THE MINES _
The Province of Limburg is a region in constant modification and during the mining period the area received many immigrants and considerable investment (Reulens and Habex 2008, 23-30). Nowadays the area is still undergoing a constant metamorphosis, preserving only some traces of its mining past.
The area around the mine is meaningful, because the ex-workers still live there, even though there are no more mine works. This makes it an important situation in which to discuss the inhabitants’ memories, a sthe site is related to a past, to which they feel related in many senses. When first talking to former miners about their life underground, the primary subject raised by the researcher was ‘sound’ and how it influenced their daily work. Thus, mapping their site, memory allows for the building of a sound environment closely related to its inhabitants.
Limburg has many mines and a restriction of the area was made to be more specific, and to concentrate the fieldwork. The specific site studied was the old mining site of Winterslag.
GENERAL DESCRIPTION _
Winterslag is located in Genk and follows the same development and structure, characterized above, of all mines in the Province of Limburg. Winterslag was the first mine to enter into production in Limburg (1917) and just before World War I, urbanization began with the constructions of the Cité I (following an English village model). (Habex 2007, 4-6) Winterslag is close to the Kempische Plateau, an area of small hills and valleys, and has three housing groups built during the mining period according to work hierarchy. Cité I, located in the east of Winterslag, followed the existing landscape with ‘sloped landscaping’ for the housing area inspired by English garden cities. It was made for the engineers and senior staff. Cité II (nowadays home to immigrant families) was settled in the west and was built for regular mine workers, constituting of uniform housing. The last housing group, Cité IV, built after World War II, was the cheapest of all to build and approximates social housing in the region. (Habex 2007, 4-6)
At the beginning of the mining period there were mostly Belgian workers, but many from quite far outside Genk. After some time, many agreements between Belgium and other countries were made to provide work force for the mines. It is known that in 1924 there were 6.000 miners working in Winterslag, of which 25% were foreigners. This percentage increased and by 1956, of the 4.500 miners underground 45% were foreign, representing 23 different nationalities. In addition there were 1.500 workers above ground and 225 clerks and senior staff. In 1980, when the mine was in decline, there were just 3.127 workers in total in Winterslag. [Vancoppenolle 2000, 27]
_ After World War I: workers came to the mines from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Italy.
_ During World War II: Russian war prisoners worked the mines,
_ In 1946 a bilateral agreement was reached between Belgium and Italy: 2000 Italian workers per week came to Belgium, and Belgium exported, in exchange, 200 kilo of coal per day, per Italian worker with a contract longer than twelve months. The disaster of Marcinelle in 1956, killed 261 miners including 136 Italians and resulted in the end of the contract with Italy.
_ In the 1950s similar agreements were reached with Greece and Spain.
_ Since 1963 similar agreements were also reached with Turkey and Morocco.
(Reulens and Habex 2008).
The motivation to work on this research in Winterslag was provided by the fact that it was the first mine to be operative and one of the last to close. There they developed a particular system to support the mine tunnels and used electric trains earlier and in larger numbers than in other sites. In other words, it was not only an active mine but a very important one for Limburg. It was also known to be one of the best organized mines in Limburg. Nowadays the landscape still bears traces of the mining period, with the Cité houses and two shaft towers maintained, showing the intention to preserve the history.