Sunday, October 13, 2013

Glück auf!

They say you learn something every day, and today, I learned a lot.

Yay, coal! Welcome to Eastern France!
While I love travelling and seeing new places - often in different countries - I also think it's important to get to know the area where you live as well.  Thus, my roommate Meike, Rudi (the other English assistant in Forbach) and I set off for a day of driving around to explore the part of France we now call home.

First on our list: the Lorraine American Cemetery in St-Avold.  This is Europe's largest American cemetery, and after being thoroughly impressed with the American cemetery next to the D-Day beaches in Normandy during my last stay in France, I figured this place would be of great interest to me.  After a quick 20-minute drive to St-Avold, we meandered unsuccessfully throughout the town and finally ended up at the Office de Tourisme, knowing that they'd surely be able to point us in the right direction.  There, we learned two things: the American cemetery was located 1 kilometer down the road from us, and it was closed thanks to the US government shutdown.

US Government Shutdown: Impacting European Tourists
How can that be, my fellow teaching assistants asked?  I hadn't thought about it beforehand, but I know that the American cemetery in Normandy is technically located on "US soil" that has been given to America by France in order for us to inter our fallen war heroes, and is consequently staffed by US park rangers and military officials (just like the one here in St-Avold)...who are currently out of a job due to current events back home, and thus have been furloughed here, nearly 4,000 miles away as well.  Assuming the government shutdown doesn't last for 8 more months, we'll have to make a return visit when we can actually visit the monuments here. Nonetheless, it was a slightly disappointing start to our morning.

Next up: the Musée des Mineurs Wendel, a museum about the Wendel coal mine and the miners who worked there.  The region of Lorraine has been involved in coal mining ever since Napoleon had his surveyors inspect the area for natural resources, and the Wendel family opened up the coal vein here in 1853 and successfully mined up until 2001.  Because of its bounty of valuable natural resources, Lorraine has been fought over throughout history, belonging to Germany during both World Wars and finally returning to French control after the armistice in 1945.  

This map shows all of the coal mines on the French side of the Sarrolorrain region (the blue represents German territory)
Before getting to the museum, however, we had a bit of a mix-up regarding its actual whereabouts.  For some reason, whenever you research a museum or cultural point of interest in the area online, you're provided only with the name of the street on which it's located - no specific number or anything that would help you actually locate it in person.  Long story short, we drove to the town of Stiring-Wendel, and after roaming the streets and asking random people where their mining museum might be hiding, we discovered it is actually situated in the town of Petite-Rosselle, a mere 15 minutes away...whoops! But after walking through Stiring-Wendel, we learned that there does exist a sleepier town than Forbach, and that we have no reason to ever waste gas again to go exploring in it!

Back in Petite-Rosselle, we finally arrived at the Wendel mining site and museum.  I wasn't quite sure what to expect, as I knew nothing about mining, but we were pleasantly surprised. It's been a few years since I last learned about the formation of coal, so I needed a quick refresher (see below if you do too!)...

The formation of coal
Millions of years ago when Earth was home to the super-continent called Pangea, France was located a lot closer to the equator where it was hot, humid, and prime territory for tons of vegetation to prosper.  As the plant matter died and sunk to the bottom of ponds and lakes, peat formed and gradually became buried under lots of rocks, dirt and sediment.  Over the next 300 millennia, all the matter on top of the peat exerted lots of pressure and heat, turning it into coal.  And there you have it: the continents drifted apart, bringing their coal deposits with them, and that's how so much coal got to be all the way up here in France.

Continental drift
Back in 1853, Charles de Wendel founded a steel factory in the town of Stiring (where we thought the museum was located...) which used iron ore from Lorraine, coke from the German Saarland, and later coal from Lorraine.  He built a large worker's village called Stiring-Wendel in 1857 to house all the men who worked in his factory, and later built up larger settlements to house the miners once the coal mines began functioning.  
Aerial view of one of the planned mining villages constructed near the coal mines
Boys went to mining school at age 13, and after 4 years of training they were eligible to start working in the mines at the age of 17.  Girls also attended special home-ec classes at 13 to train them to be the perfect miners' wives, with courses which taught them how to do laundry, sew, iron, cook, and run a household perfectly synchronized around the different shifts at the mine.

Young girls attending "Miners' Wives School"
Although mining was and continues to be a very dangerous line of work, the French government recognized this and thus developed a system of perks to working as a miner or being married to one.  As this region of France was ravaged by many wars, the mining of coal was of the utmost importance to fuel the production of the steel which was needed to rebuild the country, and thus miners were in high demand.  In order to entice men into working in the mines, free housing, heating, and transportation to and from the mine were provided.  There were commissaries for the miners to buy their food at reduced prices, free daycare was provided to children of miners, and retirement benefits were quite tempting.  If a miner were to die either in the mine or due to health complications from mining (like black lung disease), his widow and children would continue to receive free housing/heating, etc, as well as a monetary death benefit.

Houses built for mining families in my area (they still stand and are occupied today)
The museum did a great job explaining the origins of coal mining in Lorraine and provided an inside view of daily life as a miner.  The museum is located inside one of the mine's buildings, with exhibits in the shower room (where 150 soot-covered workers could bathe simultaneously), the locker rooms (where miners' clothes still hang from the ceiling), and various equipment rooms housing headlamps, helmets, tools and ID badges.

"La Salle des Pendus" (The Hanging Room), where the miners' day clothes hung while they worked
Each miner had his own chain instead of a locker
Dirty mining clothes suspended outside the shower room
Then it was time for our guided tour of the "mine" itself.  Our guide led us around some of the abandoned mine buildings as we made our way over to the building containing the simulated mine.  Before entering the mine, the miners would wish each other "Glück auf!"  Recognized as the "miners' greeting" and still used between former miners even today, this German phrase means "good luck getting out of the mine!" as one never knew what sorts of dangers might befall him that day.  A statue of St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners and firefighters, stood outside the mine shaft as well, in hopes that she would protect the workers from harm.  

Saint Barbara (Sainte-Barbe, in French) was locked in a tower by her father for wanting to convert to Christianity. After a priest disguised as a doctor snuck into the tower and successfully converted her, her father was furious and set fire to the building.  Saint-Barbe survived the flames, and is thus the patron saint of those who work with fire today.
After hopping into the (simulated) cage which brought us down 1200 meters into the coal mine, we stepped into an underground tunnel filled with massive machines used to mine the coal.  The miners would dig the first 150 meters of the tunnels by hand, and then bring all the machines down piece by piece over the course of a couple weeks and assemble them underground.  Saying that the miners were "hard-working" is an understatement!

Dujardin compressed air locomotive, used to navigate inside the mines from the 1920s until 2000. Compressed air was safer to use than electricity, due to fire hazards.
We learned about the dangers of working in the mines as well - from cave-ins to firedamp and coal dust explosions.  Throughout the decades, many types of materials were used to hold up the walls of the mine in order to prevent them from caving in and crushing the miners; wooden beams, metal poles, and ultimately pneumatic pistons did the job.  Interestingly, in the era of wooden beams, the miners preferred to use pine timbers, which aren't nearly as strong as some other woods like oak, but will audibly crack up to 5 times before snapping (unlike oak which just snaps in two without any notice), giving the miners a warning and thus time to erect new supports or exit the mine before catastrophe struck.  

Standing before Puits Wendel 1 & Wendel 2, the first two mines to be opened at this site
It is impossible to mine coal without releasing methane gas (referred to as 'firedamp' when it's in a mine) from the ground, which proves to be a major hazard for those working underground in the tunnels as it is highly flammable.  With no odor or taste, firedamp was extremely difficult to detect before the advent of modern technology.  I was already familiar with the practice of lowering a cage of canaries down into the mine shaft to check for methane - if the cage came back up and the birds were alive, it was safe for humans to enter the mine - but our guide explained a slightly more gruesome procedure which was also used.  

A large cylindrical wash tub for coal still stands next to the museum's entrance
After all the wars in France, there were many prisoners of war who were ultimately sentenced to death for whatever reason, and it was becoming expensive to keep all of them alive until their date with the guillotine (which was still used in France until 1977).  Thus it was decided that prisoners could volunteer to become pénitents (those looking to atone for their sins).  The pénitent would be lowered into the mine much like the canary, but given a torch.  If there was a dangerous amount of methane in the air, the prisoner's torch would ignite the air and BOOM, an explosion would occur, killing the prisoner (and eliminating another government expense) and alerting the miners at the top of the shaft that it wasn't safe to enter the mine.  If the pénitent survived two weeks of this dangerous task, then he earned his freedom and was released back into society (and was thus one less mouth for the government to feed in prison).

The pénitent, checking the mine for methane
There are two types of explosions that occur in mines: firedamp explosions (coup de grisou) and coal dust explosions (coup de poussière).  The firedamp explosion always comes first, and when it happens the coal dust is shaken from the walls and can ignite, causing a second explosion within a fraction of a second. The video below was shown at the museum and does a good job showing just how dangerous these explosions can be, devastating multiple kilometers of mine tunnels and all the miners located inside them within seconds.  Since the video is in French, here's a quick overview of what happens:
  • beginning to 2:00 mark: The worker spreads coal dust inside the simulated mine shaft, at the center of which is a stick of dynamite to simulate the primary firedamp explosion, which then ignites the coal dust, causing the second explosion - shown first in normal time, and a second time in slow-motion.
  • 2:00 to 3:20: The narrator explains that to avoid this second explosion, you need to prevent the coal dust from igniting. The worker then spreads a mixture of coal dust and pulverized chalk in the mine shaft, and the dynamite is once again lit to simulate the firedamp explosion, but this time no flames are produced because the second explosion was prevented, as the chalk powder coats the coal dust and keeps it from igniting.
  • 3:20 to end: Instead of putting chalk dust in the tunnel, trays of water are suspended inside the mine to act as sprinklers to snuff out the coal dust explosion. No more flames! The chalk dust method and the trays of water are often combined inside the mines in an effort to improve safety.
While the video is a bit cheesy, it really gives you a good idea of just how powerful and devastating explosions inside the mine can be.

While there isn't a whole lot to see around Forbach, I highly recommend the Musée Les Mineurs Wendel - all signs, exhibits, audio and video clips, and the tour of the mine are presented in French, German and English, making the content readily accessible to lots of people.  I didn't have high expectations for our tour, but I was very intrigued and think my visit here will help me to better understand the former mining community I'm now a part of.

The remains of the Wendel coal mine facility and museum as they stand today

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