Kočevska region is known for its natural resources, especially its vast, intact forests. In the (not so) distant past, the area was rich in another natural resource that had a significant impact on the lives of the inhabitants – lignite. Kočevje is one of the Slovenian towns that can boast a rich mining tradition. Although the Kočevje Coal Mine closed its doors in 1978, the memory of mining history has not faded. The number of retired miners is decreasing year by year, but many stories have been preserved that testify to the great importance of the mine for the town of Kočevje and Kočevska area in general.
The beginnings of mining in Kočevska area
Mining in Kočevska area dates back to the first years of the 19th century. In September 1803, Prince Karl Wilhelm Auersperg was the first to obtain a mine prospecting licence for lignite in the area where Trata is today and opened the “Wilhelm’s Excavation Site”. The prince did not persist with the excavation for long, because the volume of excavated material was modest and the mineral ore did not prove useful in the iron industry, which he fostered as the owner of the ironworks operating in Dvor near Žužemberk. After a long period without mining activity in the area, in 1820 the mining rights were granted to Ivan Röthel, an inhabitant of Kočevje, who opened the “St. John” excavation site. Although the volume of excavated coal was not abundant, he exploited it for industrial purposes, for his brickworks. It was the first plant in Kočevje to introduce lignite into the production process.
Later, coal was mined in Kočevje by some wealthy townspeople, and the most prominent was the Viennese Razinger family, which was involved in glassmaking. Brothers Anton, Nikolaj and Franc immigrated to Kočevje in 1849 and two years later received the prospecting right. The success of the glassworks led to more and more coal being mined to meet production needs. In 1859, seven additional 7 mining site measurements (7×4,5 ha) were granted with 150 miners working there. As intensive mining required increasing investments, the Razinger family became over-indebted and gradually went bankrupt.
Kočevje Coal Mine: prosperity under Trbovlje ownership
At the end of the 19th century, the Trbovlje Coal Mining Company took over ownership of the coal mine and started investing in it. A brickworks, lime kiln, separation plant, heating plant, machine shop, central workshop, sawmill and a steam engine with an electric generator were built. In September 1893, Kočevje officially opened a railway line to Ljubljana for the transport of lignite, and the first train operations had already commenced on this route two months earlier. The “Iron Road” enabled the Kočevje Mine to break into the international market and fostered industrial development of the town of Kočevje. The coal mine became the largest industrial plant in the Kočevska region, and its operation also brought the first electrification to the town. In 1919, a water pipeline was built from the Rinža River to the mine with an electric pump.
Mining continued uninterrupted during the World War I, but after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the Kočevje mine’s operations declined. The railways were nationalised, and the coal supplies were significantly reduced. The Trbovlje Coal Mining Company cut investments and consequently a large number of workers were let go. In 1919, around 1.200 miners were employed, but in 1930 only around 100 still worked there.
Kočevje miners’ revolt
During the World War II, a field committee of the Liberation Front of the Slovene Nation was organised in the Kočevje mine. Kočevje miners went to the partisans in large numbers and also carried out various acts of sabotage, delivering material and food to the partisans through the mine. Because miners left to fight in the war, there was a marked decline in mining activity. The Italians arrested many of the miners from Kočevje, some of whom were deported to a concentration camp in Padua. The mine administration sent food parcels to the internees. During the Italian occupation, the mine was fenced off with wire. In December 1943, the Partisans destroyed most of the mining installations. As there was no electricity for pumping, the pit was flooded with water, making it impossible for the occupying forces to extract the coal.
After the end of World War II, the Trbovlje Coal Mining Company became state-owned. The mine was first renamed to Kočevje Mine and then to Kočevje Lignite Mine. Restoration work began, but destroyed equipment and unskilled miners hindered the re-establishment of production. The operation of the mine was essential for the economy of Kočevje, therefore the miners were exempted from compulsory military service. Due to a shortage of local labour, miner workers from Dry Carniola, Central Sava Valley, and Slovene Littoral and Prekmurje Regions were recruited. In August 1950, the Workers’ Council took over the management of the mine, abandoning production on the open-pit mine and retaining only pit mining. In 1961, a new separation plant was opened, which improved the quality of the coal, and production began to rise sharply in the following years.
Merger with ITAS and mine closure
In 1970, lignite production exceeded 200,000 tonnes. The miners were well paid for their successful work, and their income was among the highest in the municipality. Although the Kočevje Mine rose to the top of the Yugoslav coal mines during this period, coal reserves gradually declined. The administration decided to switch production in order to retrain the miners. The production programme of the fast-growing ITAS company allowed for a relatively simple and quick retraining, and a referendum on the merger of the company and the mine was successfully held in May 1971. After approval by the two Workers’ Councils, the mine was formally incorporated within ITAS in March 1972. Although the mine had been scheduled for closure four years earlier, the energy crisis meant that mining continued until 28 February 1978. This finally marked the last day of the turbulent history of the Kočevje Coal Mine.
Kočevje Coal Mine today
Today, Kočevje’s mining past is still reflected in the infrastructure from that period. The most famous remnant is certainly the increasingly popular Rudnik Lake. The abandoned buildings of the mine separation plant and the former mining colony are further reminders of the history of the mine workers. But there there is also another illustrative reminder, namely the names of local settlements, such as Rudarsko naselje (Mining settlement) and Rudnik (Mine). The areas of Trata are marked with Roman numerals from I onwards, according to the site measurements, which were measured and staked out in 1849. Also worth mentioning is the railway line to the capital, which was after many decades re-established as a regular line in January 2021.
Jerbič Perko, Vesna. 2005. Rudnik rjavega premoga Kočevje. Kočevje: Pokrajinski muzej.
Rustja, Karel. 2015. 120 let kočevske železnice. Kočevje: Pokrajinski muzej.
Zupan, Janko. 1963. Rudarji ob 20-letnici kočevskega zbora. Kočevje: Kočevski tisk.
Read how retired miner Franc Volf remembers miners life in Kočevje here.