Águilas is one town in Murcia that has a strong link with Britain. For example, between 1887 and 1890, the British “Great Southern of Spain Railway Company” built the railway line between Lorca and Águilas which linked into a wider network. Each third Sunday of every month, the Tourist Office in Águilas organises a free “Ruta del Ferrocarril” (Railway Route), though you have to ring and book a place (968 493 285).
Transport is provided around the various sites using the tourist train which happily runs along the town streets! Please note that the tour is conducted in Spanish. If the idea of such a guided tour, which lasts over 3 hours, does not appeal to you, all of the features described below, with the exception of going inside the mineral tunnels, are open and visitable by individuals at normal times.
The tour begins in the Águilas seafront Plaza Isaac Peral where an old steam engine is displayed. The locomotive is known as the Monument to the Railway (Monumento al Ferrocarril), and was erected by the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Shipping of Murcia in 1969 to the railway, the foundation of Águilas’ prosperity. The locomotive is named “Águilas” and a plaque on its side tells you that it was made in Glasgow in 1889 and operated from 1890 to 1967. The guide was able to give almost any detail you wished about the locomotive, right down to the small tubes which deposited sand on the rails when there was a slippery incline to ascend!
The next stop is the Railway Station and the museum beneath it. The museum opened in 1985 and is free to enter. It is a remarkable subterranean space, with vaulted brick arches all the way down its main length and a mass of exhibits to look at, including large model trains running around an extensive landscaped track in the middle of the building! There are numerous collections of items and publications associated with the Águilas – Baza – Lorca railway and many old photographs mainly from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. There are old railway clocks, pumps, switchboards and even Morse equipment, usually with a title in English as well as Spanish. Note especially, the old strong room (caja fuerte) situated to the right of the desk at the bottom of the entrance passage – this area of the museum was the strong room and offices for the Great Southern of Spain Railway Company at the end of the 19th Century.
From the strikingly terracotta and cream painted station above the museum, buildings across the track were pointed out to us – the railway workshops where wagons were repaired and painted, a desalination plant which was British built in 1911 to overcome the problem of corrosion and furring up of pipes in the locomotives, and the obvious engine sheds which were used as refuges in the Spanish Civil War.
After the station, the journey continues past the famous Iron Bridge which took the railway over the Rambla de las Culebras to the remarkable mineral tunnels. This bridge has designated status as a monument of interest and was constructed in 1901 as part of the work which took the railway from the station in Águilas to the mineral pier. It is 42 metres in length. Once you arrive at the tunnels, there is a little walking to do up a constructed zig-zag path to the level of the railway which has come over the Iron Bridge. The railway tracks coming over the bridge bifurcate – one branch rises above the tunnels, while the other continues relatively level to go into the tunnels below en route to the loading pier beyond. Access to the tunnels is through heavy doors which have to be unlocked.
In the tunnels, you will notice openings in the roof which house a hopper that, once filled, usually with iron ore, tipped its load down into the waiting wagons below. An ingenious concrete counterweight meant that the hopper tipped at the right time and then returned to its closed position ready to be filled from above once it had emptied. After exiting, you can follow a superb walkway above the tunnels to look down on them and the segmented storage areas into which iron ore would be tipped from trucks on the upper lines which had come from the mines. Once the wagons in the tunnels below had been filled by the hoppers, they would continue to the iron pier a short distance ahead to discharge onto conveyor belts into the holds of the waiting ships. An ingenious engineering solution at the turn of the 19th Century!
At the end of the path, you can look out over the impressive iron pier from which the iron ore was loaded. The intention was simple – by developing a branch line from Águilas Station to a pier on the Hornillo Bay, the company could speed up the loading of boats with the iron ore. The 170 metre long pier was extremely successful and between 1903 and 1936 an annual average of over one third of a million tonnes were shipped from it to ports such as Glasgow, Middlesbrough and Dunkirk. The Spanish Civil War saw the pier temporarily cease operation before it finally closed at the very beginning of the 1970’s. It was recently designated as a historic monument.
The final destination is back in the town itself – the house of Don Jorge, which now is part of a sports complex and houses a café and meeting room as well as containing railway memorabilia. The house was built in what is described as “Colonial Style” and has a terrace running all the way around it.
In it, you will see numerous photographs of the old railway and activity at the loading pier when it was in operation. In addition, there are many photographs and other material about George Lee Boag (or Don Jorge) and his family, whose house this was between 1912 and 1936. George was born in Manchester in 1873 and, after a humble beginning and working in South America and Nigeria, came to Águilas, in 1907, becoming Director-General of the Great Southern Spanish Railway Company in 1913. Such was the esteem in which he was held and his knowledge of the railways, he was designated by the Spanish Government as their representative at the International Conference on Railways held in Rome in 1922. He returned to Britain at the outset of the Civil War and died in Southport in 1947.
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. These can be seen at, and obtained from, www.lulu.com, or contact email@example.com. Clive and Rosie’s most recent book, “Exploring Murcia, Days Out” is now available to buy from the Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books or phone Patti on 968 433 978.