Mexico / Baja California  / Breakpoints / Santa Rosalía
Friday, August 23, 2019

Santa Rosalía

Interested in a little bit of France in Baja California? So, head for Santa Rosalía!

The little town on the Gulf of California does not only show traces of French heritage, it owes its rise to a French mining company called El Boleo.

Copper was discovered in the area in 1868, in the form of small bluish green balls, which were called “boleos”. They aroused the interest of the house of Rothschild. In 1885, a quick decision was taken to found the firm of El Boleo and purchase the mining rights from Mexico. After mining had started, El Boleo soon was not only an important employer in Santa Rosalía, but made the town one of the biggest copper producers in the world. The company dug some 370 miles (600 km) of tunnels and imported a whole copper-smelting furnace from Europe. Sailing-ships brought coal and coke, likewise from Europe, and about 19 miles (30 km) of tracks for a mine train were laid to transport the ore. Workers were recruited among the Yaqui Indians in the Mexican state of Sonora and in Asia.

The copper – about 10,000 tons a year – was shipped to Tacoma, Washington for refining. The ships returned loaded with wood, which was very much cherished as building material.
Mining paid until 1954, when the copper deposits began to be exhausted. The land was then returned to the Mexicans, and the exploitation continued until 1985, when the mine was definitely closed.

The works installations are thus gradually dilapidating, but continue to be characteristic of Santa Rosalía: the chimney and the heaps of gangue above the town, the foundry and the old loading tower in the port. Some of the installations have been converted into exhibits, the locomotive, for instance, at the entrance to the old town or various machines on the Mesa francésa. Here, in the more airy altitudes, the French had settled, whereas the Mexican and foreign workers lived in the hot valley. The mesa therefore still displays beautiful examples of French architecture such as wooden houses with verandas all around or the Hotel Francés. Founded in 1886 and completely restored, it has 17 rooms with veranda, swimming-pool and a good restaurant at moderate prices. The most conspicuous building on the mesa, however, is the former administration building of the mining company, which is today a museum (Museo Histórico Minero). After paying a small entrance fee, the visitor will find a vivid exhibition of the history of copper mining with tools, old photos, original accounting documents, etc.

The old town of Santa Rosalía is laid out according to a checkerboard pattern; testimonies of the past give it its own charm. The best-known building is the church of Santa Barbara de Santa Rosalía. It has an interesting history. Designed by Gustave Eiffel as a prototype of French mission churches in overseas territories in 1887, it was shown at the Centennial Exposition of 1889 in Paris and received the second prize. After a short stay in Africa, it was disassembled and stored in a warehouse in Brussels. An employee of El Boleo discovered it there, bought it and shipped it to Mexico, where it was reassembled in Santa Rosalía in 1897. As the church is completely made of iron except for two side-wings built later, the dry climate is particularly favorable, since it causes almost no rusting.

Not far from the church lies the former French bakery (Panadería El Boleo). Operative since 1901, it is as popular as ever. The ovens are still in their original state, are fuelled with mesquite wood, but the pastry produced today is Mexican rather than French.
The closure of the mines did not mean decline for Santa Rosalía – quite on the contrary. The 12,000 inhabitants today breathe clean air, and the town became a supply center and important stop on the MEX-1 for the traffic through the peninsula.