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The three-nation region around Liège, Maastricht and Aachen, known as the Euregio Maas-Rhine, has often been described as „Europe on a small scale“. It comprises three countries, three languages and five regions – (the Belgians contribute one Walloon and one Flemish province, as a well as a ... more
The three-nation region around Liège, Maastricht and Aachen, known as the Euregio Maas-Rhine, has often been described as „Europe on a small scale“. It comprises three countries, three languages and five regions – (the Belgians contribute one Walloon and one Flemish province, as a well as a German-speaking community) – and its rich multiplicity, huge potential and small problems mirror all the distinctive features of Europe as a whole. Nowadays 3,700,000 people live here, around half of whom live in Belgium, a third in Germany and a fifth in the Netherlands. The Euregio offers visitors the opportunity of getting to know a dense and highly variegated network of industrial heritage within a very small area – and, not least, to get in touch with different European cultures and life-styles!
Nowadays you would scarcely guess that this region is one of the oldest and most important centres of pre-industrial trading activity and early industrialisation in Europe. Coal mining, ore mining, iron and brass goods manufacturing, cloth-making, pottery – all these trades had taken on almost global dimensions here long before the triumphal march of industrialisation. Liège was widely acknowledged to be the „forge of Europe“. As early as the 18th century a Monschau cloth manufacturer by the name of Scheibler was importing wool from Spain and exporting exquisitely made cloth as far as the harems in the Levant. Pottery products from Langerwehe and Raeren have been found in excavations throughout the whole of Europe.
The Belgians, in particular, were always hard on the heels of the British, when it came to technological developments. The first steam engine for pumping water from coal pits was built here as early as 1720. Wallonia can lay claim to a series of further technical „firsts“: some of these were due to a man named William Cockerill who had emigrated here from England and who set up mechanical workshops in Verviers and later in Liège. Other „firsts“ include the first wool-spinning machine, the first fully-integrated iron and steel works, and the first steam engine on the continent! And all the new technology which was to revolutionise the world began its triumphal march in Liège; first of all into the neighbouring regions and later all over the continent.
The newfangled mechanical spinning engines and dressing machines replaced mass manual labour. It is therefore no accident that one of the most famous acts of machine-breaking took place here in the region in a cloth-making town by the name of Eupen. When shearing machines were delivered to the town at the start of the 19th century, the cloth shearers – self-confident and well-paid craftsmen – destroyed and sank the new machines in the Gospert stream. That said, they were unable to hold back the march of time. Verviers, Eupen, Aachen, Düren and Euskirchen soon became important centres of the cloth-making industry.
There were 61 steam engines in operation in Aachen as early as 1830, a quarter of the total in the whole of Prussia! In 1825, when the Ruhrgebiet was still an idyllic rural area, John Cockerill had a workforce of 2,000 people in one of the largest and most modern iron and steel works of the age. The gigantic Cockerill-Sambre factory complex in Seraing grew out of this complex. The Aachen region soon followed suit by importing knowledge, technicians, machines and capital. Metal manufacturing around Aachen and in the Nordeifel region, however, quickly declined into insignificance once again around the mid 19th century, because several industrialists – including Hoesch and Thyssen – moved to the Ruhrgebiet, partly with Belgian capital and technicians, where even more favourable conditions existed.
At the start of the 19th century, coal-mining also flourished around Liège, in the Wurm area north of Aachen and in Limburg in the Netherlands. Thanks to the introduction of steam engines it was finally possible to pump the water from the pits and conduct mining on a large scale. A comprehensive area of calamine mining sprung up around the huge deposits of calamine existing around the town of Kelmis. A particularly curious historical fact was that the area was officially recognised as being independent of any particular nation state. Here – and also in Liège and Stolberg – the ore was further processed into zinc products. At the end of the 19th century near Mechernich around 3,000 miners were employed in one of the largest lead mines in Europe!
Open-cast brown coal mining, which received a fresh boost following technical improvements at the end of the 19th century, has a much younger history. Only then did brown coal mining and the further processing of coal briquettes become economically viable. Even today, north of the A4 motorway between Aachen and Cologne, large areas of land and villages have been sacrificed to open-cast brown coal mining with gigantic excavators, although briquette production has disappeared entirely. The local residents who have been deprived of their homes and communities are still being moved out and this has naturally led to hefty protests and massive political conflicts.
Coal mining, iron and steel – not forgetting the cloth industry – at first remained the most important pillars of the Euregio Maas-Rhine economy in the 20th century. That said, all three major branches suffered a heavy period of crisis after the Second World War and today they no longer play a central role in economic life. What remains are a huge number of museums and monuments which help to keep alive the memory of the region's extraordinary industrial history. It is precisely the boundaries between the different countries which have led to the huge amount of splendid museums which can be found here, for every region wanted to preserve and present its own particular history.
It is precisely the small-scale legacies of pre- and early industrial activity, often situated along the banks of streams and rivers which make this region so particularly attractive: an unusual mixture of trading and industrial topography surrounded by green spaces and water! But the „Three-Nation“ area also offers its guests visitor mines, coal-tip topographies, impressive trading and industrial architecture, and museums with fascinating exhibits and demonstrations of machines in working order.
Over 30 industrial museums from five regions have been working together closely in a cross-border association since 1998. The association is also responsible for conceiving this particular ERIH regional route. Because national boundaries increasingly became perception boundaries during the last century and were – and still are – responsible for defining „mental maps“ there is still too little cross-border general knowledge about the fascinating density and the high quality of leisure experiences offered by the industrial heritage topography in the Euregio Maas-Rhine area.