The whole city of Essen, suburbs included, sits on top of one of the largest coal deposits in the world. 300 million years ago this industrious corner of Germany was covered in a dense, thick deciduous forest; natural events – flooding and other cataclysms such as tsunamis – progressively the forest under an ever-growing stratum of soil which, in turn, became rock.
Fast forward to 1847, and enter Franz Haniel. The industrialist, during a series of test drillings a handful of kilometers east of his native Duisburg, hit the jackpot: at 130 meters of depth, he struck a deposit of coal of gargantuan proportions. Feeling patriotic, he christened it Zollverein, in honour of a customs union started between the German states some 10 years early.
The dimensions of the Zollverein deposit were so huge, and demand so high, that mine shafts sprouted pretty much everywhere, followed closely by lodging for the miners: rows of neat brick houses which exist still today, albeit covered in a thin layer of black soot.
Coal was so important that it changed the economy and geography of the region: eleven shafts, some of which used to transport materials and some for ventilation, were built before the Great War; within a few decades, Zollverein’s yearly output ballooned from 0 to 2.5 million tons of coal; tunnels were dug at any depth, from 130 to up to 1000 meters by an army of thousands of workers, toiling on shifts around the clock. New greetings, such as the auspicious Glück auf, may you find loads of ore, became common jargon in the Ruhr region.
In 1928 the owners decided to open up a new shaft, bigger than all others, complete with a massive coal washing facility, a boiler room and workshops. The design for the new plant was cured by architects Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer, who opted for a harmoniously severe style made of straight lines, dark bricks suspended between red steel trusses. Rigidly Bauhaus, Shaft XII was soon completed.
Mining, at Zollverein, stopped on December 23rd, 1986. The day before Christmas, after 139 years of continuous work, coal stopped being dug from the deep recesses of earth and the winding towers fell motionless. While the nearby coking plant was rumoured to be on its way to China, the North Rhine-Westphalia state put Shaft XII under a preservation order: the transition from mine to cultural hub was starting.
Today, under the imposing winding tower and its severe sign written in Gothic letters, visitors flock to see a design museum, artistic performances or to go through the history of the Ruhr. Around them, what has once been called “the most beautiful coal mine in the world”, fierce in its geometric perfection, shines of a new light.
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The quiet suburban roads around the impressive Zollverein mining complex.
The Zollverein rail yard is now a park/art gallery
The coal washing plant.
The only rounded angle in the whole complex, possibly.