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Mining

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
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