Bergisches Land, Märkisches Sauerland, Siegerland The slate hillsides of the Rhineland do not resemble an industrial area in the slightest. That said, it is indeed an industrial area whose economic roots can be traced back into the distant past. This was one of the first regions to make charcoal from ... more
Bergisches Land, Märkisches Sauerland, Siegerland
The slate hillsides of the Rhineland do not resemble an industrial area in the slightest. That said, it is indeed an industrial area whose economic roots can be traced back into the distant past. This was one of the first regions to make charcoal from timber, manufacture iron from ore and harness water for power. As a result of the ambition, industriousness, inventive powers and craft skills of the local population water wheels were soon turning, blast furnaces glowing, hammer works pounding, spindles rotating and weaving looms clattering. This route leads through one of the oldest industrial regions in Germany.
The region has very fluid boundaries. Literally. The River Rhine in the west, the Sieg in the south and the Wupper in the north. The regions to the east - the Märkisch Sauerland around Hagen and Lüdenscheid, and the area including Siegen and Wittgenstein – contain similar industries. At the end of the Middle Ages it was the same picture everywhere. A furrowed craggy labyrinth of hills and valleys, full of woodland, streams and rivers, much of which was inaccessible. This might have been good for people travelling on foot. Farmers on the other hand could easily be ruined by the barren ground.
Then things began to change. In the Wupper valley, where it the river begins to broaden out a little, people began to bleach yarn. At first this was a side activity but later it grew into a full time occupation. They learnt quickly and, with the help of the waters of the Wupper which were particularly low in calcium carbonate, achieved such a high standard of quality that they began to make a business out of it. Very soon tradesmen from Wuppertal were buying up raw yarn in the far-off regions of Silesia to bleach and sell on to Flanders, Holland, France and England. Dyers and weavers processed the yarn further, thereby increasing their profits. As a result the industrious neighbouring towns of Barmen and Elberfeld quickly grew to become major European textile manufacturing centres. But there was a price to pay. Cottage industries died off, people were forced into the factories and mass poverty arose as a result of the unbridle capitalism. But even at that point the local people refused to be ground down. Instead they set up self-help organisations, hospitals for the poor and sick, and political societies. In 1863 Barmen had more members than any other section of the German General Workers Union. Shortly before that Friedrich Engels, who came from Elberfeld, helped write the Communist Manifesto.
Textile production was basically centred on the Wupper valley. It is the largest theme on the route which also includes mining and metalworking, both of which were vitally important throughout the region Here it all started in the Siegerland an area with one of the richest deposits of ore in Germany. The valuable iron ore was brought to the surface from a teeming mass of mostly tiny pits and sent to the local mills, which could be found in almost every village in the area in the 18th century. The people of the Sauerland processed the pig iron with forging hammers, whose regular blows turned the brittle iron into fine, hard, malleable rods. Some of it was immediately taken by local industries for making wire. The large majority of the remainder ended up in the hammer works and small forges of the Bergisch Land. A massive range of products ensued, the best known of which are cutlery from Solingen and tools from Remscheid, whose quality has been world famous for generations. Around 1800 there were twice as many people working in the region’s small-scale iron industry as on the land.
Whatever the industry – textiles or metal – the basis for this success were the self-employed craftsmen and home workers, small businesses which often consisted of no more than a single family. Their distinctive characteristics were experience, quality and self-confidence. And of course, mobility. This meant not being afraid of long distances and hard bargaining all over Europe and indeed, in the case of Solingen and Remscheid, all over the world. It is not for nothing that the worldwide success story of the Mannesmann brothers begins in Remscheid. And the nearby Wupper valley provided the nucleus for the international Bayer concern, one of whose sites still lies beneath the Wuppertal overhead railway, another proof of originality and mobility.
The route connects 20 attractive monuments in the region as examples of its rich industrial heritage. These include museums, iron and steel mills, factories and transport facilities. Each can stand on its own as an example of the regional achievements in the early industrial era. At the same time the network of sites reveals their multifaceted links, not only internally but well beyond the immediate borders. The starting point for the route is the Hendrichs Drop Forge Museum in Solingen, one of six sites belonging to the Rhineland Industrial Museum.
It is worth mentioning that a large number of different initiatives in the region have joined forces to conserve and present their industrial heritage. Their networks and websites are full of additional interesting information.