Völklingen, GERMANY — When the tourist coach stops at the entrance of the abandoned Völkinger Hütte ironworks plant, I’m left to wonder, why?
“Remember I told you we would be visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site today,” says Ines Seidmacher, my guide. “Well, this is it.”
I peer inquisitively through the coach window dotted with rain drops at the rusting monument to the Industrial Age, which UNESCO deemed worthy of World Heritage status in 1994.
“UNESCO celebrates the Stone Age, the Middle Ages, so why not the Industrial Age?” says Ines as she leads me into the former steel mill, which, at its peak, employed over 17,000 workers. Once inside, she introduces me to Franz Gonder, a former plant worker, turned tour guide, who offers insight into the plant’s history, which dates back to 1873.
Above: Giant silos and old iron ore buckets sit rusting a idle in a plant that once employed 17,000 workers.
An eerie feeling prevails as I walk about the plant floor void of workers. Dripping water splashing on idle machinery echoes through the old plant. Large smoke stacks rise into the cobalt sky like giant Roman columns. A highway of twisted pipes zig-zags through the facility like a giant Ai Weiwei contemporary art piece. Windows smudged with black soot look like abstract paintings.
“We are very proud that this is the only industrial plant ever recognized by UNESCO,” says Gonder, who worked here for six years before the ironworks closed in the 1970s.
“We still make steel here in Völklingen at a new plant over there,” says my guide, pointing to a modern facility off in the distance. “Thanks to technology, we now only need 4,000 people to make five times the steel this old plant made at the height of its production.”
The UNESCO plant is made even more museum-like by a series of brightly painted toy workers, which are strategically placed throughout the facility.
Above: Water drips on a rusting girder is the old plant that created many health problems for the workers and town.
“That’s the work of a local artist — to help brighten things up a bit,” says Gonder.
The smell of molten steel still hangs over the huge machine hall that’s dominated by massive turbines, which were used to produce power for the plant.
I follow the guide up some stairs, through darkened corridors and onto a platform — the official start of the tour.
“We will follow the steel process from start to finish — when the coal and iron ore first arrived at the plant, until it was melted down into steel in one of our six blast furnaces, which ran continuously for 100 years,” says Gonder.
As we make our way through the plant, wearing hard hats and stepping in pools of rusty water as we go, Gonder occasionally stops in front of exhibitions and old photographs set up to explain the plant’s history and function.
“The plant created a lot of pollution,” says the former worker. “In fact, this town never saw the sun for 100 years.
The plant also created a lot of health problems for local residents.
“Kids would have to be checked for lung disease once a year and many of the plant employees died very young,” says Gonder,
Above: Toy workers and elves are used to bring colour to the drab plant. Right: A river of molten steel once poured along these bricks.
Ironically, the pollution may have actually saved the plant from bombing during World War II, when it was used to produce armaments for Hitler’s Nazi regime.
“The Allied bombers could never see the plant clearly, thanks to the thick clouds of pollution that always hung over it,” says the guide, who adds: “We are not proud of that period because many forced labourers (12,393 men, women and children from 20 countries, to be exact) were brought here to work and over 250 died here.”
A small memorial has been set up to honour those who lost their lives while working at Völkinger Hütte against their will.
As we make our way to a staircase that leads to the blast furnace that sits 45 metres above the plant floor, the guide points out the giant buckets used to feed the six furnaces and the silos where the coal and iron ore were stored.
“We now use the silos for art exhibitions,” he tells me.
From the dizzying height of the viewing platform, the handsome city of Völklingen spreads out below — its many church steeples indicating that this was once a wealthy community.
Above: Abandoned coal silos are now used for art exhibition while old turbines bathed in colourful light look like art pieces themselves.
“Steel production made this one of the richest cities in Europe,” says Gonder.
The first blast furnace at Völkinger Hütte started spewing out iron ore in 1883 and the workers had to work long hours in front of the rivers of magma wearing nothing more than a thin smock to protect them.
As I leave the fascinating site, a rainbow arches over the old plant, indicating brighter days are ahead for this relic of industrial history.
JUST THE FACTS
• For more on the Völkinger Hütte UNESCO site, go to http://www. völkinger-hütte.org
• For more information on German tourism, go to http://www.germany.travel/en
• Air Canada and Lufthansa offer daily service to Frankfurt and Munich from several Canadian gateways.