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Road workers cottages

Road workers' houses - Casillas de peones camineros © Michelle Chaplow
Road workers' houses - Casillas de peones camineros

Road workers' houses - Casillas de peones camineros

You may have noticed while driving around Andalucia a number of small, solid-looking, single-storey stone buildings beside the road, often with a distinctive station platform-style terrace in front, and often with large stone block castellated corners, pitched roof and two chimneys. The similar architecture suggests that they was all built following a set model, for a common purpose.

Peones camineros were the workers charged with highway maintenance. Each peón caminero was responsible for one league of road.  This distance is 5.5 km, 5572m to be exact.

The role was created in 1759 during the reign of Ferdinand VI. It was a tough profession, and demanded complete dedication, working in the rain or sun. Their tools were hoes, shovels, picks and a cylinder or rudimentary road roller towed by horses or oxen. Remember this was the days before tarmac and the road surface needed constant maintenance. 

During the reign of Isabel II in the 19th century, the roads in Spain had deteriorated until in 1852, the Dirección General ordered the design and construction of the official casillas,  which is why so many look similar. The chosen design was by Lucio del Valle, Víctor Martí y Ángel Mayo published in Real Decreto 28 de mayo de 1859. See here.

These casillas designed for both working and living and were often adorned with blue and white tiles, or just black and white paint indicating the distances to Madrid and the next town. They were allowed to live in the houses with their wives and children. Their wives were actually known for their cooking skill, since as they lived in remote places they had to improvise family meals using any raw material they could find in the countryside, supplemented by anything grown on an allotment next to the house.

By the 1860s the status and the ranks of Peones Camineros were increased. A recruitment drive included a set of professional requirements according to an official 1867 publication. Applicants had to be between 20 and 40 years old, able to read and write, or capable of reaching this level in two years.  Their duties included vigilance, they were armed and must advise the Guardia Civil or the nearest town's mayor if a delincuente (criminal) passed by. They had to be alert to the telegraph that was being installed. They had to check the entire stretch of road under their mandate  (5.5km) every two days.  The Director General de Obras Públicas published another series of regulations in the on 30 de Diciembre de 1909.

Again in 1914, further regulations tightened the requirements (minimum height of 1.62m and ability to do arithmetic) and a selection process in the provincial capitals by a board chaired by the province's Chief Engineer. 

Here is a photo of a peon caminero cap badge, they are now  collectors item.

As with the demise of lighthouse keepers, mechanization and improved communications rendered living in such isolated houses unnecessary, so the peones camineros moved to the villages, and the houses were generally kept as store rooms for travelling crew and slowly became abandoned.

The houses used to belong to MOPU, (Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Urbanismo) and in Andalucia were transferred over to the Junta de Andalucia (Real Decreto de 28 de marzo de 1984), which is in the slow and complicated process of refurbishing them and offering them to low-income families. In other regions such as Murcia they are being sold at auction.   

There are perhaps 200 still standing in Andalucía, about half in recoverable condition and the other half either ruined or demolished.

At least one in Villanueva de la Concepción (Málaga), on the A-7075 km 39 on the way up to El Torcal has been opened as a roadside café.  Do pop in for a cup of tea and drink to the lost peón caminero.


Map of locations in Spain (zoom in to see)