Railway museum De Mijlpaal
The museum De Mijlpaal, about Belgian rail history and located on Belgian Railway grounds at Mechelen, was forced to close by autumn 2011 amid government plans to build a high velocity railway bypassing the Antwerp-Brussels line, a new station, and a disclosing tangent road.
The last conservator, Harry Weymeersch, privately owned a significant part of the museum collection's minor items.
The museum lit the birth of Belgian railway and the (economic) impact on the city of Mechelen. Most of the subjects were textually explained:
- transport before railways;
- a technical explanation about the evolution of rolling stock on rails;
- the way Mechelen's harbour declined with the railway network in exchange;
- the steam locomotives era (1835-1966);
- transgression from steam to electrical power (history and evolution of the latter);
- history of the Arsenaal industrial plant...
The real eye-catchers however, were the full size exact replicas of the steam locomotives called Le Belge (French for "The Belgian") and L'Eléphant ("The Elephant", which had arrived on that famous 5th of May 1835), and three 1:1.000 scale maquettes of Mechelen and its railways in 1835, 1885 and 1935.
In 1835, on the 5th of May, with merely minutes in between, the world's first three passenger trains outside England drove from Brussels to Mechelen. The commemorative bluestone column, which bears the name of Mijlpaal (litt. "mile pillar", milestone), is the only on-site artefact that reminds of this historical event. It became the centre marker from which to measure all railway distances (then in local miles of 6.28 km): Mechelen had not only been granted pioneership but was also destined to be the epicentre of the European railway network. Maintaining and repairing the Belgian locomotives and railway carriages and wagons required an adjacent industrial plant as had hitherto never been seen, which was called the Arsenaal after its earliest skilled workers, the arsenal's men, originally referring to the at the opposite side of the city located former factory from which the Railways had them drawn. Since, one simply never stopped calling the plant's (male) workers the Arsenal's men and if they are that, their place of employment had to be the Arsenal. And so it is. It also attracted supplementary local and other Flemish workers and their families, and two working-class suburban neighbourhoods grew nearby. This industry, and accessibility by newly opened railroads rocketing day trip and short stay tourism and popularity of the local furniture, caused a major economical boom for the city. In World War II the Allies strategically obstructed the Nazi regime's transport and communication by bombing the railways centre and the Arsenaal, and unfortunately somewhat more.
The museum was founded in an abandoned workshop, which had been built in 1837 and thus one of the oldest, close to the railway tracks and station.
The workshops received heritage status, and thus protection against demolition. Unfortunately, the Flemish government simply removed the status, so a large-scale traffic masterplan could take effect. One day, the museum door locks had been changed, locking out a baffled Weymeersch. Sarcastically, the museum's continuity had been assured by the Belgian Railway Holding the year before, by announcing to move the building 12 metres away. Furthermore, the authorities responsible for the closure had visited the museum earlier that year and mayor Bart Somers had even declared that "This museum is an important relict of cultural and historical industrial heritage for our city, an initiative which we should pay all attention to and which we ought to cherish as much as possible".
Along with the museum, its website domain name www.spoorwegmuseumdemijlpaal.be ceased to exist as well. The pieces and scale models were eventually transferred and stocked in a Brussels warehouse. The local weblog community Mechelen Blogt reacted in disbelief. The building was probably one of the oldest European rail depots. Regardless, the other buildings on the Arsenaal's site didn't lose their status.