A crash course in coal-mining

The UNESCO World Heritage site Zollverein Shaft XII is an easy bicycle ride from the center of Essen — only about five kilometers from the Aalto-Theater, for example. It’s best to reserve a tour in advance, but I was lucky because I arrived at the Visitors’ Center without a reservation a few minutes before eleven on a Sunday morning and found that there was exactly one place free on a tour that was leaving on the hour. 

The tour was like a crash course in coal-mining, led by a man who obviously knew the colliery like the back of his hand, but he couldn’t have been a miner because he was over sixty, and miners didn’t live that long. Also no miner ever set foot in this compound, known locally as the Forbidden City, because Shaft XII was designed exclusively for the purpose of bringing up huge amounts of coal in wheeled tubs, and sending the empty tubs back down again. Nearby there were four older shafts that were used for transporting the miners and their equipment.

One of the 10,400 coal tubs in Essen

Long before I ever toured the Zollverein colliery in Essen, there was another phase of my life in which I was very interested in coal mining, and that was during the United Mine Workers strike of 1948. I was eight years old at the time and was just starting to realize that there were other pages in the newspaper besides the funnies. 

We didn’t subscribe to a newspaper, but my father bought the Chicago Daily News every day after work at the C&NW station and read it on the train. When he got home I eagerly snatched the paper from his hand, threw it and myself down on the living room rug and of course read the funnies first, but then turned to the front page to see if that awful John L. Lewis, the glowering union leader, was still blocking our coal supply. 

I knew about coal because we had a big pile of it in a bin next to the furnace in our basement. My father assured me we had enough to keep us warm all winter, but I was dubious. Also I was worried that he might get stuck in downtown Chicago some day if the C&NW didn’t have enough coal to run its steam locomotives. 

A few years later we switched to gas heating, around the same time the railroad started phasing out its steam locomotives in favor of diesels.

Front entrance to Zollverein Shaft XII in Essen, Germany

Designed and built in the 1920s, this shaft and processing plant went into operation on February 1, 1932. At that time it was considered the largest, most efficient, most modern and also most beautiful coal mining facility in Europe.

Looking up at the tower

The Zollverein was founded in 1847 by an industrialist named Franz Haniel (1799-1868). He gave his mine the name Zollverein in honor of the German Customs Union of 1844, which made it possible to do business in Germany without having to pay tolls every few miles at the borders of the many tiny German states.

By 1920 the Zollverein had four shafts producing 8000 tons of coal per day, but at that point they decided there was no way to modernize those old shafts and increase the daily output, so the solution was to build a new shaft for the sole purpose of bringing up 12000 tons per day in a huge multi-storey elevator. 

Surrounding the new shaft they built a processing plant which by the standards of the times (recall that they had nothing resembling the computer technology we have today!) was highly automated. The managers proudly announced that they had eliminated 500 jobs, which then as now was a dubious achievement, since unemployment was one of the many factors that enabled the Nazis to seize power in 1933. 

They were so obsessed with automation that the buildings originally didn’t have any toilets, but they quickly had to add some when they realized that they still needed hundreds of workers to run the new machines. 

Railroad tracks under the processing plant

Beneath the plants there were railroad tracks so that after the coal had been sorted and processed it could be dumped directly into coal cars and transported to the end users, particularly the nearby steel mills.

Entrance to the new Visitors’ Center

Under one of the old conveyor belts that moved coal all around the plant (visible in the to left hand corner of the photo) they have recently built a pair of escalators to bring people up to the new visitors’ center on the second floor. (Third floor to you.)

Our tour group at the sorting machines

Until nearly the end of our ninety-minute tour, our guide kept us wondering how he had acquired his detailed knowledge of every square centimeter of the plant. As I have mentioned, we knew he couldn’t have been a miner, because he was over sixty, and miners didn’t live that long. In fact he told us that the miners typically died a horrible death at around age forty-five, essentially suffocating from the layer of rock dust that had collected in their lungs. He said it was the rock dust that did it, not the coal dust. These men usually felt all right during the day, but were in agony when they lay down at night. (Remember this the next time someone says they want to re-open old coal mines to create jobs.)

There were lots of men like that in his neighborhood, because he grew up right here on the minefield. 800 meters from their house there was a huge ventilating fan that blew the used air up out of the mines, meaning that if the wind was blowing from that direction their house was soon covered with coal dust. His mother didn’t have a chance of getting or keeping the laundry clean. As the youngest child he was the last to bathe in the weekly bath water, which was a black brew before he ever got in it. When he was seventeen he wanted to become a miner, but his father vetoed the idea (“for which I am eternally grateful”), so he joined the Essen fire department instead. For the last seventeen years of his career as a professional fireman he was in charge of fire prevention at the old Zollverein plant and spent most of his working days there.

Conveyor belts for transporting the coal

After the coal had been brought up out of the mines it was transported around the plant by these giant conveyor belts. Five huge “washing” machines with swiftly moving water separated the lighter coal from the heavier pieces of rock, but a lot of the sorting work still had to be done by hand. This was usually done by 14 to 17 year old boys, since by law they were too young to be sent down into the mines.

Sorting machines

These long sorting machines separated the coal from any remaining pieces of rock, and sorted the chunks of coal into different sizes.

Machinery in the Zollverein

Tools in the workshop


The route of the coal tubs

In the year 1934 the Zollverein had 10,400 coal tubs, which were in constant motion from the mines to the shaft to the processing plant and back again. To meet the goal of bringing up 12,000 tons of coal per day, each tub had to make at least one and a half round trips every day. 

Tour group looking at one of the coal tubs

Down in the mines there was always a shortage of empty tubs, which was a catastrophe for the miners because they were paid by the tub-load, not the hour. A token identifying the exact point of loading was attached to each tub be means of a thin wire. These tokens were collected up in the plant by the payroll department, so they could figure out exactly how much coal had been produced by each of the 110 loading points down in the mines, and pay the men accordingly at the end of the week.

Cables to pull the coal tubs

Within the plant the coal tubs were pulled around by cables in the floor.

A coal tub on its tracks

A text panel in German and English explaining the route of the coal tubs


New life in the preserved buildings

After nearly 55 years of continuous operation, coal production at the Zollverein Shaft XII ceased on December 23, 1986. Even before this, plans were being made to preserve the entire facility and to find new uses for some of the buildings. Not only can you take a fascinating tour of the plant, there are also concerts, lectures, readings, panel discussions and special exhibitions nearly every day of the year. The photo below shows part of a modern art exhibition in hall 5, with works by the painter Herbert Bardenheuer and the sculptor Oveis Saheb Djawaher.

Art exhibition in Hall 5 of the Zollverein

On December 14, 2001, the Zollverein shaft XII along with the nearby coking plant and one of the older mine shafts was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Part of our tour group in Hall 5

Unlike most German pre-war industrial plants, this facility is extremely well preserved. Despite its strategic importance it did not take a single direct hit by bombings during the entire Second World War. This remarkable restraint on the part of the Allied air forces no doubt has to do with the fact that the construction of the facility in the 1920s was largely financed by American capital, so it was in a sense American property, even though operations were entirely controlled by the Germans.

Zollverein Shaft XII at night

On my way back to Essen on my bicycle after seeing an opera in the nearby city of Gelsenkirchen, I stopped to take this photo of Zollverein Shaft XII at night.

51°29’11.50″ North;  7° 2’38.73″ East
Gelsenkirchener Straße 181, 45309 Essen

My photos in this post are from 2007. I revised the text in 2017.

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