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History of Spitsbergen

‘Taub­a­ne­sen­tra­len’ in Lon­gye­ar­by­en. This was the pivot for the cable­way to trans­port coal from the mines to the har­bour.

Taubanesentralen in Longyearbyen. This was the pivot for the cableway to transport coal from the mines to the harbour

Bruce­by­en in Bil­lefjord. A Scot­tish enter­pri­se, in which among others Wil­liam Spier­ce Bruce was invol­ved, inves­ti­ga­ted coal depo­sits.

Brucebyen im Billefjord

When geo­lo­gists had found various mine­ral depo­sits which, as many thought, might be very sub­stan­ti­al, acti­vi­ties were laun­ched which remind us slight­ly of the gold­rush in Alas­ka – not that it was that dra­ma­tic, but a num­ber of com­pa­nies and enthu­si­a­stic indi­vi­du­als got enga­ged in mine­ral pro­s­pec­tion and mining in the arc­tic. Alre­a­dy the wha­lers knew ear­ly in the 17th cen­tu­ry that the­re was coal to be found, but the first coal was brought from Sval­bard to the main­land with the pur­po­se of sel­ling it the­re in 1899. It was Nor­we­gi­an Søren Zacha­ri­as­sen, who mined the coal at Bohe­man­nes­et in Isfjord and ship­ped to Trom­sø, thus start­ing com­mer­cial mining in Spits­ber­gen. Befo­re him, coal from Spits­ber­gen had occa­sio­nal­ly been used local­ly on a very small sca­le.

Søren Zacha­ri­as­sen

Søren Zachariassen

A num­ber of new­ly estab­lished com­pa­nies occu­p­ied quick­ly larage claims in Sval­bard, which was still no man’s land. Natu­re and ext­ent of on-site acti­vi­ties varied con­sider­a­b­ly. Some­ti­mes, com­pa­nies only paid some money to trap­pers, who whe­re the­re any­way for hun­ting pur­po­ses, to keep an eye on their pro­per­ty. In other places, quite some effort was soon put into tri­al mining, some­ti­mes too soon. A well-known exam­p­le is the old marb­le quar­ry of the eng­lish Nor­t­hern Explo­ra­ti­on Com­pa­ny (NEC) on Blom­strand­hal­vøya.

Machi­nery used by the NEC on Blom­strand­hal­vøya

Machinery used by the NEC on Blomstrandhalvøya

Ernest Mans­field, who was one of the lea­ding figu­res in NEC and a cha­rac­ter, who spent a lot of time in Spits­ber­gen inclu­ding a win­tering in the Bell­sund area, belie­ved to have found a marb­le occur­rence which would soon rival even the famous Ita­li­an Cara­ra Marb­le in qua­li­ty and quan­ti­ty. This was not the case, and a lot of money was was­ted on Blom­strand­hal­vøya in Kongsfjord.

Ernest Mans­field

Ernest Mansfield

Real mining acti­vi­ty was laun­ched only at a few loca­li­tes, and the expen­si­ve instal­la­ti­ons chan­ged owners seve­ral times. The hoped-for pro­fit could be crea­med off only in a very few cases. As Nor­way tried to get con­trol over as much of the land area of Sval­bard as pos­si­ble, many entr­epe­neurs mana­ged to avo­id eco­no­mic desas­ter by sel­ling their rights to Nor­way, which then somt­i­mes sub­si­di­sed Nor­we­gi­an mining com­pa­nies, at least until Sval­bard was under Nor­we­gi­an con­trol (the Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty was signed 1920 and came into force in 1925.

John Mun­ro Lon­gyear

John Munro Longyear

All of today’s sett­le­ments in Spits­ber­gen star­ted as coal mining sett­le­ments and are so to some degree even today. Ame­ri­can John Mun­ro Lon­gyear foun­ded Lon­gye­ar­by­en (Lon­gyear City) in 1906 and sold alre­a­dy 1916 to the Nor­we­gi­an Store Nor­ske Spits­ber­gen Kull­kom­pa­ni (SNSK). SNSK or just ‘Store Nor­ske’ has brought coal mining in Lon­gye­ar­by­en lar­ge­ly to an end, apart from one remai­ning mine (‘gruve 7’, mine 7 in Advent­da­len, which still ope­ra­tes on a com­pa­ra­tively small sca­le), but is still one of the major actors in run­ning the sett­le­ment. Nowa­days, Lon­gye­ar­by­en is the cent­re for admi­nis­tra­ti­on, ser­vice indus­try, sci­ence and tou­rism.

Old mine ent­rance in Lon­gye­ar­by­en.

Old mine entrance near Longyearbyen

The histo­ry of Ny-Åle­sund is rough­ly com­pa­ra­ble. The coal depo­sits in Kongsfjord were alre­a­dy known to the wha­lers in the 17th cen­tu­ry, who found pie­ces of coal in river beds and on the beach, but mining did not start until the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. With seve­ral inter­rup­ti­ons, it was final­ly aban­do­ned in 1962 after a series of acci­dents with fata­li­ties. Today, Ny-Åle­sund, situa­ted in a very beau­tiful land­scape, has beco­me an inter­na­tio­nal rese­arch sett­le­ment, whe­re a num­ber of nati­ons run sta­ti­ons under Nor­we­gi­an coor­di­na­ti­on. The land owner is still the sta­te-owned Kings Bay (ear­lier Kings Bay Coal Com­pa­ny).

As oppo­sed to Lon­gye­ar­by­en and Ny-Åle­sund, mining was done on a lar­ge sca­le in Sveagru­va in Van Mijenfjord until 2015. Svea Nord was the most pro­duc­ti­ve mine ever in the mining histo­ry of Spits­ber­gen. It was run by the Nor­we­gi­an sta­te-ownd SNSK, whe­re they cla­im to have run a pro­fi­ta­ble mining busi­ness in the years fol­lo­wing 2000. In 2013, a new mine was ope­ned in Lun­ckef­jel­let north of Sveagru­va, but this mine never ente­red the stage of pro­duc­ti­ve ope­ra­ti­on. The coal pri­ces had drop­ped to levels that did not enable pro­fi­ta­ble mining any­mo­re, and the Lun­ckef­jel­let mine was set in stand­by ope­ra­ti­on. In 2015, the Nor­we­gi­an govern­ment, as the owner of the mining com­pa­ny SNSK, deci­ded to aban­don mining in Sveagru­va inclu­ding Svea Nord and Lun­ckef­jel­let altog­e­ther. The mines the­re are curr­ent­ly clea­ned up and the sett­le­ment Sveagru­va will lar­ge­ly or even com­ple­te­ly be aban­do­ned and remo­ved.

The Rus­si­an, also sta­te-owned Trust Ark­ti­ku­gol is also respon­si­ble for Rus­si­an coal mining in Isfjord. Rus­si­an mining was done in seve­ral sett­le­ments inclu­ding Pyra­mi­den, which was aban­do­ned in 1998. Today, Rus­si­an acti­vi­ties are con­cen­tra­ted on Barents­burg near the ent­rance of Isfjord.

It can be sum­ma­ri­sed that mining was cle­ar­ly the most important eco­no­mic acti­vi­ty in Spits­ber­gen during the 20th cen­tu­ry, alt­hough hard­ly ever pro­fi­ta­ble, and inter­rupt­ed only by the Second World War. After a ‘wild’ ear­ly peri­od to secu­re claims, it soon beca­me evi­dent that mining would actual­ly be done only at a very few places. This is what gave rise to today’s net­work of sett­le­ments.

Barents­burg 1999

Barentsburg 1999

Pyra­mi­den 1997

Pyramiden 1997



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last modification: 2019-03-06 · copyright: Rolf Stange