Svalbard coal mining

Mine, Adventdalen, Svalbard, June 2013

Before returning to our Spitsbergen bird reports, now on coal mining in the Svalbard archipelago.

It started in 1899. Soon, it overtook hunting as the main economic activity on the islands.

In 1906, John Munroe Longyear from the USA, after buying Norwegian mining claims, founded the mining company town Longyear City. During World War I, in 1916, Longyear sold his operations to Norwegian businessmen. In 1926, Longyear City was renamed Longyearbyen, as it still is.

Miners’ lives were hard. Like in other countries, black lung disease undermined their health. Like in other countries, collapses and other disasters injured and killed workers. On top of that, in Svalbard there was the Arctic cold. After work, many miners had to fight for a chance to wash at one water tap.

After World War II, there was the idea in many European countries that at least some of the evils of pre-war capitalism should be reformed away. On a hill above Longyearbyen village centre arose a new miners neighbourhood of eight barracks, Nybyen. While before 1940 six miners had to sleep in one room, now it became two workers per room. There were more washing facilities. I stayed at a former Nybyen miners’ barrack while in Longyearbyen.

One of the barracks was reserved for women, working in cooking, cleaning, etc. Another one of the barracks was reserved for foremen. Conditions for foremen were better than for ordinary miners; though still far below conditions for managers. These lived in a hotel in central Longyearbyen and “were served first class meals and exquisite wines” in their exclusive restaurant, as the guide Svalbard Spitsbergen 2013, by Spitsbergen travel, says on page 24.

The colours of mine helmets indicated the hierarchy at work. Workers new at mining had to wear white helmets. Experienced miners wore yellow helmets. Foremen had their own helmet colour. So had managers, if they went into the mines.

Though after 1945 there were improvements compared to before, miners still went on strike sometimes. For instance, as a protest when during Arctic winters, day after day, their meals consisted of fish balls.

Miners’ safety at work was still a big issue. At Ny-Ålesund mine alone, several disasters killed 71 people while it was in operation from 1945 to 1954 and from 1960 to 1963.

Working mine, Adventdalen, Svalbard, June 2013

Today, in the Longyearbyen area, only one mine still works; in the Adventdalen valley, to the east of the capital.

Besides US American and Norwegian mining, some mines had owners from other countries, like Sweden. Or from czarist Russia, later from the Soviet Union, still later from the Russian federation. The Russian coal mine Grumant started in 1912. It closed during the 1960s, as it became impossible to dig good quality coal there.

Grumant ghost town, Svalbard, June 2013

Today, Grumant is a ghost town; like other ghost towns in Svalbard.

Pyramiden ghost town: here.


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