Svalbard Coal - A Hundred Years

by Ken Catford


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




Articles 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 of steam.

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.

Early prospecting

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.

Mining developments

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.

Living 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 ropeways

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.

There 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 at Svea.

International heritage

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.




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