The old siren rang at from the tower which stands in the valley of the town with shape like a pan. If today was the year of 1890s, the siren was a signal to Sawahlunto Town to have a break for lunch. The coolies who was hungry and tired soon rushing to Goedang Ransoem (public kitchen) where the food was being allocated by the Dutch strictly.
After two centuries, the siren still rings three times a day until now. This evening rings at and tomorrow morning will ring at The same siren keeps on ringing, but the purpose the siren is not the same as before. It just signs the time of daily activity of the people, and no longer schedule of time for coolies.
We were descending to the former barrack where the coolie and the “chained man” (a term for prisoner from Java who worked in the mine while their leg was chained”) used to stay. The corridor of the road which was built near Lunto River very well maintained and still occupied with original houses of chained man. The houses are overlapping one to another, and very small size and built like the cheap storage houses in the pier. Municipal Government of Sawahlunto has helped to maintain the area, built trotoar, provide the consultant advice to heirs for renovation. This settlement is showing the strong social sites regarding to the life of coal miners in the late of 19th and until 20th century in one of the important cities in West Sumatera.
As we have described in Edition 50 Inside Sumatera, Sawahlunto unexpectedly became an important town in 19th century in the stage of politics and international trade after the discovery of huge coal deposit by a Dutch geologist, Willem Hendrik de Greve, in Ombilin River, Sawahlunto. Finally, De Greve alone died in the fight against current of the river in 22 October 1872 during the expedition to learn the possibility of transporting the coal by the river way.
Since 1892, the open-pit mining system was reaching the culmination point due to high exploitation activity. Moreover, the effect of industrial growth and transportation in Europe caused high demand for fuel consumption to replace the firewood that was no longer suitable for the steam engine. For that reason, the Dutch began expanding the new mining site by opening the underground tunnel which located in the centre of Sawahlunto Town. It was named Lubang Tambang Soegar according to its location.
Technically, the underground mining was more complicated than open-pit mining. It was said that landslide in Lubang Tambang Soegar was frequently happened and killed many coolies. The Dutch lost much money and they were also panic. In such situation, Mbah Soero, who was a coolie from Java and had supernatural power, arrived. He was asked to keep the bad evil sprit away from underground hole with an offering, so the landslide would not happen again. Believe or not, he made it.
Mbah Soero, then, was promoted to be the field supervisor by the Dutch; he was so famous and respected. Eventually, the name of Lubang Tambang Soegar was disappearing and its name changed into Lubang Tambang Mbah Soero (Mbah Soero Mining Hole).
This mining tunnel was very close to Lunto River. One of the tunnels cut off the main underground tunnel which divided the settlement of former coal miners.
When we enter in one hole, then we can go out through another hole across the road. Actually, the horizontal tunnels to the left and right direction are longer. But due to safety factor, a part of tunnels have been closed. Along inside the corridor, a lot of frightening mystic stories were told to attract visitors. For the visitor’s comfort, the local authority has installed a wind blower to make the temperature in underground cooler and enough oxygen, otherwise the visitors can not breathe at all.
In the beginning, the Dutch technical teams had never thought of any effect could happen to mining hole which was built near to Lunto River. In fact, slowly the seepage of river water flowed strongly into the hole and blocked the certain underground corridor. When the leak could not be stopped anymore, then the Dutch shut the hole before 1930.
Nowadays, the local authority has provided a guide for visitor to walk along the Lubang Tambang Mbah Soero. But his profession is well known as a mine gatekeeper. He was Willizon, a former coal miner, a middle aged man who was humorist and well trained. Before entering into the tunnel, the visitors must be properly equipped with special boots, helmet and flashlight. They are also given information for a few minutes.
Entering Mbah Soero Mining Hole, we feel like going into time tunnel. The trace of mining activity in the past time is still clearly seen. The interesting thing is that you can see directly and touch the layer of soil which still contains the black shinning coal all along the corridor while listening to the horror story that frightens us. It seems that Pak Willizon is suffering a psychopathic mood, so he is so enthusiastic to see the visitor in fear. He is torturing us with exciting fear. We feel to wander around to a vampire country without sun. He is so exciting to show us the parts of corridor where the skull of human beings have ever been found. Hih!
From official information, deposit of coal in Lubang Mbah Soero still remains about 40 million tons. We alone could find it easily in every hole. While in the deepest part of the hole, we could not find it because the leak of river water has covered it. I am sure, the deeper the hole, the more coal deposit is found. More than that, the quality of coal from Sawahlunto is one of the world’s best. In Europe, the housewives used it in briquette for cooking and room heater.
This tunnel is opened again by Municipal Government of Sawahlunto in 2008. When it was opened for the first time, the stagnant water which filled up until the surface of the hole must be pumped out. After doing some research and feasibility study for visitor, they could guarantee that there is no dangerous gas like methane, monoxide, or sulfuric gas in the tunnel.
Not far from Lubang Tambang Mbah Soero and settlement of ex coal miners, a number of supporting facilities for mining activity are still going strong. One of them is public kitchen where the mine workers got food allocation every day. The kitchen was very big and has a big stove to accommodate food distribution for thousands of peoples. The stoves were not ordinary ones. They were heated through pipe from the main stoves in the kitchen where the coal was burnt to produce high pressure steam power.
Now, the Municipal Government of Sawahlunto has changed the public kitchen into Museum Goedang Ransoem. This museum displays the replica of complete kitchen and gallery of old photographs of mining activity taken during the Dutch time. In front of the museum, an antique vehicle which in the past drawn by horse is displayed obtrusively in front of the museum.
From the photographs we saw in the museum, the children and women were also involved in the public kitchen. Their role can not be neglected in the course of history of mining in Lubang Mbah Soero. The children belonged to the coolies, which in the future they were going to be the new coolie generation if Bung Karno and Bung Hatta from West Sumatera did not declare the independence of Indonesia in the sooner time.