AIA Spring Tour - The Ruhr - May 2013

The Ruhr may be considered to be the industrial heartland of Germany. It is an area full of coal mines, coking plants, steel works and associated railways and canals. It was always considered to be dirty, noisy, and unpleasant and definitely to be avoided – but not now. Like much of the heavy industry in western Europe, actually very little remains in operation today and many on the tour commented on how green the whole district looked, very far from how it must have been in the days of full production.

Our first visit was to Henrichshütte in Hattingen. Henrichs steel works was founded in 1854 and the site included blast furnaces, rolling mills, and a coking plant. At the height of production about 10,000 people were employed at the works. Only one blast furnace now remains and for those born too late to experience these sites in operation it was good to stand next to to a Bessemer converter or at the base of the furnace trying to imagine the fantastic noise, heat, and smell as tons of molten metal poured out.

For those keen on railways a visit to the 14 bay round house at the Railway Museum in Bochum-Dalhausen gave us a chance to admire a fine collection of Germany’s locomotives; some small, some curious and some vast beasts. One of the largest locos on display was built locally in 1942 by Krupps – perhaps the best known name in heavy engineering in Germany and well known arms manufacturers since the 17th century.

That name leads naturally to the Villa Hugel. Perhaps not pretty, but certainly grandly impressive, the Villa was completed in 1863. This 19th century home was built for Alfred Krupp and, to prevent fire, he would not allow the use of wood - only stone and iron. The family waited until after his death to add wooden fittings and extend the house to 8100 sq metres with 269 rooms in all.

More impressive buildings were to be seen at Zeche Zollverein. To extract some of the coal from the vast Ruhr coalfield Shaft 1 was sunk in 1847 and more followed, culminating in 1932 with Shaft 12 where the winding tower and surrounding buildings by architects Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer with their distinctive Bauhaus design can’t fail to make an impact. We learned that coal production ceased in 1986 leaving enough coal underground to provide Germany’s energy needs for 400 years.

At Henrichenburg there is a 14 metre drop from the old Dortmund Ems canal to the Rhein Herne Canal and the solution to navigating this in 1899 was a ship lift, which has sadly been inoperable for many years. At first sight you might think that the caisson, capable of accommodating 350 tonne vessels, was raised and lowered by the tall vertical screws to be seen at each corner. But in fact we learned that it floats upwards by means of cylindrical floats immersed in deep, water-filled wells. Two later attempts at negotiating the height difference: a more modern looking boatlift, using the same principals, and a lock with 5 large sideponds have now been abandoned in favour of a modern ship lock taking craft of 190 x 12 metres.

Our next visit was to the Kokerei Hansa which was one of the largest coking plants in Europe. Production first started in 1927 and by 1938 the 300 coke ovens had a production capacity of 1,700,000 tonnes per year. Some level of fitness was required to ascend the coal conveyor where once all the coal to feed the ovens was carried aloft, but the view from the top gave an impression of the huge scale of operations. On top of those ovens men toiled, in conditions that few of us would tolerate today, knowing that just to touch the metal would result in serious burns.

Further fitness was required to get the best view from the top of the headframe, at Zeche Zollern a “model” colliery at Bövinghausen, near Dortmund. Building of this well preserved site began in 1898. Most of the buildings are of solid brick and designed by Paul Knobbe. The central engine house has an iron framework and contained the most up-to-date generators and machinery at the time with an Art Nouveau styled main entrance, by Bruno Möhring, showing lead glazing of blue and green glass.

The next day saw us looking at the earliest industrial history in the region. Permission was granted by the Archbishop of Cologne in 1741 for Freiherr von Wenge to excavate iron ore at Osterfeld but it was 11 years before he began building his foundry at St Antony-Hutte and a further six years before the first iron flowed. The fortunes of the business rose and fell over 130 years but the last iron was produced in around 1873 and the remaining buildings were demolished in 1880. A modern, curving, steel structure has been erected to cover this archaeological site and little now remains of this earliest iron foundry but it is very well interpreted and, for those of us struggling to make out what might have gone on, there were some excellent animated video reconstructions which made everything very clear.

The Hagen Open Air Museum for Craft and Technology was founded on 1960 on the principle that visitors should be able to see the buildings where urban and rural trades were carried on and be able to get up close to those processes in action. Crafts and trades demonstrated include ropemaking, tanning, printing, and much more. We were sorry that the triphammer workshop was not in operation but spent a lot of time watching nailmaking. It is pleasure to watch such a craftsman at work, transferring red hot metal from the fire to the anvil and with carefully aimed and timed strokes turning out yet another perfect example. Apparently though this is far from a dying craft as hand-made nails are now in vogue and manufacturers are unable to meet the demand.

At Solingen, sometimes called the “city of blades”, we saw the Hendrichs Forge which is a drop forge specializing in the making of scissors. It began in 1886 and employed 90 workers at its height in about 1914. It was busy too during WW2 - although not making scissors. It continued until 1986 and remains now as a museum. Each stage of making a pair of scissors was demonstrated including the benches where the forging dies themselves were made.

Finally then to Wuppertal and the quite unique Schwebebahn – “the oldest electric elevated railway with hanging cars in the world” We boarded the specially reserved Kaiserwagen (the seat where the Kaiser sat was pointed out) and, scheduled amongst regular commuter traffic, we swung out of the station suspended over the street, passing bedroom windows with the traffic below us. Then curving out over the river Wupper, past the point where the elephant fell out (that was some publicity stunt), this ride on a most unusual railway left a smile on everyone’s face!

Thanks are due particularly to Sue Constable for a great deal of hard work in putting the programme together.