When one thinks of great tourist destinations, visiting a closed iron work factory probably doesn't come to mind first. On the other hand, such a place would probably be a goldmine for those greatly interested in the history of industry, particularly in the heavily contested and highly important Saarland region of Germany, where industry was king during the young empire's rapid ascension in the late 19th century and its emergence as a prime power going into both world wars.
Modern industries such as auto making and hi-tech seem to have replaced the metalworking industries that once dominated the Saar River valley -- an area that was heavily bombed during the Allied advance in World War II. The valley is now left with a number of damaged factories that one might assume (I do not know) are too large and expensive to completely tear down. But, UNESCO wisely recognized the importance that the steel industry had in the area, and wisely designated the best-preserved iron works, just outside the city of Völklingen, as a World Heritage Site. Now, visitors can see a full-sized iron works intact and learn how iron and steel were once forged and appreciate the incredible complexity of the process.
I visited the Völklingen Iron Works (or Völklingen Hütte) while touring the Saar River zone between Saarlouis and Saarbruecken. Because photographs inside the factory are prohibited for non-personal use, I only posted photos of the works taken from outside on public ground, and will leave the description to words. A good couple hours is needed to tour the facility, along with a fair understanding of some German as English services are extremely limited for the time being.
The first view I had of the Iron Works was from the Völklingen train station, and that view is in the first photograph. The entrance to the Iron Works was reached by walking through an underpass from there to a traffic circle near the base of the big smoke stack at left. (I show a photo of the entrance way in the fourth photograph at bottom.)
The organization of the museum and the displays were very ingenious, and with my limited German, I was readily able to understand the nature of the graphical charts posted to explain how the factory worked. The charts were divided into four themes based on the four elements -- earth, water, air, and fire. Those parts of the factory marked "earth" related to the reception and processing of the raw materials for extracting iron. "Fire", "Water", and "Air" referred to those parts of the factory that smelted and cooled the materials, and circulated the gases. Of course, historical photos and detailed stories about the factory were placed everywhere as well, and it was easy to imagine life actually working there -- young grisled men wearing white shirts and overalls covered in sweat and grime.
The sheer size of the factory cannot be appreciated from the first photo. It was roughly one by two miles large, including the rail yards that brought in materials and shipped out iron to other factories. The huge gas tubes, the upside-down V-shaped structures in the first photograph, were about twenty-five to thirty yards high, I estimate. The allowed pathway took me pretty much through every major structure so I didn't feel like I missed anything.
The Iron Works also doubles as a convention hall and art gallery, and several art exhibits were on display. The largest room, which contained the massive conductors, contained a huge photograph exhibit from various Asian photographers. The maze-like storage chambers for sand and other raw materials was emptied out and used as a photo exhibit hall as well.
After completing my tour of the Iron Works, I visited the rest of the city. There were several points of interest, but overall I would consider the downtown largely unremarkable. The most interesting building I encountered was the Old Town Hall, shown in the second photograph, which stood out against the basic modernized layout of the remainder of downtown. Two churches, St. Eligius in the center of town and Versoehnungs Church (third photograph) a couple blocks away, also added to the scenery.
While I was there, a traveling auction took place along the Main Street. It was an intriguing idea -- a series of trailers parked along the sides where everything was sold as an auction. This circus was not only selling art and specialty items, but also more everyday items such as computers and pottery. I had to presume that the nature of the auction was to sell these items at some sort of discount price, otherwise I wondered why one would buy such things this way? But obviously this must have been a successful operation -- the signs said that this traveling troupe was based out of Hamburg, a long ways away.
If you visit Völklingen, it would make the most sense to stick with the Iron Works and move on. The city of Saarbrücken is much nicer and only a twenty minute drive away. But, if you are interested in history and/or industry and want to see something very unique -- a full inside look at Germany's industrial past -- the Völklingen Iron Works are an opportunity not to be missed.
Trip taken 5 July 2003 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2003 Tom Galvin