There is something melancholy and at the same time eerie and claustrophobic while passing through these places that scream in absolute silence, embedded deep in the valley, forgotten by time and now completely depopulated. Those who believed in an American dream among the banks of the Mis torrent have given way to the vegetation, together with a remaining glimpse of a powerful mix between imagination and reality, where dark silhouettes of curved miners mingle with mining embayments and smells of sulfide.
They were looking for gold in California….
This adventurous hiking route, far from any tourist route, is ideal for those who want to jump straight into the past and history of the Vallalta mining center, in places where breathtaking Dolomite views, despite their proximity, will be perceived as far away from reality.
The itinerary starts from Marcói, a hamlet located E of the village of Sagrón, that is the center around which the first community of Sagrón-Mis developed, towards the end of the 16th century. Two interesting (copy of) wall paintings can be spotted in the hamlet, now preserved in Fiera di Primiero. It was right at Marcói that, around 1620, the first place of worship of the area – dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto – was built, which was then destroyed in a fire in 1793 and later replaced by a new church built in Sagrón; the old chapel, rebuilt in 1812 and still standing, was thus dedicated to Our Lady of Caravaggio.
From the chapel, the route takes the road that descends toward the bed of the Pezzea stream, a watercourse bordering the Communities of Primiero and Gosaldo (former border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy) that flows along the Valsugana Tectonic Line. Along the road, soon becoming unpaved, there is no shortage of signposts and marks indicating the direction to take, towards La Casina, along the so-called “Via dell’oro e del mercurio” (tr. gold and mercury route), leading to the mercury mines. In a short time you reach first the building of La Casina, the former administrative headquarters of the Austrian part of the mines now in the territory of Trentino – interesting is the shrine of Saint Antony, later Santa Barbara (patron saint of miners and geologists, among others) decorated with slag from the mining materials – and then to Pezzea stream bed, descending along a mule track.
The remains of the enrichment furnaces, where cinnabar was treated to obtain pure mercury, can be spotted immediately; on the orographic left of the stream the entrance of the Austrian Terrabujo (aka Terrabugio) and – on the opposite side – that of the O’Connor (aka O’Conor – level 767 m) tunnels can be seen. From the remains of the Vallalta (Italian) shaft nearby, a reddish liquid is still leaking, due to iron oxides.
After crossing the bridge over the stream, the trail – well marked – starts climbing up and traces backwards the thematic trail of “La montagna dimenticata” (tr. the forgotten mountain), maintained by the National Park of the Dolomites of Belluno. The trail crosses a mixed forest with a predominance of beech, until it reaches the wide plateau where the building of Il Casin stands, in the location of Vallalta (868 m asl), from which there is a beautiful view of the Croda Granda Dolomite peak.
Once past the gully named Vallón di Campotorondo (landslide), the trail reaches the location of I Salt, where you intersect the steep mule track of the main Signpost No. 802 that descends from Campotorondo / Piani Eterni, which you take downhill to the left and leads to the bed of the Mis torrent, by the location of California. This short section is in common with the trail named “Alta Via Tilman” that connects Falcade to Asiago, that retraces the route taken by British Major Harold William Tilman in 1944. Before reaching the bed of the Mis torrent, it is possible to deviate to the right at a hairpin bend and visit the hamlets of Pattine (686 m asl) and Mòri, among the few villages still inhabited of the area; at Mòri it is possible to see two old cast-iron half-spheres (scudèle) of the Vallalta ovens, now repurposed as a fountain and once used to collect mercury from the distillation of cinnabar.
On the opposite side of the Mis torrent, it is possible to visit (being extremely careful) the ruins of the village of California, now completely abandoned, the old vital center of the mining site that counted of dwellings developed around the inn-hotel “Alla California,” distinguishable today by its large facade, whose ballroom / terrace was an attraction to neighboring towns.
From here on, the most adventurous part of the itinerary begins, which falls back on a path that is neither always obvious nor visible, where one must carefully follow the red-and-blue signs that local volunteers use (family of brothers Cencio and Renato Chenet from Gosaldo, who also maintain with little means the entire mining site) to indicate and maintain old paths that would otherwise be lost forever. The itinerary proceeds on the orographic right of the Mis Torrent, on whose it is still possible – on the sandy banks – to find traces of mercury processing waste (not the best!), following the signs towards Sagrón; the first red-and-blue signs leading to the right and immediately crossing the torrent should be ignored, since they lead toward Gosaldo.
In the location of Pian delle Lope (aka Loppe – the oldest mining site in the area), the track crosses an archaeo-metallurgical excavation area, recognizable by the covering of the ground with large black sheets. Traces of mining iron (siderite) and copper (tetrahedrite) were found here.
The track then carefully wades across the stream, because there is no other crossing possibility (at one time, it is reported that it was possible to cross it on a rudimentary footbridge), and soon reaches the remains of the imposing distillation furnaces of Macatoch (aka Macatock – 716 m asl), where cinnabar was processed.
Crossing a bridge on ropes, the track soon reaches the location of Pian de la Siega, where it is possible to see the “Sass del confin” (tr. border stone), dated 1781 and placed near the confluence of the Mis and Pezzea torrents, marking the beginning of the border between the Empire (AU) and the Serenissima; nearby, lying in the stream, there is also a more recent stone replacing it.
From here on, the trail climbs in a tight hairpin turn uphill, heading back to La Casina, from where it follows the route taken on the outward journey to Marcói.
They were looking for gold in California, but they found only mercury, and everything was swept away by the flood of November 1966, which for these places meant the shattering of any dreams and total abandonment; nature now progressively swallows every trace left by those humble souls who inhabited these remote hamlets, far removed from everything, now even from memory.
- From the church of the hamlet of Marcói, go down the road, then continue towards the Pezzea stream bed along the trail of “Via dell’oro e del mercurio”, passing by the building of La Casina [0h 20],
- From the Pezzea stream bed, continue along the trail “Sentiero della montagna dimenticata” to I Salt, passing by the building of Il Casin (868 m asl) [0h 50],
- From I Salt, proceed on the mule track of the Signpost No. 802 “Alta Via Tilman” that descends from Campotorondo / Piani Eterni to the bed of the Mis torrent, in the location of California [1h 00],
- [VARIANT] Visit, on the right towards NE, the hamlets of Pattine (686 m asl) and Mori [+0h 20],
- [VARIANT] Visit, on the other side of the Mis Stream, the ruins of the village of La California [+0h 30],
- Go up the bed of the Mis stream following the red-and-blue marks toward Sagrón, passing by the location of Pian delle Loppe and the ovens of Macatoch (716 m asl), up to the convergence of the Mis and Pezzea streams, near the location of Le Ai [1h 40],
- From the convergence of the streams, go up into the woods along the trail to Marcói [2h 00]. ✓
VALLALTA MINES AND CALIFORNIA: A JOURNEY THROUGH MISERY, HOPE AND TRAGEDY
- The course of the Pezzea stream, where the mines are located and today the boundary between the Communities of Primiero and Gosaldo and the old border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serenissima – then Kingdom of Italy -, flows along the Valsugana Line. Such a tectonic line dates back to the Paleozoic age (and reactivated during the Alpine orogeny of the Cenozoic) and raised the present northern block (Agordino) of the Alpine chain relative to the southern one (Monti del Sole, Piz de Mezodì), thus bringing together different rocks formed millions of years apart and exposing the mineral-rich metamorphic basement layers. The Vallalata Mining Center (copper, gold and mercury), like the neighboring Valle Imperina one (silver and copper), exploited this geological structure, among the most important in the entire Alps.
- The first mining investitures between at the cross of the Mis, Pezzea and Laonei streams (location of Pian delle Loppe – copper – and Vallalta – mercury -) date back to the 15th-16th centuries, promoted by the monks of Certosa di Vedana, together with some Venetian patricians; radiocarbon dating performed at Pian delle Loppe would seem to confirm the actual mining and roasting of ore in this period, at least until the war with the Archduke of Austria broke up, in 1487.
- In 1686 a “minera demonstrante rame et altro metallo” was granted to “Domino Giacomo Fulcis di Beluno”, located in Vallalta.
- The discovery of the deposit of cinnabar (mercury sulfide, HgS), is to be traced back to 1723, where an unpublished text owned by Tonino de’ Manzoni reports the “presence of a rich mine of mercury, on the side of the east, near the place called Sagron, on the borders of the Venetian state”. The first excavations of the mercury mines took place in the following two years, while the first concession for the use of the Vallalta mining center in 1724 was due to Marco Facen and Zamaria Selle.
- The Serenissima was the first to exploit the deposits to extract mercury; at the time, the cinnabar was still being transported by mule and used for the manufacture of glass, dyes, instruments (barometers, thermometers) and in pharmaceuticals. However, high transportation costs and geopolitical events did not allow substantial development of the area until the early 1850s, when thanks to the construction of the O’Connor Tunnel, the presence of a rich seam of natural mercury ore was finally discovered.
- The moment of maximum development of the Vallalta mining center traces between the 1860s and 1870s, thanks in part to the rising price of mercury – in 1865 the German Herman Sprengel invented the pneumatic mercury drop pump -. At the time, it is reported that these mines were among the top 10 in Europe in terms of quality and volume of material. The rapid growth of prosperity in the area, driven by investment by the company of Società Montanistica Veneta, saw some 200 people employed in mining alone. The mercury seam was alternately exploited by two mines, a few meters apart and never connected for obvious political reasons: that of Vallalta, in the territory of Gosaldo (Italian Kingdom) and that of Terrabugio (or Terrabujo) in Sagron del Mis (Austro-Hungarian Empire). A special condensation furnace, called “Forno di Vallalta” (well known in metallurgy), was invented by Bauer and Tomè and turned on for the first time in 1856. The furnace allowed the mercury to be extracted directly on site by a distillation process, making the material much easier to transport, if compared to the base rock. The name “Alla California” (tr. in California) also originated during these years and it was given to the old tavern frequented by miners and loggers, in reference to the simultaneous gold rush in the United States, perhaps more as a form of wishful thinking than a similarity. A small settlement soon developed around the tavern, making California the vital center of the mining area. However, the development brought with it a great deal of environmental degradation and deforestation throughout the area, caused by the overexploitation of the resources, with acid rain phenomena due to evaporation of sulfur vapors (pyrite and chalcopyrite) and mercury, often resulting in serious health problems for the inhabitants. Due to high mining costs – also because of the excessive volume required by the furnaces themselves -, the mines were closed in 1879.
- The disastrous flood of 1882, a prelude to the tragedy that would cause the complete abandonment of the villages developed with the site less than a century later, temporarily suspended all mining exploration work in the area.
- Vienna resumed the work on the territory of Trentino in the very early 1900s, when the Terrabugio tunnel (more than half a kilometer long) was reopened and put in communication for ventilation purposes, by means of a crossbeam, with the Vallalta (Italian) mine basement. Deep exploration continued in the years 1920 to 1923 by the company Società Monte Amiata, which drilled below the O’Connor level, without any success.
- Explorations followed by the excavation of a tunnel by the location of Vóri began in 1945, due to the presence of outcrops of pyrite dispersed among the carbonaceous phyllites. This time, a different metal was found: gold. Thus, in 1948 the rush for the precious metal began; A special company was formed and the first surveys revealed an exceptional content of 17.1 grams of metal per ton of mined material. The headlines followed one another and it seemed to be done; a continuous mounting of expectations around that extraordinary discovery made Vóri (thanks in part to the high-sounding toponym of the nearby village of California) the Italian Eldorado. Dreams were shattered when a more realistic analysis report of the quantity of ore from the the Milan company Società Metalli Preziosi revealed a modest 0.57 grams of gold per ton, coupled with a series of letters from which it became clear how the entire gold game of the Vóri and Sagron had been played, around the reliability of the previous number (17.1 grams).
- In 1958, the company of Società Mineraria Vallalta reopened the mine and undertook new explorations, with a workforce of a few dozen people. In 1962 the sudden flooding of a tunnel caused the tragic deaths by drowning of three workers. Consequently, the area was shut down completely in 1963. Excavated under the creek bed on 14 levels (between 616 m and 816 m), shafts and galleries were periodically flooded; water has always been the limiting and critical element for the life of these mines, and water decreed their final closure.
- The village of California (150 residents), with the historic tavern, converted to a hotel in the 1950s after being burned by the Nazis, experienced a prosperous period with the rise of mass Alpine tourism. Despite the closure of the surrounding mining activities, the future was thought to hold for California to be a renowned resort, thanks in part to the fact that the village had become a place of gathering and entertainment for young people from the Mis Valley and neighboring towns of the Valley of Belluno.
- The flood of November 1966 irreversibly changed the entire morphology of the area; mud and debris destroyed the entire settlement of La California, its surroundings and with them the promising future of an entire municipality. All residents were evacuated and never returned; La California had simply grown up where it did not belong, at the confluence of two streams. The entire area never recovered from that deadly blow and was permanently abandoned.
- These places, now under the National Park of the Dolomites of Belluno, are also home to the route named “Alta Via Tilman”, an itinerary that runs for more than 190 km from Asiago to Falcade and is named after the British Major Harold William Tilman (1898-1977), an renown adventurous explorer and mountaineer, remembered here mainly for his contribution to Italian partisan formations in the summer of 1944, where he held the role of coordinating the launching of Allied supplies for the Resistance, making long walks between the Asiago Plateau, the Feltre Alps and the Biois Valley, on some of the trails that make up the itinerary today.
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