sites were connected in order to improve the ventilation in the tunnels.

The Vallalta Mines allowed the birth of many side activities in the area; in a short time, this hamlet of Gosaldo saw the rise of a food store, a tavern and of the hamlet of California. The origin of such an unusual name for a village of the Dolomites is still a mystery for us: according to some sources, the new built-up area was named after the famous state of the US in the mid-19th Century because of the presence of the Vallalta Mines that assured easy money for everybody like the well-known American Gold Rush; according to others, the founder of the tavern in Vallalta was an emigrant  (Gosaldo was a land of strong emigration in that period) returning from the US. The fact is that in the mid-19th Century there was a tavern in Vallalta called “Alla California” who gave his name to the whole hamlet which became “La California”.

While mining in Gosaldo was experiencing the beginning of a slow but inexorable decline, the hamlet of California discovered a valuable new resource: tourism. California became soon a well-known tourist resort, and the tavern became an hotel with a renowned restaurant; at the same time, from 1921, rose an efficient transport system that connected the hamlet of California with the hamlets of Don and Tiser in the Municipality of Gosaldo and Sagron-Mis in Trentino and the lower part of the Province of Belluno. It is estimated that in this period almost 150 people were living in California.

The fortune of the hamlet of California ended tragically in 1966 with the huge flood that destroyed a great part of the Agordino area: the Mis Valley and Gosaldo were among the most destroyed areas of the Agordino, and California was completely razed to the ground.

Nowadays just a few walls remain of the old hamlet of California; as part of an important European project, California and the Vallalta Mining Center will be restored in the next few years in order to make them visitable. We’ll see what will happen, hoping for a fair restoration of the area.

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