West Luxembourg

The history and tours of the Martelange Slate Mine

Tourists and residents alike, can't have failed to notice the black tiles on the roofs of Luxembourg City buildings . To learn the origins, we need to take a trip close to the Belgian border, and over 400 years back in time.

The middle ages saw major fires in Luxembourg City, the most devastating was in 1554. A short time later, under the Spanish governor Peter-Ernest von Mansfeld, King Philippe II issued tax exemption to all citizens who tiled the roofs of their houses with slate.

Streets were also widened, and this is clearly visible for those that were built in the 16th century, those named after Louvigny, Monterey, Philippe II.

Old buildings with different styles of slate on their roofs
Old buildings with different styles of slate on their roofs
Photo: Katalin Halász

The so-called "adjacent populated places" of Martelange-Rombach began life after Belgium was formed in 1830. The small town was cut into two between Belgium and Luxembourg forming a rather unique two-nation town.

Slate was discovered earlier in the area, and it was the biggest industry in the Grand Duchy before steel production started in the south of the country.

The slate mine was opened in 1789 by French soldiers and the same site is a museum today.

Production at the mine continued for centuries but eventually closed in 1986 as it was no longer profitable. Many of the black slate roofs in Luxembourg City and around the country, were supplied from Martelange.

German industrialists, Karl and August Rother from Frankfurt, bought 10 mines from several families in 1898 that went on to grow into major slate production in the region.

The site was on the Jangeli railway line, connecting the factory with the Redange-Ettelbruck Attert line with Noerdange. No industry was able to develop before the railway was built.

Another important fact should not be forgotten: the Grand Duchy joined the German Customs Union (the Zollverein) in 1842, meaning that money flowed into the country from the large German market.

Slates of different shapes
Slates of different shapes
Photo: Katalin Halász

Most of the production halls in Martelange , are today, part the the museum. They were covered by slates of all different shapes and sizes, serving as exterior "show rooms" of their time.

Production was an extremely important family affair to such an extent that the Rother brothers named the building after their daughters: Hilde, Margaret and Johanna.

Miners worked full days underground and in the long winter months, many didn't even manage to see daylight. Workers were paid by the weight of the large slate blocks they mined causing many of them to cheat by heading down the mine before official working hours and starting early in order to earn more money, with their lamps that gave out insufficient light.

Overground workers were paid by the number of tiles they produced. Carrying heavy slate blocks from the mine to the mills, they were then cut and sliced into tiles.

A former worker in action today
A former worker in action today
Photo: Katalin Halász

The waste was massive, up to 80 per cent which goes to explaining the high cost of this type of roofing. Various different tile shapes and sizes were produced.

One worker could produce around 800 to 1000 slates a day, depending on the quality of the slate block. By 1930, production was at a peak where 9 to 12 million tiles were produced a day. This dropped  significantly to 3.5 million during the Great Depression.

Although he was officially German, the owner, August Rother jr., felt Luxembourgish. He managed to continue his business during the Nazi occupation of the country, but was forced to join the National Socialist German Workers' Party. He then produced special slates for insulating submarines.

The Nazis wanted to show off the Martelange site as a workplace with good facilities as part of a propaganda campaign and ordered the construction of a worker canteen. Rother quickly understood what the Nazis were up to and built a poorly constructed unstable building that was never used. Parts of the building are still preserved today.

Rother was arrested after WWII as his company served Nazi Germany during the war, however his loyal workers bore witness in his favour and he was released.

Today the museum in Martelange explains how roof tiles were made showing the hardship the 100 workers that were once employed there, had to go through.

Visitors to the site can peruse the articles on display in the big spaces dedicated to displaying all kinds of tools, slates and a lot more.

The administration building includes the original furniture, displaying maps, machines and more.

Groups, with a local guide, can visit the slate mine and production site by reservation any time of the year.

Guided tours for individuals are available on Wednesdays and Sundays at 3pm. In order to ensure an English-speaking guide it is preferable to call 23 640 14. Entrance costs €10 for adults and €5 for children.

There is a recently restored café on site open on the first Sunday of every month from 2-6pm

For more information visit the website: www.ardoise.lu

( György Földes, wort-en@wort.lu, +352 49939721)


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