Near Visé, Belgium lies the mining village of Cheratte, where coal was unearthed between 1847 and 1977. After finding a generous seam of coal in 1851, the company began serious development of the site. They sank new shafts, developed the aboveground structures, and hired hundreds of miners.
As workers chased the seam underground, they passed the water table of the nearby river, dooming the mineshaft, which flooded persistently thereafter. Pumps attached to steam engines were installed to keep the lower sections productive, but less than a year later, in 1877, the flooding caused a major tunnel collapse, trapping and drowning the workers in that section. The mine closed for the first time.
In 1907, investors who wanted to again tap the coal under Cheratte paid for the construction of the first mine headframe in Belgium. A headframe is the part of a mine where the shaft meets the surface, and it is typically a simple tower with a hoist in the center. Cheratte is different, though.
For reasons I cannot explain, but choose simply to appreciate, they built the tower and support structures in a medieval influenced neo-gothic style. At its peak, 1,500 men worked here, and about half that number still took the ride underground when the operation closed in 1977.
Though Cheratte’s coal mine is in ruins, hundreds of photographers visit it yearly to experience the architecture there in person. That is to say, thanks for making room on the bandwagon for a Minnesotan, Belgium!
Hopping a Belgian fence in between mostly abandoned worker housing and a dilapidated garage seemed like a small price to pay to capture my own version of what so many photographers and historians have seen before me.
The well-traveled path through the thorny hedge brought me into a brick warehouse that I would date to the turn of the century. Through the middle of the floor was a rusty narrow gauge track set into the floor. Ghosts of industrial work stations lined the sides of the cayenne-gray walls; I was obviously in some kind of workshop—not a warehouse at all—I concluded.
I circled the room, taking in the mossy concrete floors that grew under broken skylights. Every door seemed to offer a new adventure, and I felt like the fate of the day depended simply on my next step. The biggest, darkest path attracted me the most. Propped up by steel girders and being plenty big for a monster truck, I picked up my tripod and clicked on my flashlight, and carefully went into the chamber.
One of the mine shafts itself greeted me as a secret black giant, walled up in time and space. Far above me I saw, when I leaned backward and craned my neck in reverse, that there was some light at the top. In between the sky (seemingly) and me was the skeleton of an elevator, but with the size and strength of a construction crane. Though I tempted fate by climbing the railings to one of the landings, the feeling of the century-then metal sagging beneath me was enough to sink my feet back into the dirt again. Emerging from the mineshaft into the hallway, I felt my eyes adjust—the world of the mine equipment repair shop seemed all the more bright and vivid by comparison.
The nearest door brought me to what seemed to be a metal fabrication shop, although the vines that stretched across the workbenches and cabinets, up into the rafters. It was not the first time that I had to look around and ask myself, “Am I inside, or outside?” Through a door across the space, past the I saw a zig-zagging concrete ramp, like a city parking garage. As I neared it, the sound of running water beckoned me close to the strange structure, making the shadows seem colder.
When I reached the ramp, it became difficult to tell what was ground level. I heard a bus pass, and it seemed to be at the level I was standing, but I looked down the ramp to see a large and dimly lit space. From there, the sound of a stream bounced upward. Above me, sunlight washed down, almost reading the thick mud around my feet, which had apparently been washing down the ramp for decades.
Just as I was taking a step to move down the ramp, I heard a very familiar sound: the click of a camera shutter. Did someone just take a picture of me, I though, swinging around to the workshop door behind me. Seeing nobody there, no above or below me, I decided to move as quietly as possible upward.
Movement below. A laugh. Echoing like the water off the wall behind me.
I peered over the top of the ramp to see a boy photographing what I assume to be his girlfriend with the ramp I was standing on as a background. They did not notice me, even though the boy was facing me directly. Judging by his lens (it looked like a normal prime) I had just snuck into a picture with his girlfriend—won’t he be surprised later, I thought. Not knowing whether I wanted to abuse a Belgian with my preschool-level French, I sneaked upward.
One story above street level, the trees seemed sturdier, the grass more green, the bushes were thick and wild. In the middle of this industrial brownspace, encircling a reinforced concrete obelisk to the god of coal, nature was lusher than at ground level! Knowing a little about how mine shafts work from my adventures in Colorado and Michigan, I immediately found the hoist room: the heart of Cheratte.
This was the place where steel cable was extended and retracted through pulleys to move men, machines, and coal into and out of the mine. In the center of the room was a steel cone with an arch through the middle of it, where the spool of cable would sit, set into an engine—these are both gone today. It was when I looked through the slits where the cables travelled that I saw what so many others came to Cheratte to see…
It looked like a brick castle with a distinctly utilitarian edge, considering its smokestacks and pulleys. Pointing toward it was a rail bridge crossing the main road of the town and still bearing the name of the mine. The bridge went nowhere, and was cut off about 15 feet above the sidewalk below. Its only purpose seemed to point tourists to the castle in the distance, far behind the barbed wire. As I looked back and forth, I became obsessed with one idea: get to the top.
Quickly making my way through some of the outbuildings on my way to the main attraction, I ran across a few interesting rooms. Payroll was built like a bank, with bars over even interior windows. In a lobby where workers would seemingly wait in a curving line around a railing, little metal platforms were welded to allow them to complete paperwork while moving toward the service window.
Behind that was a long room with small metal racks, where workers would pick up their headlamp on the way to the shaft. Nearby, a silo of sorts topped with vented windows showed that, right below this spot, a big coal mine was probably flooded, along with a lot of mining equipment and more than a few bodies. Without wanting to think too much about the latter, I found a giant door that led into the tallest of the castle-like towers.
I was surprised to find that the building I was in was a mineshaft as well! It seemed dedicated to moving machinery and men, having long ago delegated the hard work of moving coal to the big headframe nearby. I would later find out that this shaft was the first, and it was retired as a working shaft sometime in the 1950s.
My feet found the stairs upward, and as I ascended my smile widened. I passed the white-tiled dry house rooms were miners would begin and end every shift. They would change their clothes, wash up if they needed, and interact with one another. Long concrete benches were crammed into the rooms with small numbered lockers built into the seats below. Above the lockers, on the back of the bench, were hooks for hanging mining clothes overnight, to let the sweat and groundwater soaked into them dry.
At the top of the abandoned castle tower mineshaft—I smirk as I write those words—was the hoisting motor. The giant electric motor and pulleys hoisted the mine elevators to and from the Cheratte Coal Mine deep below, first as the main shaft and later as an emergency exit for the workers.
From the window, the whole town was laid out. I imagined a miner waving to his wife down the block, as she leaned out her kitchen window. I imagined the way the ground under the quiet Belgian burg must have vibrated when the mine was working. Hard work, yes, and dangerous—but how it must have been different when all of Cheratte was alive.
Leaving the mine—hopping back onto the sidewalk near the workshops and garages—I thought of what the neighbors must think when they see the bridge. Do they bless the peace, or curse it? As a visitor, I have to admit that I have no answer, but that I prefer the view from the top of a mineshaft than the bottom.