By Sarah Beauchemin
The Southern California – Baja California mega-region has a long, shared history. But one aspect of our region’s communal past in particular served as a major link between Southern California and Baja for decades: Mining.
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Throughout the 19th century, precious metals mining in Baja produced a robust economy not only for its own citizens, but also for Americans. American companies, many based in California, invested in Baja mining operations. As such, mining connected communities across the border – both culturally and economically – helping to lay the groundwork for the shared mega-region we enjoy today.
The International Community Foundation (ICF) – an international nonprofit committed to strengthening civil society and promoting sustainable communities throughout Baja, Mexico, and Latin America – recognizes the importance of preserving Baja’s mining past.
In order to assist with conservation, ICF has partnered with the Mexican nonprofit Corredor Histórico CAREM, A.C. (CAREM) to restore a true relic of Baja’s mining era: the “La Ramona” smokestack.
Conserving a Cultural Icon From a Bygone Era
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The La Ramona Restoration Initiative seeks to preserve the La Ramona smelter smokestack, located in the once-booming Baja California Sur town of El Triunfo, which is now home to only 325 residents.
La Ramona was designed by none other than French architect Gustave Eiffel, who in addition to the famed Eiffel Tower, designed numerous structures throughout Latin America and Mexico during his career.
Though historians aren’t certain who constructed it, La Ramona was built in 1890 for El Progreso Mining Company. It stands 47 meters (154 feet) tall and was named after Saint Ramon, as it was inaugurated on the patron saint’s day of August 31st.
“La Ramona is a regional landmark,” said Richard Kiy, former president of ICF and one of the originators of the La Ramona Initiative. “There are a number of historic smokestacks around the world that generally get categorized as objects of industrialization, or are perceived as ugly to look at. But some, like La Ramona, become quite iconic due to the rich cultural history they represent.”
After decades of unrestricted gold and silver extraction, the mining industry in Baja began to decline and La Ramona was eventually shut down in the early 1900s. The smokestack has remained abandoned for nearly a century, and has suffered significant structural damage due to age, lightning strikes, and hurricanes. Similarly, the town of El Triunfo has faced significant economic decline since the boom years of the mining industry, despite its location in the heart of a world-renowned tourist destination.
Through collaboration with the ejido – or communal land – of El Triunfo, the legal property owners, the La Ramona Restoration Initiative provides funding to renovate the smokestack and make it a beacon of the community there.
“La Ramona’s restoration is an important first step in the economic and cultural revival of the community of El Triunfo,” said Alicia Milla, ICF Program Officer of Arts & Culture. “Restoring it will help to create a healthier public space for El Triunfo’s community and also serve as a cultural icon that can drive tourism and economic growth.”
One way to help drive tourism and growth, in the spirit of preservation, is with The La Ramona Adopt-A-Brick Program, where anyone can “adopt a brick” for the smokestack. The goal is to raise $164,000; $80,000 of which has already been met, including a generous matching donation from local partner innovacionesAlumbra. There is also the La Ramona-CAREM Fund at ICF, which accepts general donations for the Initiative.
Helping to Preserve The History of Baja
The La Ramona Restoration Initiative also helps to preserve the entire culture of Baja State – not only the town of El Triunfo. “We don’t have a lot of monuments here in Baja, because we are a very young state,” said Lily Kellenberger, Project Coordinator at CAREM, who also organizes public tours of El Triunfo for interested visitors. “Compared to the Mayan and Aztec ruins of centuries ago in other Mexican states, Baja’s history is more recent.”
This is why one of CAREM’s main objectives is to preserve any piece of Baja’s history for future generations to connect with and celebrate.
“Baja is a wonderful state that is providing a lot for the rest of our country, but Baja’s history paved that road for us,” said Kellenberger. “We want to honor that; never forgetting that what we enjoy today was born out of a very large sacrifice by the mining community before us. If we have the monument of La Ramona to remind us, we will not forget.”
Moreover, visiting El Triunfo provides an interesting look at San Diego’s role in Baja’s mining history. San Diego was an important port for mining supplies – especially for the mines in Ensenada.
“There’s a longstanding connection between California and Baja that goes back many years,” said Kiy. “The trading linkages are very strong because mining was such an active sector that linked the U.S. and Mexico. Prominent companies in San Diego, as well as San Francisco, were chief suppliers of mining operations in Baja during that era.”
Furthermore, the clean-up efforts involved in the La Ramona Initiative – to treat environmental hazards that were caused by mining – can serve as a model to other communities throughout California and the U.S. that have a similar legacy and environmental challenges due to historic mining operations.
Visiting El Triunfo and La Ramona
One of the best ways to help fund the conservation of La Ramona, as well as revitalization efforts in El Triunfo, is to simply go and visit.
El Triunfo is only a two-hour drive from Los Cabos, and well worth the trip. It’s the perfect opportunity for families or couples visiting from California to gain exposure to important Mexican history and culture – and check out the burgeoning food and art scene.
A day-trip to El Triunfo offers hiking and horseback riding opportunities, foodie destinations like the acclaimed Bar El Minero, art galleries, and the opportunity to learn about the historical significance of this region, which is embodied by La Ramona. Plans are also underway to install a museum in January 2018, the Museo Ruta de Plata, which will highlight the mining history of the region.