in Polar Worlds (December 2002) have given a wonderful impression
of the remote and awe-inspiring natural environment of the Svalbard
archipelago. However, during most of the twentieth century, man's main
reason for travelling north to Svalbard was much more down to earth
- beneath the earth in fact! The reason was coal.
Svalbard's coal seams provide one of the few sources of good quality
coal in the far north. It was ideal for fuelling steam shipping on the
Northern Sea Route as well as supplying Norwegian railways in the days
The Gulf Stream warms the western shores of Spitsbergen, which is the
main island of the Svalbard group, melting the sea ice and giving access
to shipping for a few months each year. It also alleviates the worst
of the climatic conditions, making life tolerable with mean monthly
temperatures ranging from -15 °C in January to +6 °C in July.
In summer the islands enjoy 24-hour daylight and conversely when the
sun sinks below the horizon in mid-November it does not reappear until
the end of January.
This is the environment in which men have struggled to win coal during
the last hundred years.
The coal outcrops had become known during the nineteenth century and
sealing and whaling crews would simply come ashore and dig out the coal
for themselves, at first to fuel the boiling of whale blubber and then
with the advent of steam vessels to stoke the boilers. The first attempt
to exploit Svalbard coal commercially was by a Norwegian, Søren
Zachariassen, who mined on the north shore of Isfjorden from 1899.
In 1901 the luxury cruise ship Auguste Viktoria visited the
fjords of Spitsbergen. One of the passengers admiring the scenery was
an American industrialist, John Munro Longyear. He noticed the small-scale
mining on Isfjorden and his imagination was fired. Two years later he
was back again with two business colleagues, and that second quick visit
settled the idea. Never mind the permafrost, the frozen winter seas
and 24-hour darkness, or that biting cold wind: they would turn coal
mining on Svalbard into a prosperous business venture!
He set about the task systematically and efficiently. From 1906 gangs
of men worked throughout the summer, with some continuing through the
winter, to establish a mine together with all the necessary paraphernalia
of workshops, transport system and loading quay. In 1907 Longyear's
first three shiploads of coal reached the Norwegian mainland.
Svalbard at that time was still a political no-man's-land, and although
Longyear had staked mineral claims over large areas there was no effective
system of enforcement. Longyear became paranoid about 'trespassers'
from other countries who also attempted to exploit Svalbard's coal.
Among those was a British company which had set up a mining operation
as early as 1904, but it has to be said that they were no match for
Longyear's business-like approach. The British operation struggled along
for a few years until being taken over by Norwegians who kept some production
going until 1939.
Russia also came prospecting, and in 1912 one of the last activities
of Russian explorer Vladimir Rusanov (whose subsequent expedition along
the north coast of Siberia was lost without trace) was to investigate
coal seams at Grumant on the shore of Isfjorden. Longyear predictably
was enraged by this encroachment but the Russians were not deterred.
Even the Scottish scientist William Spiers Bruce had an altercation
with Longyear. Bruce was surveying Prins Karls Forland in 1907 when
through a misunderstanding Longyear sent out a search party for him
when no rescue was required. Longyear's correspondence with Bruce's
solicitors in Scotland over who should pay the costs dragged on for
months, but no compensation was paid.
In 1916 Longyear sold out to the Norwegian government and the state-owned
SNSK (Store Norsk Spitsbergen Kulkompani) took over. By this time Longyear
had developed two mines, one on each side of Longyeardalen valley. Yes,
not only had he named the valley after himself, but the miners' village
became known as Longyearbyen!
SNSK developed more mines in Longyeardalen in the 1930s and subsequently
further along the southern slopes of Adventdalen from the late 1950s.
In parallel with the Norwegian developments, the Soviet Union opened
an extensive mine at Barentsburg in the 1930s and another at the very
remote location of Pyramiden on Billefjorden, which came into production
in the 1940s.
By the mid-twentieth century, a sizeable Norwegian mining village had
developed at Longyearbyen, and there were separate Soviet communities
at Barentsburg, Grumant and Pyramiden. Further afield, Norwegian mining
activities were also to be found to the south at Svea on Van Mijenfjorden,
and to the north at Ny Ålesund on Kings Bay.
The miners' way of life
It goes without saying that it was a tough life, being a miner on Svalbard.
The main coal seams outcropped high on the valley sides, so getting
to work involved trekking up a steep track on the snow and ice covered
slopes, in darkness in winter, in the face of that icy wind if not a
blizzard. Once there, the working seam was generally less than a metre
high, and the temperature in the mines was a constant -4 °C.
accommodation until at least the 1970s was very basic, and the Soviet
propaganda of the time that their community facilities were better than
the Norwegians' seems to have been true - there was a swimming pool
at Pyramiden, for example; by far the most northerly in the world! The
communities of course were male dominated, although miners could bring
their wives with them if they could find work in the laundry or canteen,
or as wardens of the hostel blocks. Generally in the summer the miners
went home to Norway or Russia (and Ukraine in many cases) for a few
weeks, because the main production activity took place in winter. Summertime
effort was concentrated on loading the ships from the huge stock-piles
of coal which had accumulated waiting for the sea ice to clear.
The problem of transporting the coal from mine to quay was solved by
the very ingenious ropeway system. Continuous moving ropes straddling
between timber trestles carried buckets each with a capacity of 0.7
tonnes of coal, at a rate of up to 120 buckets per hour. For nearly
80 years the ropeway network provided a continuous service unaffected
by snow and ice, until eventually heavy lorries took over. Many of the
trestles still remain, and are a characteristic feature throughout the
Longyearbyen area. 'Ropeway Central', which was the main control centre
and complicated junction point, still stands as a prominent structure
on the hillside.
was no ropeway at Ny Ålesund, where the flatter ground enabled
a narrow-gauge steam railway to be laid in 1917. Visitors to Ny Ålesund
today can still see the tiny locomotive with a few trucks preserved
close to the quay. Mining at Ny Ålesund ceased in 1963 following
a mine explosion which killed 21 miners. A scientific research station
now occupies the attractive domestic buildings of the mining village.
It is sad to record that Svalbard's mining operations were dogged by
accidents throughout the century. Hardly a year went by without at least
one fatality. On one day for example in 1952, two separate gas explosions
killed six and nine miners respectively, and a year later 19 were killed.
During less than 50 years' mining at the tiny community of Ny Ålesund,
no fewer than 80 miners died.
When Liv Balstad left her high-society circles in Oslo in 1946, having
just married the Governor of Svalbard, she was the first influential
woman to experience life on Spitsbergen. Ten years later her memoirs
created a political stir in Norway with their revelation of the harsh
living and working conditions in this forgotten outpost of Scandinavia.
There is less information about the Soviet Union's mines but perhaps
they fared no better and certainly as recently as 1997 23 miners died
in a mine fire at Barentsburg. This followed an even greater tragedy
in 1996 when a Russian plane carrying 141 people (including miners'
families from Ukraine) crashed close to Adventdalen during a blizzard.
These tragedies are commemorated by a small chapel recently erected
in the centre of Barentsburg.
Mining at Svea
Mining at Longyearbyen declined towards the end of the twentieth century,
and SNSK is developing a new, modern mine 50 kilometres to the south
at Svea. Because of its environmental impact this is a controversial
project, but at present it seems that the closure of the last Longyearbyen
mine is imminent, with all future Norwegian effort to be concentrated
A unique and fascinating aspect is the existence of two separate communities
with such completely different characteristics - Norway and Russia.
The two sets of communities have always kept themselves very much to
themselves but lived in harmony.
It is astonishing that extensive industrial activity should have taken
place for over a hundred years in such a remote location and in such
extreme climatic conditions. Also it is fortunate for our future heritage
that many of the industrial archaeological remains are officially protected
by the Governor of Svalbard as 'cultural relics'.
A concern for the future must be the increasing pressure of tourism.
Some of the tourists who come to Longyearbyen expecting to experience
a natural Arctic wilderness are dismayed to find themselves in the midst
of a coal-mining community, and its structural remains. There could
be increasing pressure from the tour companies to 'tidy up' the surroundings
of Longyearbyen. The Governor must be encouraged to adhere to his present
strict policy of preservation, and to resist forcibly any pressure to
remove or 'prettify' those features such as the mine buildings and Ropeway
Central, which in the future will represent a remarkable story of twentieth-century
man's struggle against the elements.
© K.E. Catford 2004 (text and photographs). Ken Catford is
an Architect who has been an enthusiast of industrial archaeology for
many years. His interest in researching early development in the Arctic
has arisen through several visits to Arctic regions since 1990. This
article is derived from his research paper: 'The industrial archaeology
of Spitsbergen' in Industrial Archaeology Review Vol.XXIV, No.1
(May 2002) published for the Association for Industrial Archaeology
by Maney Publishing, Leeds, UK.