The first coal mine on the premises was founded in 1847, mining activities took place from 1851 until December 23, 1986. For decades, starting in the late 1950s, the two parts of the site, Zollverein Coal Mine and Zollverein Coking Plant, ranked among the largest of their kinds in Europe. Shaft 12, built in the New Objectivity style, was opened in 1932 and is considered an architectural and technical masterpiece, earning it a reputation as the “most beautiful coal mine in the world”.
Zollverein Coal Mine was found by Duisburg-born industrialist Franz Haniel (1779–1868), who needed coke for steel production. Test drillings in the Katernberg region (nowadays a suburb of Essen) had disclosed a very rich layer of coal, which was then named after the German Customs Union (Zollverein) founded in 1834. In 1847, Haniel founded the bergrechtliche Gewerkschaft Zollverein (a special kind of Prussian corporation for the exploitation of natural resources) and distributed the shares of the new company amongst the members of his family and the landowner of the to-be Zollverein territory.
Sinking of shaft 1 began on February 18, 1847, with the first mineral coal layer being found 130 meters under the surface. First mining activities started in 1851. Shaft 2 (sunk simultaneously with shaft 1) was opened in 1852. Both shafts featured visually identical stone towers and shared a machine house. This concept was to be adapted by many later twin-shaft coal mines.
Starting in 1857, charcoal piles were used to produce coke. In 1866, the piles were replaced by a modern cokery and machine ovens.
In 1880, sinking of another shaft 3 began in neighboring Schonnebeck. It received a steel framework as its winding tower and was opened in 1883. By 1890, the three shafts already had an output of 1 million tons, placing Zollverein on top of all German mines.
Since the coal, iron and steel industries of the Ruhr area flourished in the late 19th / early 20th centuries, the mine was heavily extended.
Between 1891 and 1896, the twin-shafts 4/5 were built on the border to Heßler (nowadays a suburb of Gelsenkirchen). The two shafts received special shafts for extraction of coal, transportation of the Kumpels (mine workers) and ventilation, as well as a new cokery. Another shaft 6 was opened in 1897.
By 1897, Zollverein had for years been suffering under mine accidents due to fire damps caused by ventilation problems. To resolve these problems, additional (mostly ventilation-only) shafts were opened near the existing ones: In 1899, shaft 7 was opened near shaft 3, shaft 8 near shafts 1/2 (1900), and shaft 9 near shaft 6 (1905).
What followed were years of continuous renovation and further expansion. After the construction of shafts 7, 8 and 9, the old shafts 1/2 (including the cokery) were renovated, even one of the twin towers was taken down and replaced by a modern steel framework. In 1914, shaft 10 and a new cokery were opened, as was shaft 9 (which had only since served as a ventilation shaft).
By the eve of the First World War, Zollverein's output had risen to approx. 2.5 million tons.
In 1920, the Haniel family, who had been the owners of Zollverein until then, started cooperating with Phönix AG, a mining company that subsequently took over the management of the site. Under Phönix' management, several of the shafts were again modernized, and an 11th shaft was opened until 1927. When Phönix merged into Vereinigte Stahlwerke in 1926, Zollverein came under control of Gelsenkirchener Bergwerks-AG (GBAG) who started closing most of the meanwhile elderly coking plants.
In 1928, the GBAG voted for the construction of a totally new 12th shaft designed as a central mining facility. When in the shaft opened in 1932, it had a daily output of up to 12.000 tons, combining the output of the four other existing facilities with 11 shafts.
Schacht Albert Vögler, as the highly modern shaft was named after the director general of the GBAG, was designed by the architects Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer and quickly gained notice for its simple, functional Bauhaus design with its mainly cubical buildings made of reinforced concrete and steel trusses.
The shaft's characteristic Doppelbock winding tower in the following years did not only become the archetype of many later central mining facilities but became a symbol of the German heavy industry.
Whilst this symbol may have slowly been forgotten when the German heavy industry started diminishing in the second half of the 20th century, it was this shaft and especially its characteristic winding tower that were to become a symbol of the Ruhr area's structural change.
In 1937, Zollverein employed 6900 people and had an output of 3.6 million tons, the majority to which contributed the new 12th shaft. The other shafts were not entirely closed and even received new (in comparison to shaft 12 of course far inferior) winding towers, such as did shaft 6. On the premises of the old coking plant of shafts 1/2/8, a small facility of 54 new ovens was opened with a yearly output of 200.000 tons of coke.
Zollverein survived the Second World War with only minor damage and by 1953 again placed on top of all German mines with an output of 2.4 million tons. In 1958, shaft 1 was replaced by a totally new building; the complete reconstruction of the 2/8/11 shaft facility from 1960 until 1964 was again planned by Fritz Schupp. These renovations however, were only to last until 1967, when 11 shafts were closed, leaving shaft 12 the only open one.
Shaft 12 thus became the main supplier of the new central coking plant from 1961 with its 192 ovens, which was again designed by Fritz Schupp. After an expansion in the early 1970s, Zollverein placed among the most productive coking plants worldwide with around 1.000 workers and an output of up to 8.600 tons of coke a day on the so-called dark side. The white side of the plant produced side products such as ammonia, raw benzene and raw tar.
In 1968, Zollverein was handed over to Ruhrkohle AG (RAG), Germany's largest mining company.
RAG began a further mechanization and consolidation of the mining activities. In 1974, Zollverein was joined into a Verbundbergwerk (joined mines) with nearby Bonifacius and Holland coal mines in Kray and Gelsenkirchen, respectively. In 1982, Gelsenkirchen's Nordstern coal mine also joined that Verbund.
The Flöz Sonnenschein coal layer in the north of the Zollverein territory was the last layer that mining activities took place in on Zollverein territory, starting in 1980. The output of Verbundbergwerk Nordstern-Zollverein was approximately 3.2 million tons, which however did not prove profitable enough so that a complete closure of the Zollverein site was voted for in 1983.
When it closed, Zollverein was the last remaining active coal mine in Essen. Whereas the coking plant remained open until June 30, 1993, mining activities in shaft 12 stopped on December 23, 1986. Although it is the central shaft of the Cultural Heritage site, shaft 12 cannot be visited as it continues being used as the water drainage for the central Ruhr area together with shaft 2.
As with most sites of the heavy industries that had been closed down, Zollverein was predicted to face a period of decay. Surprisingly, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) bought the coal mine territory from the RAG immediately after it had been closed down in late 1986, and declared shaft 12 a heritage site. This went along with the obligation to preserve the site in its original state and to minimize the effects of weathering. In 1989, the city of Essen and NRW founded the Bauhütte Zollverein Schacht XII that should take care for the site and which was replaced by the Stiftung Zollverein (Zollverein Foundation) in 1998.
After it had been closed down in 1993, the coking plant was planned to be sold to China. The negotiations failed and it was subsequently threatened to be demolished. However, another project of the state of NRW set the coal mine on a list of future exhibition sites resulting in first gentle modifications and the cokery also became an official heritage site in 2000.
On its 25th session in December 2001, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared both the sites of the shafts 12 and 1/2 and the cokery a World Heritage Site.
The Ruhr Museum in the former Coal Washery, located on the UNESCO World Heritages Site Zollverein, is the regional museum of the Ruhr Area. In its permanent exhibition the Ruhr Museum presents, with over 6,000 exhibits, the fascinating history of one of the largest industrial regions of the world - from the formation of coal 300 million years ago to the current structural change towards the Ruhr Metropolis. The Ruhr Museum has extensive collections on the geology, archaeology, industrial and social history as well as photography of the Ruhr Area. In addition to its permanent exhibition, the Ruhr Museum regularly shows special exhibitions and offers a diverse programme with workshops, guided tours, excursions, lectures, movie nights, audio guides an the museum bag for families.