Before high-speed trains without passengers, radial motorways without cars and airports without airplanes, there was already in Spain and Madrid, mainly in the Bourbon court, a drive for communication infrastructures in a big way. An example still stands in a granite gorge above the Guadarrama, at the confluence between Torrelodones, Las Rozas and Galapagar. It is the El Gasco dam, a 55-meter-high ruin – which would have been more than 90 meters if it had been completed – abandoned half-built 222 years ago, testimony to the ambition and waste of that precursor of developmental technocracy which was enlightened despotism.
A Roman dam in Toledo with 2,000 years of history is declared an Asset of Cultural Interest
The reservoir was to be the starting point for a series of channels that would connect Madrid and the Atlantic, from the Guadarrama to the Guadalquivir, to bring the capital closer to the colonies. “It was an ordeal,” says historian Javier M. Calvo Martínez, who has just published, together with photographer Fabián Láinez, ‘La presa del Gasco. Landscape of an illustrated dream ‘(ed. Valbanera), a review of the vicissitudes of a poorly planned, poorly budgeted and poorly executed company. It was “the greatest civil engineering work of the 18th century”, according to the authors, much more ambitious than the Canal de Castilla.
In the 80s of the 18th century, the reign of Carlos III was drawing to a close, and the enlightened were hurrying their dreams of modernity for an empire already in decline. Following the example of the great canals of the south of France, such as the Languedoc (today the Midi), was seen as a path to progress, also to business. Hence the financial involvement of the brand new Banco Nacional de San Carlos, the seed of the current Bank of Spain. Privately owned, but with links to the State – in this, things have changed less than can be confessed – the entity considered that the channel to Seville could be ready in just 18 years, allocating 1.5% of the silver to the works mined in America. The Secretary of State, the Count of Floridablanca, agreed, and the monarch gave his approval.
The main engineer, Carlos Lemaur, French by origin and famous at the time for opening the port of Despeñaperros, was slightly more conservative in his calculations, counting that it would take two decades to bring the water from the Guadarrama to the Puente de Toledo, in there to the Tagus in Aranjuez and so on, to Seville. The rugged terrain did not deter the promoters then, a constant policy that has been maintained to this day.
“This was a utopia that came from the times of Felipe II,” says Calvo. “The communications by land were terrible, with roads where the wagons did not pass that in winter were cut off for months.” Then, like today, it was predicted that the work would pay for itself. “It was calculated that it would be recoverable in a short time, exploiting the sections as they were opened. Not only with the transport of goods, but for industrial uses such as paper mills, fulling mills for wool, or for irrigation,” he lists.
The works began with impetus. In 1786 work began on the canal; two years later, at the dam. Crews of workers were hired from the surrounding towns and abroad, plus military units and prisoners sentenced to forced labor. Up to 3,000 people with picks and shovels, plus beasts of burden and gunpowder, housed in huts covered with broom, as can be seen in one of the drawings found by the historian in the National Library.
But the project started to go awry pretty early. Before even starting the works, the engineer Lemaur died, the plans had just been delivered. The direction fell to his four children. Carlos III, in turn, died when the work was just starting, in December 1788. His son, “did not have the capacities of the father”, according to Calvo and the high school manuals, and the palace intrigues did not favor the continuation of the company. The following year, moreover, gave way in France to the stage of splendor of the guillotine. “The French Revolution convulses the structures of the Old Regime, and in Spain it puts in guard very traditional, reactionary forces. The ideal of these projects, the Enlightenment, finds a brake. In addition, Spain goes to war with England, which supposes enormous expenses, “says Calvo, referring to the 1796 contest, the second with England in little more than a decade.
Epidemic, corruption and collapse
Setbacks followed. The technical difficulty of the work, the epidemic outbreaks among workers, increasingly reluctant to break down, or the simple lack of budget slowed progress. In 1790, to make matters worse, the main supporter of the work, the financier Francisco Cabarrús, architect of the Banco de San Carlos, accused of fraud, found his bones in jail. And in 1799, the collapse.
“One of the walls collapsed”, sums up the historian. “It seems that there was a succession of torrential rains for several days. The engineers and builders claimed that the insulating materials had not arrived on time, so a large amount of water infiltrated inside the structure,” he adds. Tons of masonry fell, and the commission that traveled to the site to assess the damage concluded that it was “irrecoverable”, despite the protests of Lemaur’s children.
The work was abandoned and remained almost hidden, despite its size. The confiscation of Madoz in the mid-nineteenth century meant that three large parcels around the gorge passed into private hands, making access more difficult. Starting in 1970, with the progressive urbanization of the north of Madrid, the dam was once again ‘rediscovered’ and is now in the process of being declared an Asset of Cultural Interest, with considerable political consensus. The first file processed by the Community of Madrid, however, was retouched because it affected real estate interests in the surrounding areas. The second, with less protected area, is in the process of being processed.
Would the history of communications have changed if the channel had run according to the initial plan? The historian Calvo believes that no, that it would have been even worse: “The icing on the cake is that if they had built it it would have fallen. There are reports from current engineers that point out design errors. It would not have been able to withstand the pressure, it would have burst and devastated area”.