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Regional route Ruhr | Germany

Heavy industry means heavy labour. Nowhere in Europe is this so clear as in the Ruhrgebiet. The region is full of the history of coal, steel and people, exemplary pioneering achievements and countless victims. A history in which entrepreneurial audacity simultaneously resulted in appalling suffering and ... more

The Ruhrgebiet Regional Route

Heavy industry means heavy labour. Nowhere in Europe is this so clear as in the Ruhrgebiet. The region is full of the history of coal, steel and people, exemplary pioneering achievements and countless victims. A history in which entrepreneurial audacity simultaneously resulted in appalling suffering and a proud sense of community, and the urban population was welded together by the common fate of poor living conditions, poisonous gases and pulmonary diseases. Now the clouds of smoke from factory chimneys have for the most part disappeared, leaving more industrial monuments in their wake than anywhere else in Europe. Pithead towers and engine houses, coking plants and blast furnace are living witnesses to the past which, in their new roles as attractive cultural and entertainment centres, also point forward to an exciting future.

The Ruhrgebiet has only really existed since the 1930s. The name was coined as a belated acknowledgement of the fact that the region had become a single entity. Previous to this people had never made any such connections. There was the area south of the Ruhr around Witten, Hattingen and Hagen. North of this, dotted along the ancient Hellweg trade route were Duisburg, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Essen, Bochum and Dortmund. Even further north the River Emscher connected Oberhausen, Gelsenkirchen, Herne and Castrop-Rauxel, not forgetting the nearby towns of Bottrop, Gladbeck and Recklinghausen. On the far eastern edge was Hamm, whilst Marl to the north was situated right on the border of Münsterland. The western border was marked by the River Rhine, Rheinberg, Moers and Kamp-Lintfort.

Everything within these borders seemed to be subject to an uncontrolled process of chaotic growth. Industrial plants, working-class housing estates, meadows, suburbs, roads and railways cut across one another to an unforeseeable degree. That said, nowadays the various parts of the Ruhrgebiet do not look at all the same. For the explosive periods of growth have left a variety of different traces. Coal was not only the fuel behind the unrestrained process of industrialisation, it was the essence of industrialisation. The woods around Duisburg, Essen and Witten were full of little pits at a very early period. Here, where the coal lay near the surface, mining was conducted in a very elementary fashion with no more than a handful of pit workers. Since it was only of average quality most of it was used by the local inhabitants for cooking and heating purposes, the remainder being sent by boat to Holland and the Upper Rhine. At the time the Ruhrgebiet was still an idyllic rural area.

The breakthrough came around 1830 when mines began to be sunk deep below the surface to get at the seams of coal along the Hellweg area. Powerful steam engines were needed to pump out the water from the galleries at the different levels. Production multiplied. In addition the local bituminous coal proved ideal for firing coking plants. This in turn promoted iron and steel making which had until then been held back by their dependence on limited supplies of expensive timber. In 1849 the first coke-fired blast furnace in the region went into operation in Essen.

Foreign capital was there from the start. A good example is the Altenberg zinc factory in Oberhausen which was set up in 1854 as a result of a Belgian initiative. Technical know-how also came from abroad - especially from England - via industrial espionage, the import of qualified workers and the relocation of complete business firms. The growth in the number of steelworks led to an ever-increasing demand for iron ore, at first from the nearby Sauerland region and the Lorraine, later from Sweden and Newfoundland. The Krupp concern even had its own fleet of ships to import ore from the north of Spain. Lime came from Wuppertal and Wülfrath, nickel from Silesia and New Caledonia, graphite from the Bavarian forest.

In the mid 19th century the Ruhrgebiet felt as if it had been hit by a gold rush. Industrial pioneers like Franz Haniel, Mathias Stinnes, Friedrich Krupp, and Friedrich Harkort built up  whole empires within the space of a few years. The railways were primarily responsible for this explosive growth for they were simultaneously efficient and elementary means of transport and major consumers of iron and steel. The first major stretch of rail between Cologne and Minden was opened in 1847. By 1862 the whole of the Ruhrgebiet had been connected. The new technology led to the creation of pits and steelworks everywhere. Most of them produced coal to fire their own steelworks. This development in turn heralded the creation of integrated works producing coal, iron and steel – and later chemical by-products – a feature which was to become characteristic for the Ruhrgebiet as a whole.

The massive growth of industrialisation created a voracious demand for workers and resulted in an upsurge of immigration on a hitherto unknown scale. In 1850 the population of Essen was around 9,000. By 1910 this had grown to 295,000. In the brief period between 1895 and 1913 the population of the Ruhrgebiet more than doubled from 1,500,000 to 3,300,000. The first immigrants were farm workers from Münsterland, East Westphalia and Hesse. After that the catchment area moved further east. Between 1910 and 1914 alone more than 800,000 people moved to the Ruhrgebiet from Poland and Masuria.

The chaotic development brought the towns and cities to the edge of collapse because of the lack of housing, roads and sanitary facilities. Factory owners tried to counter this by building housing estates exclusively for their workforce. They set up health insurance systems and introduced company stores in the hope of being able to damp down potential conflicts with social welfare programmes. Nonetheless the lack of housing was a constant theme. Around 1900 every second family was housing a lodger – single young men who had come to the Ruhrgebiet in search of work and who were delighted to find somewhere cheap to live.

Life was hard in the pits and foundries. The work was not only dangerous it was damaging to the health. The only compensation was that it was comparatively well-paid. Working together at close quarters in such circumstances encouraged a close-knit community spirit which was further strengthened by clubs, political activities and industrial conflicts.

The manufacture of armaments for the two World Wars strengthened the dominant status of heavy industry in the Ruhrgebiet and prevented the introduction of new technologies. In the long run this monoculture proved to be fatal. The last real major innovation in the Ruhrgebiet occurred in 1932 in the form of the gigantic shaft number XII on the site of the Zollverein Pit in Essen. When it was opened it was generally acknowledged as the most modern coal mine in the word. Its practical and flexible mix of redbrick and steel trellis work was a landmark in architectural history. Its closure in 1986  after long years of crisis heralded the end of the monopoly of coal and steel along the Rivers Ruhr and Emscher.

Industrialisation, the boom years, war devastation, reconstruction – the Ruhrgebiet was the power house of Germany for around 150 years. Now it is in search of a new identity. Structural transformation is the in-word. It has been a very painful process. This is no surprise given the fact that thousands and thousands of workers lost their jobs. But now people are slowly beginning to realise that their unique industrial heritage forms the potential basis for future developments. Where other regions boast of their churches, monasteries, castles and fortresses, the Ruhrgebiet can boast of its collieries, gasometers, foundries and steelworks. They are not only tourist attractions but also constitute an attractive environment for modern businesses as well as offering spectacular settings for culture and entertainment. A huge number of people in honorary societies and grass-roots initiatives have committed their energies to creating new roots in the old industrial plants. The Emscher Park International Building Exhibition (IBA) made a considerable contribution to the process of sustainable reconstruction between 1989 and 1999 Its aim was to design and implement forward-looking projects for the Emscher region, an area which had suffered most from the results of industrialisation and the economic crisis which accompanied its decline. The Ruhrgebiet continues to develop with similar new projects. Nonetheless it has remained true to its original nature - as a pioneering force in modern industrial society.

The Route of Industrial Heritage

The regional tourist project entitled "The Route of Industrial Heritagel", a ca. 400 km circular route around the Ruhrgebiet, opens up the region's industrial heritage to visitors.

25 so-called anchor points make up the core network of the Trail, including six important museums of technical and social history, many panorama points and a series of significant workers'settlements. Outside all the anchor points there are large conical yellow identification posts.

Around 1,500 signs on motorways and local roads point the way to these industrial and cultural highlights. The "Discovery Pass"introduces all the attractions in words and pictures.

This project is the responsibility of the Regional Association of the Ruhr (RVR). The "Ruhr visitor centre" is the main visitor centre for the Trail and can be found at the Zollverein World Heritage Site in Essen. 

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WORK it Out – Day of Industrial Culture

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