Deep in the west, where the sun gathers dust, the land of the thousand fires lay. Even after sunset, a blood-red shimmer lightened the horizon. The pale moonlight dominated the sky. No stars in sight. Mouldy, dusty odour filled the air. A mechanic and steady noise recalled the life downhole, telling of sweat, dirt and treasures. This land is no more.
We are in Essen, a city in the middle of the Ruhrgebiet. The Ruhrgebiet is located in Western Germany, including 52 towns and cities. It stands as synonym for the industrial high culture in the 20th century. The companies made heavy industrial products, such as hard coal and steel. My friend Christian and I visit the Zollverein coal mine, which is known as the role model for coal mines and cokeries.
The tower of Shaft XII welcomes us. It is regarded as the landmark of Essen, leading over 1000 yards straight down into the deep. Every day, the coal mine quarried 11,000 tons of hard coal. Of the 2,900 employees however, there is not a single trace left. The entire complex looks abandoned, but tidy in the german way. Swept walkways, no grafiti on the walls, cut grass.
It is 9pm on a friday night. The lift brought us to the rooftop of the cokery. An amazing panorama awaits us with a cloudless sky. In the distance, we see the landmarks of Oberhausen, Gelsenkirchen and Duisburg. Below us, we look at the 600 metre long cokery oven, coloured in red light. Our guide is a local and therefore a quite talented storyteller. They are pretty much into football here. Two teams, yellow and blue – competing in a merely endless rivalry.
“700 degrees Celsius is the minimum temperature to operate a cokery”, the guide said. On the oven building, we stood next to some magnetic valves where the coal was filled into the ovens. In winter, the workers here wore short trousers and t-shirts. “25 degrees up here seems pretty nice in winter, but as soon as you’re off the roof, you understand the meaning of ‘freezing one’s ass off’.” he continued with a smartass smile.
We went down the rooftop, heading for the front doors of the ovens. The 12 metre high oven doors on the left, the big stamping machine next to us. This machine compressed the coal in the ovens to make them bake evenly for 19.5 hours. “When you were hungry at night, you just needed to bring a chicken in kitchenfoil. Put it onto the stamp and wait for three rounds – voila, grilled chicken!” the guide taught us. Also, he mentioned a story about a former archbishop of this area, visiting the cokery. It is said that one worker stood in front of an open oven door with the bishop and told him: “That is what hell looks like.” The bishop just answered “So, where do you know that from?”
The ovens are just about 45 centimetres wide. The administration of the complex opened the interior and removed some of the walls. A cokery, they say, cannot be shut down without any damages in the stone walls. If a repair was necessary, the cooled it down from 1400 to 700 degrees, faced the walls with insulating cover, and let a worker down into the oven for one handgrip. Then, the next worker continued with the next grip and so on. A job only for the toughest cookies.
Finally, we arrived at the chimney, projecting 98 metres into the air. A small, dark blue circle, surrounded by darkness. There is no filter. “They built it so high that a filter was not necessary. All the dirt went into the atmosphere. I am quite happy that this plant has been taken out of service when I hear that. But environmental protection was a 90s thing anyhow in Germany.
The ground water used to be quite polluted because of the industrial dirt and dust. There was no clean water in the rivers. Because of the German purity law, beer used to be a more healthier drink than water in the old days. So, we concluded our tour with a cold one at a place on Kennedy square in Essen downtown. The end of a pretty impressive evening. Cheers!