Zollverein Kokerei – The monument that was due to be sold as scrap.

Coking is the last step of a journey that started in the aptly named Carboniferous period, 300 million years ago. Despite that, it also was the first one I discovered in my journey through Essen’s industrial heritage.
Biblical parallels (Blessed are the last for they shall be first!) didn’t apply in my case; rather, it was my trademark half-arsed planning that made it happen; oblivious of where I needed to go I had spotted, from the S-bahn train, a long theory of tall chimneys, stacked one after the other like ships in convoy. I decided that it had to be Zollverein and, after a couple of brief and erroneous detours – a car dealer and a closed nursery – I got there, visiting first the last stage of the process of the creation of coke, Europe’s fuel of choice for centuries and, arguably, the one that made two World Wars possible. Talk about responsibility.
Coal is nothing more than wood, turned into a rock by millions of years of pressure and containment by strata upon strata of soil. Vast coal fields were found in Britain, Belgium and Germany as the nascent European industrial sector discovered the power of steam and the prodigious quantity of heat needed to generate it. Coal provided just that heat, though with that came a thick layer of black soot and the word ‘smog’.
Coke is a particular version of coal. It’s less impure, burns at a higher temperature and, critically, is virtually smokeless. It can be found in nature, but its relative rarity, compared to the run-of-mine coal, forced inventors to find a way to turn coal into coking, and to apply it industrially.
Enter the coking plant. At its heart, it’s nothing but an oven. An airtight, 1-km long one made of dozens of smaller units, each 20-meters high, where coke is warmed in absence of oxygen until it reaches temperatures up to 2000 C and turns into a state halfway between plasma and lava, but an oven nonetheless. This is the last step of the coal industrial process that took place at Zollverein from 1847 to 1986, but it is also the first one I witnessed.
At the moment of its shutdown, the coking plant was quite new and modern, having been built only some 20 years prior, and there were discussions about moving it to China, or selling it for scrap. Neither happened, and what could have been a wasteland turned into an UNESCO-protected park. Much is still to be done in order to secure and preserve the area, and the multitude of “Verboten!” signs festooning the fences were a blatant giveaway, but the start was definitely encouraging. Further down the road, at the end of the tentacular network of conveyor belts and alien-looking pipes, Shaft XII was there to indicate the way to go.
Click on the photos to start the slideshow.
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