1950s Photo of Train and Conductor

Touring the Phosphate Island: Makatea Part I

We explore the historic and unique island of Makatea. We scheduled a tour with Le Maire (the mayor) Julien Mai.  He was born on Makatea, educated in Japan and speaks 5 languages.  Julien has been the mayor since 1995 and is a living history book for the island.  As I mentioned in an early blog post, Makatea is one of three islands in the Pacific that was mined for phosphate.  The mining is an enormous part of their history as we learned from Julien.

Mining Phosphate

So, what is phosphate used for?  It is a natural fertilizer.  The phosphate from Makatea was a huge contributor to the rise of Japan’s rice crop exportation in the mid-1900’s.  Over 3,000 workers and their families descended on the small island.  The workers extracted 11 million tons over 6 years during the most productive period of mining.  The miners used nothing by shovels and pure brute strength.

The workers mined the island from 1906 to 1966.  Men and women would work side by side in shorts and t-shirts, only sometimes hard hats and no shoes!  They would dig holes that measured 2-3 meters wide and 15-20 meters deep by hand.  They would use 2×4 pieces of wood to place over the holes in order to transport their findings.  Workers would push their full wheelbarrows with cat-like agility across the beams and over the cavernous holes to the dumping center.  I took the photo below from a TV shot during a documentary I watched, sorry its blurry.

Old phosphate mining photo

Old phosphate mining photo

The first wheelbarrow paid for their housing and the 2nd paid for their food.  The company paid anything after that in meager amounts at about $100-$150 per month.  It took 1 ton to fill up one funicular and it took 2 weeks to move 35k tons. 

Makatea after the mining?

In 1966 the entire workforce left Makatea to work with the French, on other islands like Hao, to do nuclear testing.  The workers and mining company left all of the equipment, tools, sheds, railroad tracks, trains behind.  The company never repatriated or repaired the island.  Instead, the company left the island with thousands of mining holes.  Only a few families stayed behind to protect the island.  The image below shows an old photo.  The top picture taken in 1954 and the below it is a photo I took on our tour – the holes remain largely untouched as a gaping reminder of the mining expedition.

Holes dug by phosphate mining

Holes dug by phosphate mining

Island Tour of Makatea

Julien started our tour began at the top of the hill just above the port which is called the “industrial area.”  This is where the majority of the welding, pressing, cleaning, and drying of the phosphate was handled.  Julien has plans to bring an industrial expert to the island to help create an open-air museum for the machinery.  However, at this time it is just rusting withering away.

Industrial Area at Makatea

Industrial Area at Makatea

For the most part, the locals do not want to touch or discard anything until the expert can come and evaluate it all.  The locals try to cut back the growth, but as you can see several pieces of the machinery are covered.

Phosphate Mining Machinery

Phosphate Mining Machinery

Lucky for me, Matt was able to identify a lot of the large machinery as he used to work in welding (bet you didn’t know that).  Several large drill presses:

Drill Press for Phosphate Mining

Drill Press for Phosphate Mining

Wondering if any of this equipment can be salvaged? No, which is such a shame.

Lathe and Mill

Lathe and Mill

We were not able to identify all of the machinery.  Any ideas?

Industrial Equipment

Industrial Equipment

Sculfort Fockedey manufactured most of the equipment we found.

Company who made most of the equipment

Company who made most of the equipment

In the back, behind a lot of vegetation and down a small hill was the power source, the engine.

The engine that powered the industrial area

The engine that powered the industrial area

An old train and part of the overhead distribution track are stark reminders of the grand mining system

Train and overheard track

Train and overheard track

How many train engines do you need on this small island?

Throughout the island are more train engines and train cars. We found 5 train engines.   Just imagine the worker stopping the train, getting out and it never moves again.  The photo below shows 3 train engines that we found.  The bottom photo is from the 1950’s

Train Engines left everywhere

Train Engines left everywhere

Miners used the tracks to move the phosphate from the center of town to the port.  The top photo from 1950, shows the men working on the track.  The lower photo is what the tracks looks like today.

Tracks from the 1950s and today

Tracks from the 1950s and today

Miners loaded phosphate  into large open top containers to be transported by train.  Then the workers dumped it into the funiculars which took it to the post.

Train carts used to transport the phosphate

Train carts used to transport the phosphate

The Port

The port had a very different feel back in the 1900’s.  It was a bustling center of activity where the phosphate would be cleaned with fresh water, dried, then loaded into the ships.  The complex distribution system used wheelbarrows to carts, then trains, and then funiculars to get it from the holes to the port.  These are photos of the port from 1950’s.

Makatea port in 1950s

Makatea port in 1950s

These are photos of the port today.  The French Government blew up the port in 1988 leaving only a small reminder of what once was.  

Makatea port 2019

Makatea port 2019

Stay tuned for the next blog as we continue our astonishing tour of Makatea with Yves and Martha from Break Away and Julien Mai the mayor of Makatea.

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