The Major Mining Sites of Wallonia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site established in 2012 which preserves the heritage of coal mining and early industrialization in Wallonia. The site consists of four different properties: Grand-Hornu, Bois-du-Luc, Bois du Cazier, and the Blegny-Mine.
It is one of 12 world heritage sites in Belgium, and also on the European Route of Industrial Heritage.
Lying underneath the surface of the Earth is a massive coal seam that stretches from the UK, into Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. This was the heart of the coal region of Europe which powered the Industrial Revolution.
In Wallonia (the southern French-speaking half of Belgium) there four coal mining sites that have been preserved to document the history of coal mining in the region. how it affected the workers and the communities where the mines were located, and the affect coal production had on the rise of the modern world.
It would be possible, but difficult to visit all four sites in a single day. Three of the sites a grouped together, and the fourth site, the Blegny Mine, is located over an hour away by car.
Planning a day and a half to visit all four sites is probably the safest option, especially considering that some of the sites will take time to explore thoroughly.
Each of the four sites is very different in how its history is presented, and what is possible to do and see at the site.
Each of the sites has an entrance fee that is independent of the other sites included in the world heritage property. If you visit all four sites, you will have to pay an entry fee for each property.
The Blegny Mine is the only one of the four sites which actually offers mine tours. It is also the most removed from the other locations, closer to the border of the Netherlands, whereas the others are closer to France.
The site has the longest history dating back to the 16th century when coal was first exhumed from the ground. It is also the most recent mine, having only closed in 1980. The fact that the mine was converted to a museum so soon after its closing is why mine tours are still able to be given.
There are two levels of the mine which are accessible to visitors at 30 and 60 meters below the surface. As of late 2019 the elevator was not functioning, so make sure to check ahead to see if mine tours as being given.
The Blegny Mine museum documents the history of coal mining farther back than the other museums, due to the long history of coal mining at this site.
Bois du Cazier
The defining event in the history of Bois Du Cazier is the disaster that occurred on 8 August 1956 when 262 men lost their lives. Of the 262 lives, they represented workers from 12 different countries, the largest contingent of which were 136 Italians who were working in Belgium as guest workers.
Bois Du Cazier has the best museum of the four sites. One half of the museum is dedicated to a more general display of mining and industrial heritage from Wallonia. Many of the machines and objects using in the mine are on display here.
The other half of the museum is dedicated to the 1956 mine disaster. It goes through in great detail how and why it happened, the lives it touched, and the changes which resulted afterward. There is an audio tour available in multiple languages that will guide you through both parts of the museum. It is well worth it to get the audio guide, especially for the part of the museum which covers the disaster.
Bois du Luc
Bois Du Luc offers a social level perspective on the operation of a mine, and the community surrounding it. The museum inside the main visitors center captures the workings of the mine office circa 1930, including all of the furniture and office supplies from the area.
The area immediately outside the gates of the mine is the original housing which was built for the mineworkers and their families. Today they are used normal housing, but they do have a unit available that has period furniture and furnishings.
The entire layout of the town is still quite visible, including the church and recreational centers that were built for the workers.
From an industrial heritage standpoint, Gran-Hornu is the least interesting of the three sites. Much of the layout of the mine and the nearby worker community is still there, which is why it was inscribed with the other mines. However, the restored buildings are today mostly dedicated to contemporary art galleries, a cafe, and hosting events.
The site is of interest because of its design and planning. The site was built and designed by Henri De Gorge, who planned an entire community where miners could work and live. It was one of the first such planned communities in the world. The statue in the center of the facility is dedicated to Henri De Gorge, and his crypt is located on the far eastern side of the site, opposite the main entrance.
The one thing you can find which is industrial related is an exhibit that displays the original blueprints for the mine and its buildings.
Related World Heritage Sites
There are several other sites that document the history of coal mining and the industrial revolution in Europe. All of them are worth visiting and provide another insight into the industrial heritage of Europe.
Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex (Germany) – This coal mine is part of the same geologic coal seam which the Wallonia mines are a part of.
Völklingen Ironworks (German) – A extant late 19th and early 20th century ironworks which were preserved after it ceased operations in the 1980s.