Porto Flavia Mines
Porto Flavia is a sea harbor located near Nebida in the Iglesias comune of Italy. Built in 1923–24, it served as the mineral production hub of Masua in the west coast of the Sardinian Sulcis area. It is named after Flavia Vecelli, the daughter of Cesare Vecelli, who engineered and designed the harbor. The harbor’s characteristics make it unique in the world, and at the time of its construction it was an outstanding engineering feat
The Masua hub was a complex of several mining operations in the Sulcis area, a region of Sardinia rich in coal, sulphur, barium, zinc, lead, silver and other metals. Extraction began in 1600, but became economically relevant only in the early 1900s when the mining business in the whole region experienced a quick expansion. The extraction, especially of the coal caves, was operated on a low-technology basis until the early 20th century. Since the late 1800s metal-gathering enjoyed more modern techniques, as it was controlled mostly by rich north-European corporations more willing to commit money in improving the mining efficiency.
In 1922, the Masua mines were acquired by the Belgian Vieille Montagne Company, and exploitation increased with the growing need for zinc and lead for reconstruction after World War I as well as because of technological advance in steel alloys. The zinc and lead ore was extracted in the mines by male miners (aged 16 and above), processed by female workers and children in a centralized “washing plant” (called Lavatoio), and was finally stored.
Until 1924, sailors from Carloforte moved the processed ore in wicker baskets placed on their shoulders and loaded their bilancelles (a traditional Sardinian boat design with two lateens) to their limits (up to 30 tons per boat). The ore was brought 30 kilometres (19 mi) to Carloforte Island harbor, where it was manually unloaded from the boats. The ore was then stored in the magazines or in the hold of waiting steamships until a full load could be shipped to the foundries in France, Belgium and Germany.
The transport process was costly, slow and dangerous. The bilancelle could not stand stormy seas, especially when loaded with lead, and so the service was discontinuous and the boats commonly sank. Sailors had terrible working conditions with low wages, no rest, and great physical fatigue. In bad weather, up to two months could be needed to fully load a steamship in Carloforte, while in good conditions no less than seven days were needed: the cost of the wages for so many workers in addition to the much larger cost of the steamship and quay rent made the transportation of the ore a very significant expense in the production process.
When Porto Flavia became operative in 1924, it slashed ore production costs by up to 70 percent, allowing Veille Montaigne to gain a strong market share in a short time. The construction of Porto Flavia paid for itself in under two years, and was considered a technical marvel in the minerary business. Other mine operators were not allowed to use the tunnel and harbor, still relying on manual labor or on longer railway routes. The opening of Porto Flavia left many sailors from Carloforte without a job, damaging the nearby island economy.
Working conditions in Porto Flavia were better than in the mines because of a functional powder removal system, good venting, natural light, top-class machinery and better wages. But there were lethal accidents: one of the more risky jobs was done by the Squadra della Morte (Death Team), a special group of workers who had to enter the reservoirs by hanging from above and removing with poles and picks the ore that got stuck on the rocky walls.
Under normal conditions, the plant was able to deliver over 500 metric tons (550 short tons) of ore per hour to a waiting ship