Two silent pithead winding gears tower over the redbrick gable of the Bois de Cazier colliery near Charleroi. The colliery has now ceased operations but in August 1956 it was the site of one of the most tragic accidents in European mining history; a disaster that killed a total of 262 workers. A major section of the colliery museum erected on the site is devoted to the accident. Surrounding this section are the miners’ changing rooms, washrooms and pithead equipment that give visitors a good idea of the region whose coal resources were once used to fire iron and steel works, glassworks and chemical factories. Visitors are also able to view original generators, blowing engines, an electric tram dating back to 1904, and even a complete sheet-rolling mill from the middle of the 19th century. The museum tells of the people who came here from all over Europe to earn a living under harsh, and sometimes perilous, working conditions. A new modern building is dedicated to the history of glassmaking, whereas a hall containing noisy drop hammers, hissing fireplaces and working machine tools demonstrates ancient forging and casting techniques. Three spoil tips have been reclaimed by nature to provide visitors with pleasant walks in the vicinity of the colliery.
The accident began around 8.10 on the morning of the 8th August 1956. A hoisting cage that was not completely loaded collapsed, causing electric cables to break, tearing away an oil pipe in the process. This caused a fire which rapidly spread throughout all the galleries in the colliery. 136 Italians, 95 Belgians and 31 colliers of other nationalities lost their life in the catastrophe. Around one month later the European Community for Coal and Steel (the Montan Union) decided to completely overhaul safety regulations in mining operations.
The tragedy at Marcinelle is not the only factor that has left its mark far beyond the region’s borders. Just as the Montan Union was an important step on the way to European unity, the Bois de Cazier colliery is a metaphor for the deeply European nature of mining at the time. Miners from no less than 12 nations fell victim in the colliery accident in 1956. The museum pays tribute to their memory with a series of large photographs and a Boulevard of Remembrance containing typical tree species from the 12 nations involved. At the same time this international aspect makes clear the extent to which migrant workers left their mark on the face of post-war Europe. Here the Bois de Cazier pit, set up in 1922, is no exception. It was located in the heart of Wallonia, and was therefore part of an industrial region that employed around 25,000 miners of different nationalities in 1956, and whose factories ranged from iron and steel works to chemical factories and industrialised glassworks. In the year of the accident Le Bois de Cazier had a workforce of 779 and an annual output of 170,000 tonnes of coal.
But structural change has also left its mark here. The fate of the colliery had already been sealed by 1967. In 1990 most of the surface plant was placed under monument protection and in the following years the site was restored to include a museum. Three greened spoil tips provide visitors with a panoramic view over the disused industrial landscape around Charleroi.
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Tuesday - Friday pam-5pm
Saturday, Sunday 10am-6pm