Svalbard has a much more interesting history than one might expect.
Whaling began in Svalbard in 1611 and continued into the first decades of the 1800's by which time there were almost
no more whales.
At the beginning of the 20th century, American, British, Swedish, Russian and Norwegian companies started coal mining
on the archipelago. Ironically, coal was first mined on a significant scale by an American named Longyear, who founded
Longyear City - or Longyearbyen in Norwegian - on the west coast of Spitsbergen. Norway's sovereignty was recognized
by the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920 with additions that limited the military use of Svalbard, and that the other nations
retained rights to their settlements.
Svalbard has also played a major role in the efforts to reach the North Pole and even now is a major center of science
research on the Arctic.
Our first stop on our trip was to Ny-Ålesund which is one of the world's northernmost settlements. This place was
founded in 1916 as a coal mining town. After a major mining disaster in 1962, the mine was closed and today it is the
center of international polar research including China's first research station.
Below, the town as it exists today.
Below, a train that was used to haul coal from the coal mine.
The Chinese research station including two very heavy statues at the entrance.
The most interesting thing we observed at this town was the statue of
Roald Amundsen as well as the tower he used to launch his flight to
become the first person to reach the North Pole.
Roald Amundsen (Norwegian pronunciation: was a Norwegian
explorer of polar regions. He led the first Antarctic expedition to reach
the South Pole between 1910 and 1912. He was also the first person
to reach the North Pole. In 1926, Amundsen and fifteen other men
made the first crossing of the Arctic in the airship Norge. They left
from here on May 11, 1926, and they landed in Alaska two days later.
The three previous claims to have arrived at the North Pole – by
Frederick Cook in 1908; Robert Peary in 1909; and Richard Evelyn
Byrd in 1926 (just a few days before the Norge) – are all disputed, as
being either of dubious accuracy or outright fraud. Amundsen died
not knowing he was in fact the first to the North Pole.
At the right is a picture of the tower from which
Amundsen launched his airship in 1926 with our
group standing around it. To get to the tower we
walked past this sign.
On the south side of the fjord of
Kongsfjorden across from Ny-Ålesund lies
the unique cultural heritage site of London,
also called Ny-London. We visited the
remains of the mining facility established in
1911 by the Northern Exploration
Company, an English company headed by
Ernest Mansfield who was something of a
con man. Ernest Mansfield claimed that the
marble here at London was superior to
Italian marble (which it was not). Marble
was extracted for a limited time at the start
of the 20th century and the remains of that
venture sit there today as an Arctic ghost
We saw a number of graves from whalers from the early 1600s. Skulls and bones of the whalers could be seen inside
We saw a number of old arctic fox traps still sitting where they were last used.
Finally, we visited the site of S. A. Andrée's Arctic balloon expedition of 1897.
Andrée neglected many early signs of the dangers associated with his balloon plan. Being able to steer the balloon to
some extent was essential for a safe journey, and there was plenty of evidence that the drag-rope steering technique he
had invented was ineffective; yet he staked the fate of the expedition on drag ropes. Worse, the polar balloon Örnen
(Eagle) was delivered directly to Svalbard from its manufacturer in Paris without being tested; when measurements
showed it to be leaking more than expected, Andrée refused to acknowledge the alarming implications of this.
After Andrée lifted off from Svalbard in July 1897, the balloon lost hydrogen quickly and crashed on the pack ice after
only two days. The explorers were unhurt but faced a grueling trek back south across the drifting icescape. Inadequately
clothed, equipped, and prepared, and shocked by the difficulty of the terrain, they did not make it to safety. As the Arctic
winter closed in on them in October, the group ended up exhausted on the deserted Kvitøya (White Island) in Svalbard
and died there. What happened to them remained a mystery until there remains were found in 1930.
Below are pictures of the remains of the air craft hanger and other remains from this ill-fated venture.