The stream of tourists, geological mapping and Polar expeditions at the end of the 19th century increased the awareness about Svalbard. This led to a hope of economic gain from the archipelago’s mineral resources and to a Klondike-like atmosphere. Read about Longyearbyen, Ny-Ålesund, Svea and the Russian Settlements.

Claim signs like these were set up to declare ownership of an area. Photo: NP

In the period 1898-1920, over one hundred land claims were made. These made up more than the total landmass of Svalbard. The archipelago was divided up and shared between the private interests. At the same time there was a rush for minerals in northern Norway that may have infected Svalbard.

There were no rules as to how the land should be occupied. Everyone was equipped with claim signs. These signs had different appearances and texts, and, in order to be valid, had to be renewed every year. Inaccurate procedures often led to arguments and disputes. These arguments were often solved there and then, but many of them ended up as a court case in Tromsø. Disputes occurred between land claimants and between the workers and the new mining companies. These led to the political and judicial demand for an administration of Svalbard.

It was a colourful mixed bag of people who set up their claim signs and declared ownership of the areas. They came from nine or ten different nations. Some were specialists, whilst others were adventurers. A few had a little knowledge about minerals. Some gave up their projects quickly and sold on their areas. Others arrived with expensive production equipment only to find that the project was uneconomic. Those who failed left Svalbard, leaving their equipment behind.

Some of the foreign claims were made in areas rich in coal deposits. These operations became long-term, such as the Americans in Longyearbyen, the Swedes in Svea and Pyramiden, the Dutch in Barentsburg and the Russians in Grumant.


Miners coming down the mountain from the coal mine. Photo: Svalbard Museum

It was the coal mining that established communities. Until the end of the 20th century it was the needs of the mining industry that steered the development of the community and the build up of services.

It was parts of the west coast that early showed themselves to be the most interesting areas for coal mining. These areas were ice-free during the summer, and here the coal deposits were clearly visible. Already in 1869 Englishmen with Norwegian assistance collected coal. In Norway it is the polar skipper Søren Zakariassen from Tromsø who has been given the honour for having seen the economic value of coal mining. In 1899 he took 600hl of coal from Bohemanneset. The coal was sold on the mainland.

The first year-round operation on Spitsbergen was in Advent City, which was situated on Revneset. It was operated by the English company The Spitsbergen Coal and Trading Company Ltd. During the winter of 1905/06 30 men overwintered. Production was less than expected, and Advent City had a short and uneasy life.

The American company Arctic Coal Company started coal mining in Longyear City in 1906. The community was named after the major stockholder in the company, John Munro Longyear. In 1916 the Norwegian company Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani took over. The town was renamed Longyearbyen.

The Mining Code (the Mining Regulations) for Svalbard came into effect at the same time as the Svalbard Treaty in 1925. It included, amongst other things, that a post of Commissioner of Mines forSvalbard was established. He would reside on the archipelago during the summer, and undertake inspections of the works, both Norwegian and foreign.

The number of coal mining sites varied from year to year. The main tendency was for many of the smaller companies to last only a short while before they were closed down. Others were sold and continued by other nations. Barentsburg was sold to the Russians and Svea to Norwegian interests. At some sites the deposits of coal were so large that they formed the foundation for more permanent communities. Store Norske’s operation in Longyearbyen and the Trust Arktikugol`s operation in Barentsburg became the two most stable workplaces in Svalbard. They are still in operation.

The Norwegian coal industry during the 20th century was only occasionally economically profitable. Was coal mining a political tool to reach political goals? Such as, for example maintaining Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard?

By Gerd Johanne Valen/Bjørg Evjen