The Spanish Rivers
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
There are six great rivers in Spain—the arteries which run between the seven mountain chains, the vertebre of the geological skeleton. These watersheds are each intersected in their extent by others on a minor scale, by valleys and indentations, in each of which runs its own stream. Thus the rains and melted snows are all collected in an infinity of ramifications, and are carried by these tributary conduits into one of the main trunks, which all, with the exception of the Ebro, empty themselves into the Atlantic.
The Duero and Tagus, unfortunately for Spain, disembogue in Portugal, and thus become a portion of a foreign dominion exactly where their commercial importance is the greatest. Philip II. saw the true value of the possession of an angle which rounded Spain, and insured to her the possession of these valuable outlets of internal produce, and inlets for external Dommerce. Portugal annexed to Spain gave more real power to his throne than the dominion of entire continents across the Atlantic, and is the secret object of every Spanish government's ambition. The Ming, which is the shortest of these rivers, runs through a bosom of fertility. The Tajo, Tagus, which the fancy of poets has sanded with gold and embanked with roses, tracks much of its dreary way through rocks and comparative barrenness. The Guadiana creeps through lonely Estremadura, infecting the low plains with miasma. The Guadalquivir eats out its deep banks amid the sunny, olive-clad regions of Andalusia, as the Ebro divides the levels of Arragon. Spain abounds with brackish streams, Salados, and with salt-mines, or saline deposits after the evaporation of the sea-waters; indeed, the soil of the central portions is so strongly impregnated with "villainous saltpeter," that the small province of La Mancha alone could furnish materials to blow up the world; the surface of these regions, always arid, is every day becoming more so, from the singular antipathy which the in-habitants of the interior have against trees.
There is nothing to check the power of rapid evaporation, no shelter to protect or preserve moisture. The soil becomes more and more parched and dried up, insomuch that in some parts it has almost ceased to be available for cultivation; another serious evil, which arises from want of plantations, is, that the slopes of hills are every-where liable to constant denudation of soil after heavy rain. There is nothing to break the descent of the water; hence the naked, barren stone summits of many of the sierras, which have been pared and peeled of every particle capable of nourishing vegetation; they are skeletons where life is extinct; not only is the soil thus lost, but the detritus washed down either forms bars at the mouths of rivers, or chokes up and raises their beds; they are thus rendered liable to overflow their banks, and convert the adjoining plains into pestilential swamps. The supply of water, which is afforded by periodical rains, and which ought to support the reservoirs of rivers, is carried off at once in violent floods, rather than in a gentle, gradual disembocation. From its mountainous character Spain has very few lakes, as the fall is too considerable to allow water to accumulate; the exceptions which do exist might with greater propriety be termed lochs—not that they are to be compared in size or beauty to some of those in Scotland.
The volume in the principal rivers of Spain has diminished, and is diminishing; thus some which once were navigable, are so no longer, while the artificial canals which were to have been substituted remain unfinished; the progress of deterioration advances, while little is done to counteract or amend what every year must render more difficult and expensive, while the means of repair and correction will diminish in equal proportion, from the poverty occasioned by the evil, and by the fearful extent which it will be allowed to attain. However, several grand water-companies have been lately formed, who are to dig Artesian wells, finish canals, navigate rivers with steamers, and issue shares at a premium, which will be effected if nothing else is.
The rivers which are really adapted to navigation are, however, only those which are perpetually fed by those tributary streams that flow down from mountains which are covered with snow all the year, and these are not many. The majority of Spanish rivers are very scanty of water during the summer time, and very rapid in their flow when filled by rains or melting snow; during these periods they are impracticable for boats. They are, moreover, much exhausted by being drained off, "sangrado"-that is, bled, for the purpose of artificial irrigation; thus, at Madrid and Valencia, the wide beds of the Manzanares and the Turia are frequently dry as the sands of the seashore when the tide is out. They seem only to be en-titled to be called rivers by courtesy, because they have so many and such splendid bridges; as numerous are the jokes cut by the newly arrived stranger, who advises the townsfolk to sell one of them to purchase water, or compares their thirsting arches to the rich man' in torments, who prays for one drop; but a heavy rain in the mountains soon shows the necessity for their strength and length, for their wide and lofty arches, their buttress-like piers, which before had appeared to be rather the freaks of architectural magnificence than the works of public utility.
Those who live in a comparatively level country can scarcely form an idea of the rapidity and fearful destruction of the river inundations in this land of mountains. The deluge rolls forth in an avalanche, the rising water coming down tier above tier like a flight of steps let loose., These tides carry everything before them—scarring and gullying up the earth, tearing down rocks, trees, and houses, and strewing far and wide the relics of ruin; but the fierce fury is short-lived, and is spent in its own violence; thus the traveler at Madrid, if he wishes to see its Thames, should run down or take the 'bus as he can, when it rains, or the river will be gone before he gets there. When the Spaniards, under those blockheads Blake and Cuesta, lost the battle of Rio Seco, which gave Madrid to Bonaparte, the French soldiers, in crossing the dry river-bed in pursuit exclaimed—"Why, Spanish rivers run away, too!"