Stretched along the City of Sawahlunto are centuries of Indonesia’s historical legacy. Sawahlunto’s history as a coal mining town established by the Dutch East Indies government has turned the town into what it is today—a city rich in history and cultural diversity.
Sawahlunto was established in 1888 and started producing coal in 1892. After the first train carrying coal ran through the railway tracks of Sawahlunto in 1894, it immediately grew into a small town consisting mainly of Dutch government employees and coal mine laborers. These laborers came from various islands in Indonesia, which from then on turned Sawahlunto into a multiethnic entity.
This history is reflected in the city today and it is why Sawahlunto is a national cultural heritage. When coal production ended in 1998, the city began to develop its tourism sector to save itself from a declining economy. Old historical sites became the main attraction of its tourism industry, such as the Mbah Soero mining tunnel and the Goedang Ransoem Museum which was a public kitchen for the coal laborers. There are also the Train Museum and Ombilin Coal Mining Museum as well as the Info Box gallery and coal mine workers monument. All these give you a glimpse into Sawahlunto’s coal mining history. There are also many old buildings that were initially established to accommodate the vast demographic changes that occurred as an effect of the coal mine industry.
The old train station where loads of coals were transported was turned into a museum in 2005. The railway was built in Sumatra by the Staats Spoorwegen in 1891–1894 and it was used to deliver coal to Emmahaven Port (Bayur Bay). Located in Lembah Segar, the Train Museum or Museum Kereta Api houses a collection of wagons, communication equipment, miniature locomotives, rail jacks, factory labels, guard bell, and photo documentation, as well as the legendary locomotive, Mak Item.
The Ombilin Coal Mine began to operate in 1891. Coal mine workers were treated brutally. They were prisoners from various regions of Indonesia sent to Sawahlunto and forced to work in chains and were paid very poorly; some were even only children. Contract workers from China and Java were later recruited and in the 20th century contract female laborers from Java also worked in the mines. These women transported coal from open-pit mines to the area of collection, sorted coal, cleaned mine hospital, and cooked for male workers.
The site is now a museum known as the Ombilin Coal Mining Museum (Museum Tambang Batubara Ombilin) which opened in 2014. Various artifacts and archives related to coal mining are stored in this museum which is located on Jl. M. Yamin Pasar Remaja. The museum still takes its original form as when the Dutch first built it. In fact, this building was once used as the headquarters of the coal miner’s union of Bukit Asam.
Old buildings around the city give us insight to the sociological landscape of Sawahlunto during its coal mining days. The old Catholic church, Santa Barbara, on Jl. Yos Sudarso was built in 1920 by the Dutch people who worked in the mines. It was built for the Dutch people, newcomers, coal mine workers and their children who were Catholic. Next to the church is the Santa Lucia School, also established in 1920 for the Dutch and coal miners’ children. The Sawahlunto Cultural Center with its Dutch architectural style, established in 1910, is located near the Train Museum. It was originally called Gluck Auf and was where Dutch women and men used to hang out and party. An area of the building was even used for playing pool and bowling.
There are many historical buildings around what is called the “Old Town (Kota Tua) of Sawahlunto”, which makes the city the historical gem of West Sumatra. However, one must not forget to visit new places, such as the Info Box mining gallery opened in 2007 on Jl. Muhammad Yazid and the coal miners monument near it. The monument was built by Suparman whose ancestors worked in the mines. There is a documentary shown in Info Box which tells the history of how mining in Sawahlunto all started and about the workers who were forced to work in the mines. It was these miners that turned Sawahlunto into the unique multiethnic city it is, quite different than the rest of West Sumatra. Allowing the memory of the coal mine workers to live means acknowledging Sawahlunto’s true cultural heritage.
Written by Alemora Hadiz and Liza Hadiz
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