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Mining in Limburg
Around the Augustinian Abbey of Rolduc coal is found very close to the surface, and since the 16th century it has been extracted for sale as fuel. The abbey was the coal owner, and hired groups of local miners to carry out the work underground. The true extent of the coal reserves in the south-east corner of Limburg first became apparent in 1870, when the wealthy Count Marchant and Ansembourg of Brussels ordered the first boreholes to be drilled near Eygelshoven, and a substantial seam of coal was found at a depth of only 154 meters. The demand for coal had grown explosively as a result of increased industrialization and urban expansion, but for the moment national govenments regarded any form of interference in the extraction and sale of this fuel as unnecessary. Thus it came about that the first concessions for the extraction of coal in South Limburg were granted without hesitation to foreign firms, and this at a time when most of the coal needed by The Netherlands was imported via the private sector from Germany, and Dutch investors preferred to put their capital in Russian government loans, American railways and Hungarian waterworks.
Around 1900 the first voices were raised to plead for nationalization of the Limburg coal fields, in the context of the threat of war in the Balkans. In 1897 the Venlo-born priest parliamentarian Dr. Willem Nolens uttered in the Lower Chamber of the Dutch parliament the historical words that would eventually lead to the birth of the Limburg State Mines: 'A country that does not know how to use its natural resources of wealth demonstrates that it is not worthy of them'.
In 1903 a start was made on the Wilhelmina state mine, and four years later the first coal from this mine came onto the market. In 1910 the net production of the state mines was 192,000 tonnes, and the total personnel numbered 1,479. Thirty years later, four mines financed by money from the state had been taken into production, and had overtaken the private mining sector. Production had reached almost 8,000,000 tonnes and the number of employees was 23,633. The biggest mine in the Limburg coal basin, and the biggest in Europe, was the Maurits state mine, which was the last to be taken into operation, in 1926, and the first to be closed down, less than forty years later.
The twelve Limburg pits had together produced around 600 million tonnes of coal when the cabinet of Jo Cals decided to completely close down coal production in the province of Limburg, and the then minister of economic affairs, Joop den Uyl, decided to make a personal visit to the mining center of Heerlen to announce his decision. A natural gas field had been discovered in the province of Groningen, a gigantic reservoir of clean energy that would be much cheaper to exploit than coal from Limburg, which by then had to be fetched to the surface from a depth of 800 meters.
Impact of the mining industry
In three quarters of a century the mining industry had drastically altered the eastern corner of South Limburg in every aspect. When the first pitheads were built, this was an agricultural region of small villages with a population of scarcely 22,000. By the time the mines were closed down, more than ten times as many people lived there, and it was one of the most densely populated parts of The Netherlands, second only to the Randstad, the urban agglomoration in the western part of the country.
The mining industry had attracted a host of supply industries and an excellent infrastructure of railways and canals had been built to facilitate the transport of coal to domestic and foreign markets. The Juliana Canal was constructed for this purpose in the years 1925-1936, and in the same period a 13 kilometer long railway line was built between Schaesberg and Simpelveld to cater for daily passenger traffic. This line became known as the 'million line', because it cost more thans a million guilders per kilometer of track to lay it, a record sum for those days.
The most far reaching changes, however, took place at the social level. There was a massive influx of workers to take up jobs in the mines. They came not only from all corners of The Netherlands, but also from older mining areas in Germany, Poland, Italy, Spain, Morocco and elsewhere. In 1939 almost 700 foreigners of 9 different nationalities liver in Kerkrade, which had been the first mining town in Europe.
Mine management began to build houses for their workforce at an early stage, so that mineworker 'colonies' arose, such as that at Lutterade near Geleen. Because there were numerous social problems in het mining area, and most of the miners were Roman Catholic, the bishop of Roermond took an interest in them. In 1910 the priest-exegist dr. Henri Poels (1868-1948) was posted as a working chaplain to the mine area, where he introduced the concept of social action. Dr. Poels, who was a member of one of the leading families of the 'Grote Compagnie" in Venray, thereby laid the foundations for a social structure in which all the various population groups were integrated, and it was he who stood up for the material rights of the miners. He stimulated the formation of interest groups based on the 'harmony' model, and although this cooperative union between capital and labour found little or no resonance elsewhere in The Netherlands, it was to some degree responsible for the fact that the government-initiated mine closures in and after 1965 did not result in any significant social of political conflict.
Jan Derix, Limburg, Eisma Publishers, Leeuwarden/Mechelen.
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