A side effect of being sick is having a lot of time to kill while avoiding expending energy. Considering I’ve been ill now for three and half months, that’s a LOT of time to kill. On the days that the infection is particularly bad my brain just goes to mush so I melt the day away with some old TV shows (have watched all of the original Star Trek and all of Star Trek The Next Generation already), but on the days that my head is clearer I find Google Earth to be an amazingly interesting way to loose a few hours. It never ceases to surprise me how much of a nation’s history is etched into the very land itself. A canal may have been re-routed decades ago, but it’s old alignment still affects the boundaries of properties and fields all along it’s length. The same goes for that railroad that’s been gone for over a century, or that coal mine that closed in the late 1800s. You can look at the street plans of cities like Antwerp and Brussels, and still see the alignments of the old city walls even though they’ve been gone for hundreds of years. The many wars that have been fought in a country like Belgium also leave their mark, from massive WWII bunkers to beautifully shaped WWI fortresses to Napolionic fortifications to even older castles and towers, to simple things like defensive ditches and banks, and even tank traps. They’re all there to be seen on Goole Earth by anyone with the interest and the patience to seek them out.

Anyhow, the point is, maps fascinate me, and I can stare at then for hours, and satellite photos with map data overlaid on them doubly-so. If you don’t have Google Earth installed on your computer and/or iPhone or iPad yet, you should stop reading now and go download it from earth.google.com.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been working on a project to map Belgium’s railway history for about three years now (first post, first update, latest update). My map is coming on nicely, with just about all the main lines and main-line stations found and mapped. What’s proving more troublesome are the industrial lines, particularly in heavily industrialised places like Charleroi. The documentation I’ve been able to find for these industrial lines is much poorer than that for the main lines, so I have less to go on, and the lines themselves were generally built more cheaply, and hence less substantially to boot! In areas that were never particularly heavily developed I’m able to pick out the remains most of the time, but not within Belgium’s former industrial heart-lands, and that’s where most of the former industrial lines were! Over and over again I find documentation about industrial lines which mention the names of specific collieries, this is a massive help in places that had very few coal mines, but useless in places like Mons or Charleroi where you seem to never be more than a hundred meters from an old mine shaft! Of the 20 or so spoil heaps close to the area you’re looking in, how on earth can you tell which one your industrial line headed for?

Clearly, a list of old mines with geotags would be a massive help. That’s not exactly what I found, but I did find something that allowed me to build up a good educated guess at the outlines of most of the former collieries in Belgium. What I found was a list of about 900 spoil heaps in Wallonia (the French speaking southern half of Belgium), and some information about the collieries the spoil heaps belonged to. There isn’t a one-to-one mapping between spoil heaps and collieries, but, whereever there’s a spoil heap, there must have once been a mine close by! Anyhow, this is the list I found. For almost every spoil heap (terril in French) on that list, there are Lambert X and Y coordinates provided – geographic data, so I was off.

Even if I could convert these Lambert X and Y coordinates into latitudes and longitudes I’d still have a lot of work to do to try to make an educated guess at the outlines of the actual collieries that the terrils belonged to, but I’d have a starting point. Unfortunately, I’d never heard of the Lambert coordinate system, so my first step was to search for an on-line conversion tool of some sort. This proved to be more difficult than I’d initially imagined. All my first few searches turned up were people looking for converters, and not getting answers!

After some more searching I eventually found a basic converter, but that discovery came with a nasty surprise. Lambert coordinates are calculated relative to an origin, without knowing the origin that matched my X and Y coordinates, they were useless. I looked and looked on the site that listed the terrils, but couldn’t find what origin they had used (my poor French may be to blame here more than the site itself). Then it occurred to me that these coordinates probably used some sort of standard orign, perhaps used in official Belgian maps or something, like our OSi Grid References in Ireland. Armed with this new theory I set off a Googling again, this time looking for a Belgian standard origin for Lambert Coordinates. That search lead me to the fantastic online coordinate converter at twcc.free.fr. This is just a fantastic site, it has a massive list of official coordinate systems for loads and loads of countries pre-programmed into it, including six Belgian standards. A little trial and error later, and I found that the coordinates on my list of terrils used the “Belgian Datum 72 (LCC 3p)”. Fantastic, now I had single points of latitude and longitude for my list of 900 or so spoil heaps – game on!

There was a fair amount of educated guessing to be done on some of the older collieries, some of which had closed as early as the late 1800s, but, in general, most of the collieries seem to have left their mark on the landscape well enough to at least map a rough outline. In a surprisingly short time (compared to my three years and counting railway project anyway) I had most of the collieries in the southern half of Belgium mapped. I don’t think my list was 100% complete, and some of the records in that list had no coordinates or led to blank pages, but all in all I’m confident that I have the vast majority of the important collieries in Wallonia mapped. However, I had no data at all for Flanders (the northern half of Belgium). Some more googling led me to a list of Flemish collieries, it was shockingly short – there were a grand total of seven of them! The list I found didn’t have geotags, but it did have place names, so I was able track down the seven collieries easily enough.

So, if you are interested, the KMZ file linked at the bottom of this post contains my outlines. The outlines of the collieries are marked in semi-transparent red. You can click on each outline for more information and a link to my source for that particular colliery.

If you turn off everything in Google Earth except for ‘Borders and Labels’ you can zoom right out and see all the outlines at once. When you do this you’ll notice something interesting, all the Wallonian coal fields lie along a sweeping line that runs from the Liège region near the border with the Netherlands to Namur, on to Charleroi, and finally form there to Mons and then on towards the French border between Mons and Tournai. The line of collieries is not equally dense along it’s length though, there are quite a lot around Liege, then just a few around Namur, then a massive amount around Charleroi, probably more than anywhere else in Belgium, then a good scattering between Charleroi and Mons, though not as many as around Charleroi, before we hit another massive coal field between Mons and the French border. The Flemish coal field seems like rather the exception, since it doesn’t sit anywhere near the obvious line of the Wallonian coal fields.

What’s also interesting is the difference in character between the Flemish and Wallonian pits. The Wallonian pits are much older than the Flemish ones, generally opening between the 1840s and the 1880s, rather than the 1920s like the Flemish ones. This meant that the Wallonian coal fields are peppered with a patch-work quilt of small collieries. Over the years their ownership amalgamated into massive companies like Monceau-Fontaine, but the collieries remained a collection of many separate pits. In Flanders however, the 7 collieries that were opened were all mega-collieries. They completely dwarf even the biggest and most modern pits in Wallonia. When you zoom right out you find it hard to distinguish separate pits around Liège or Charleroi or Mons, but even zoomed out so you can see all of Belgium at once, you can clearly see each of the seven Flemish pits as distinct and separate outlines. given the fact that the biggest of them are over 3km from side-to-side, that’s probably not that surprising!

Download the KMZ File: