What makes Sawahlunto different from all the other cities in West Sumatra? The answer lies in its unique historical legacy. After being a profit generating mining town for the Dutch Indies for centuries, in less than three decades, Sawahlunto turned from mining town to ghost town.
Sawahlunto had a long history of coal mining under the Dutch Indies government. It was Dutch researcher C. De Groot van Embden who first started the coal hunt in this region in 1858. Another research was undertaken in 1867 by Willem Hendrik de Greve which led to the discovery of around 200 million tons of coal hidden underneath a town which would be officially called Sawahlunto in 1888. The Dutch Indies government invested 5.5 million gulden in 1888 to build various facilities to manage the coal mining industry Ombilin.
To begin developing coal mining activities, in 1892 the Dutch sent people to Sawahlunto—most of them prisoners from all over Indonesia—to work as laborers for coal production. Residences for miners were established, making Sawahlunto highly diverse in ethnicity and culture compared to other cities in West Sumatra.
At first, prisoners from Sawahlunto prison were forced to work in the mines. When local resources were no longer sufficient, especially when many prisoners were sent to carry logistics to Pidie during the Aceh War, criminals and political prisoners from the Dutch-Indies prison cells from various islands—Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Java, Bali, and Papua—were forced to work in chains in the mines.
In 1894 train tracks were opened and in 1898 the first coal mining tunnel was built at Air Dingin, Lembah Segar. The Dutch built a train system to transport coal out from Sawahlunto through Padang. Sawahlunto residential area continued to expand to become a small town which consisted mainly of officers and coal miners from other islands.
Until 1898, the coal mining business still used forced labor, sometimes called the “chain people” or “orang rantai” because they worked while their legs were in chains. Forced laborers were paid very low and physical punishment (whipping) awaited those who disobeyed. Contract workers were also hired to work in the mines. On top of better pay, they were entitled to housing facilities and healthcare facilities.
During its peak mining period in the 1930s the town had around 45,000 residents. However, mining started to significantly decline in the 1940s and with it, Sawahlunto faced a continuing decline in population, where in the 1980s they were only 13,561 inhabitants. With the sudden halt in mining, as many as 7,000 families left Sawahlunto and the town quickly turned into a ghost town. Although with the use of new mining technology, coal production started to increase in the 1990s, it was not able to redeem the town.
Since 2004, the Sawahlunto government had relied on tourism to revive the town. In 2007 the local government reopened the famous Lubang Mbah Soero, one of the remains of the coal mines which is located in Tangsi Baru Kelurahan Tanah Lapang at Kecamatan Lembah Segar, for tourism. The site is currently 30 meters deep and was originally hundreds of meters long. Also at the site is a hole where they used to leave workers who were dying.
It is because of Sawahlunto’s long mining history that, in contrast to other places in West Sumatra, remains of historical objects such as the traditional rumah gadang are not found in in the old center of town. Instead, remains of old historical Dutch buildings cast the scenery of what was once the ghost town of West Sumatra.
The Sage II vacation home in Sawahlunto envisages the cultural richness of the traditional big house or rumah gadang of West Sumatra. To relive Sawahlunto’s unique history, visit the Sage II vacation home.
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