Coal was the energy source that helped Germany become an industrial power. Much of it came from Lusatia, a region in eastern Germany known for its vast lignite, or brown coal, reserves. At one point, coal mining produced so much dust that residents weren't able to hang their laundry outside. The heavy mining impacted the sights and sounds of Lusatia because lignite seams aren't found deep underground. Rather than tunneling, miners simply dug pits to reach the coal, strip mining the surface to reach to fuel below.

But you won't find clouds of coal dust in Lusatia today. The pits remain, but you won't recognize them because German authorities have created large artificial lakes using the former strip mines as the base. Now, there are 26 lakes, connected by a series of canals and surrounded by resorts, trails and bike paths.

Phasing out coal

As one of the world's most economically powerful countries, Germany still needs energy from a variety of sources. Currently, it gets about 33 percent of its power from coal. An equal percentage comes from wind farms, solar fields and other renewables. Wind turbines sit on the horizon around Lusatia’s new Lakes District, and they're part of the scenery elsewhere in the German countryside as well.

The world, and especially other former Eastern Bloc countries that have a similar history with coal, are watching closely. Germany is planning to move away from nuclear power in the next few years. Renewable energy will be vital in the near future, though coal and natural gas will still provide a safety net should green energy development move more slowly than planned.

An ambitious (and expensive) plan

coal mining in Lusatia, Germany At one time, coal mining produced so much dust in Lusatia that residents weren't able to hang their laundry outside. (Photo: Bjoern Wylezich/Shutterstock)

The first artificial lake was created in 1973 on the recommendation of a prominent East German landscape planner. This lake, Lake Senftenberg (nicknamed "Dresden’s Bathtub" after the nearby city), became the model for transforming Lusatia's other coal pits after reunification.

In the 25 years since East and West became one country, the area has slowly been transformed. The lakes now cover an impressive 61,775 acres and are ringed by nearly 300 miles of bike paths. Locals from both Dresden and Berlin come for day trips, and there are an increasing number of overnight visitors.

This transformation hasn't been cheap. The cost has been about 10 billion euros ($12 billion), but the barren coal-dust covered landscape, nicknamed the Sahara by some locals, is disappearing. It's still evident in stretches of land between the artificial lakes, but if you didn’t know what you were looking at, you wouldn't be aware of the area's dusty past.

A complete transformation

The process of transforming the lakes takes time. It's not as simple as diverting water into the former mining pits. In some ways, digging canals to connect the waterways is the easy part. After all, the area was defined by digging for more than a century; now it's simply for a different purpose.

Because of the soil, the lake water starts out with the same acidity as vinegar. Fresh river and lake water is cycled through each new lake, and limestone gets added to alter the pH balance and lower the acidity. A significant amount of water is necessary for this process because the pit mines in this region can be as deep as 400 feet.

Remembering the area's industrial past

The lake building is a comprehensive process, but Germany isn't completely covering up its coal-powered past. The Lusatian Industrial Heritage Route actually invites tourists to delve into this history. Visitors can see old power stations converted into visitors centers, museums with strip-mining equipment, and yet-to-be-transformed coal pits in between stops at lake resorts, bike trails and wineries. An example of one of the largest pieces of mining equipment ever built, the F60 overburden conveyor bridge, a conveyor bridge used for brown coal mining, still sits in the area as a monument to the industry. This particular conveyor, at more than 1,500 feet long, hasn’t been operated since 1992.

For Germany and other countries that have engaged in lignite mining, Lusatia is an example of how to successfully transform a place from an industrial economy into a service economy. It proves's there can be life after coal.

How Germany's coal heartland became an outdoor recreation paradise
Coal dust once covered everything in Lusatia, Germany. Now, the area welcomes hundreds of thousands of outdoor enthusiasts with lakes and bike trails.