Dul Michal

Dul Michal Mining Museum. Our informative guide explaining the tag system.

Colliery tours guided by former miners.

Dul Michal (Michal’s Mine) sent its last cartload of coal to the surface on June 2, 1994. The museum as you see it today is more or less as it was left after that last shift finished work. Although equipment and clothing have been laid out for the visitor to see, there are no buildings or artifacts which were not there on that last day. No ‘reconstructed’ buildings, no ‘representative’ displays, just a working pit head whose clock was stopped twenty years ago.

The tours are led by former miners with the abrupt manner and direct speech of industrial workers everywhere. Ours was no exception, telling us that we would have to get a move on in order to see everything in the allotted time. ‘You have to move like workers coming from work, not going to work!’

So, with the authenticity of the tour established before we even started, he led us off on the route each miner would have taken on his (and for some time, her) way to work. In through the doors to the check tag room.

The check tag room

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Here, the miners picked up their check tags. each miner had their own tag and it was the first of several steps taken to ensure that someone always knew who was underground and who wasn’t. In the event of a tag going missing at the end of a shift, the other stages of the system were checked. If, for example, his lamp and work clothes had been returned, the search party simply went round all the local pubs until they found him! The tags were also colour-coded according to the miner’s job. The yellow ones in the gallery above are for electricians.

The ‘chain locker room’

Step two was to get changed into work gear. In Dul Michal, as in other Czech mines, each miner had his own set of hooks on a chain which could be hoisted up into the air to keep them dry and aired – not to mention out of the reach of thieving ‘Comrades’.

The drying halls are next to the showers, so the shift coming up could hang up their filthy work clothes, have a scrub and go get their clean clothes down. The hooks included a dish for soap and ‘boot trees’, which blew warm air into inverted boots to dry the sweat out of them before the next shift.

Signs warn against taking valuables into the showers and remind miners that smoking is forbidden there. One can only wonder what horrible stuff went into the cigarettes if they could be smoked in a shower! The signs were all hand-painted as well, a reminder that there really was full employment (or prison) for everyone back then.

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I listened in horrid fascination as our guide held up a scrubbing brush which looked like it could get the barnacles off a battleship and described how miners would scrub themselves red raw to get the coal dust out of their skin.

‘We didn’t have Goths back then,’ he smirked. ‘If you saw a man with black eyelids, it was coal dust, not mascara. The eyes were the only parts of the body where these brushes didn’t go!’

He looked meaningfully at the women and kids in the group, just make sure this terrible image was clear!

The infirmary

On the way to the Mine Surveyor’s Office, he showed us the infirmary. I was surprised to learn that there was no qualified doctor at Dul Michal because he made it quite clear that there was no such thing as a trivial injury here. The central feature of the room was a big bath with a slatted platform over it where injured miners could be cleaned up a bit before the ambulance arrived to take them to hospital. It wasn’t permitted to send a miner to hospital without cleaning as much of the filth off him as his injuries permitted. Any miner capable of cleaning himself up was presumably not classed as injured.

‘This room was not only used for First Aid but Last Aid too,’ he went on bluntly. ‘When a miner paid for the coal with his life, he  was brought here and cleaned up for his family to identify him. Miners came from all over the country, as well as Poland and Germany to work in Dul Michal, so sometimes their families couldn’t get here for days.’

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There’s no doubt that these tours will lose much of their human context when the ex-miner guides are gone. I wondered how many of his mates had ended up being identified over this bath. He certainly gave it a long, hard look before he led us on to the Mine Surveyor’s Office.

Natives of Ostrava have told me that everyone who was born here is related to at least one miner who didn’t survive his last shift, which reflects not only the dangers of mining but also the sheer scale and employment levels of the mining industry in Ostrava. That’s why Poles and Germans worked in Dul Michal – there simply wasn’t the local manpower to exploit the resources to the level required by the post-war economic plan.

The Mine Surveyor’s Office

In the Mine Surveyor’s Office, three working desks have been set up with equipment showing different stages in the development of mine surveying technology. Anyone who appreciates the beauty of a finely-crafted technical instrument could spend half the tour in this room alone. Our guide took us (far too briefly for me!) through the operation of each of these historical gems, some of which are among the few remaining examples of their type in the world.

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Ever the one to make us feel glad we weren’t miners, our guide showed us some of the coal face survey maps. Turning to the smaller kids in the group, he asked them what they thought some of the figures represented.

‘What about this one?’ He demanded, stabbing the number ‘850’ with a grubby finger.

‘The length of the tunnel?’ Hazarded one brave kid.

‘That’s right, the miner had to go 850 metres with all of his equipment and tools to get to the coal face and start work. What about this one?’ He indicated ‘0.4’ and glared at the front row of kids, daring them not to answer him.

Eventually one of the parents suggested it might be the height of the tunnel.

‘Exactly! 850 metres long and 40 centimetres high!’

I craned my neck to look at the map. Many of the tunnels seemed a fair bit longer than the one he said was 850 metres. He continued stabbing at the map and spitting figures out like curses. I didn’t catch them all but in some places the miners would have had to crawl distances and in conditions which horrified me. How did anyone live long enough to retire? Certainly I could see why they were such a hard-drinking-and-fighting bunch when they got to they pub after work. If they got to the pub after work, that is.

‘The highest gallery in the whole of Dul Michal is 1.4 metres high,’ he concluded, looking around as if challenging anyone to disbelieve him.

On through the building we followed him. The corridors had been cleaned but not repainted since the mine closed, so although there wasn’t a lot of dust anywhere, it had the feeling that at any moment a horde of filthy, swearing miners would appear from around the corner on their way to their shift.

The canteen, the laundry and the Dispatcher’s Office

He took us past the canteen, where each miner was given bread, meat and soup, which could be taken underground in an innovative, unbreakable plastic thermos flask. Innovative, because at the time, thermos flasks were lined with glass – if you could get one at all. The fact that the state could provide a plastic one for every miner was a mark of the status accorded to them under the socialist system. No miners; no economy. Miners were at the top of the heap when it came to working class heroes.

Next stop, the laundry and repair department. Clothes were handed in for washing once a week and everything was repaired for as long as it was repairable. Jackets, boots, helmets, protective gear, everything. Looking at the stuff lying around on display, I realised you would pay a fortune for gear of that quality and toughness today, even if it were available. Nope, much better to reduce the quality, make it unrepairable, sell new ones more often and increase profits.

He also showed us the Dispatcher’s Office. The nerve centre of the mine, it had a certain antique feel to it. I didn’t catch when it was built but the panels showing the position of the lifts, power statuses, gas detection and other stuff mine bosses need to know about were worn and a bit rickety-looking. I suppose these days we are used to shiny touch-screens and flashy computer graphics. Here we saw the old-school approach. A red telephone in the middle of the desk was the hot-line to the rescue services. It was also connected to a dirty big reel-to-reel tape recorder so that every word exchanged between the dispatcher and the emergency services could be recorded for the accident investigation.

The Lamp Room

The final stop before the lift cages is the Lamp Room. Here, each miner was issued his own personal lamp which had to be charged so that it could provide 10 hours of continuous light in case of problems during the 8 hour shift. Helmet-mounted lamps had to be able to provide 24 hours of light. The lamps were lit when issued and an experienced miner could tell by the intensity of the light whether it was properly charged or not. Presumably an inexperienced miner learned this skill pretty quickly! The batteries are heavy, lead-acid cells and the numbered racks doubled as charging stations. A trolley full of batteries was displayed ready to be topped up in a tiled bath to protect against acid spills.

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The winding tower

The miners’ lift cages had 4 floors, holding a total of 42 miners suspended 670 metres above the sump at the bottom of the shaft. Large equipment such as pipes and locomotives would be loaded vertically into these lifts. Elaborate electrical and mechanical safeguards were in place in case the cable snapped, limiting the drop to 2.5 metres. I didn’t find out what safety measures protected everyone above the cage from the whip-lashing cable!

Everywhere around the edge of the room lay a thick, 20 year old layer of coal dust. It seemed like it had even eaten its way into the metal. Warnings of the dire consequences of drinking, smoking or riding in the coal wagon lifts were everywhere. I got a bit lost at the back of the group here because I was trying to get some pictures and see how everything worked. Our no-nonsense guide spoke a few sharp words to me for dawdling and we were out into the fresh air, past the winding gear and into the building which housed the winch motors.

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The winding gear motor rooms and boiler room

The motor room was built during the mine’s renovation and re-equipping from 1912 to 1915. Back then it boasted state of the art electric motors and the most powerful compressor in Central Europe to power the drilling and ventilation systems underground. The fact that this machinery continued to serve the mine for the next 79 years is testament enough to its quality.

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Each piece is not only well-built but beautifully designed. No Social Realism or Functionalism here. The machines were the latest and the best and the attention to detail went right down to the engraved glass of the oilers and the engraved brass makers’ plates.

As a final treat, our proud guide fired up the recently restored hot water pump for us. Donning oily gloves, he gave the glistening working parts a loving wipe with an even oilier rag and started moving levers and turning wheels. With a triumphant roar, utterly contemptuous of the electronic age and the new service-industry economy, the beast began to move.

Faster and faster, wheels blurring and belts hissing, this work of art which once pumped hot water to the miners’ showers now serves a different purpose. It’s a living example of the pride of  those who built and used these machines and which can still be found just under the surface cynicism of people from Ostrava.

For much of the last 20 years this city has been a by-word for post-industrial economic collapse but the will to create, educate and innovate is as strong as it ever was. With state and European funding, the heritage which is restored and displayed here forms a bridge between Ostrava’s past and future.

Dul Michal is one of the destinations on our Industrial Heritage Beer Trail but if you are an intrepid, independent traveller, you can find hotels and accommodation in the area here.

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