If the gold rush to Alaska was a big step to the unknown, exploring Spitsbergen’s mining opportunities was a step even further. Laying much further in the north than Alaska, deserted into the far end of the golf stream, this small archipelago was no man’s land – exiting opportunity for many adventurers. From late 1900 century, several companies traveled to Spitsbergen in order to find their treasure hidden far up north.
Coal had always been gathered by whalers and hunters on Spitsbergen for local use, but industrial mining did not start until 1899. It was a Norwegian Søren Zachariassen, who was the first to establish a mining company on Spitsbergen. He claimed several places around Isfjorden area and exported the first coal to mainland, thus starting the real coal rush to Spitsbergen.
A number of newly established companies occupied quickly large claims in Svalbard. Sometimes companies only paid some money to trappers, who were there anyway for hunting purposes, to keep an eye on their property. In other cases, quite some effort and investments was put into trial mining – sometime too soon. There are several sad stories of companies falling into bankrupt after being too optimistic for the mining opportunities.
The first commercially viable mining company was established by John Munroe Longyear. To explore the world Mr. Longyear sailed to Spitsbergen together with his family on a luxury cruise in 1901. It was merely supposed to be a holiday travel, but Mr. Longyear got interest in the vast landscape and barren nature of Spitsbergen. He collected some coal samples and when the samples turned out to be very good, the company Ayer & Longyear was established.
John Munroe Longyear was back in Adventdalen in June 1905, just 4 years after his first visit. They had load the ship with mining equipment and employed 25 miners to sail with them up to Spitsbergen. In 1906, The Arctic Coal Company was established and Mr. Longyear’s adventure could start.
The first mine, called American Mine, was established with the help of 25 miners brought from the mainland. The small mining town grew fast. Houses were built, water supply was secured, and cableway from the mine down to the harbor was built, making miners work much easier.
Mr. Longyear wanted to name the mining town after himself, and thus Longyear City was established in 1906. Longyear City grew fast over the next few years. In 10 years, Long year’s dream has grown from a small village of 25 miners into a town of 300 inhabitants. By 1916, Longyer City consisted of 25 buildings, divided into living quarters, community center, horse stables and warehouses. Mr. Longyear had built docks, power station, railways, as well as a radio station.
The coal industry in the Arctic turned out to be good business. In the period of 1907 – 1915, 173,000 tons of coal was shipped from Longyear City out to the mainland.
After several strikes in the mines, Mr. Longyear decided to sell the mine for Store Norske Spitsbergen Kullkompani AS in 1916. Store Norse bought the well-equipped mining town and changed the name better suitable for the Norwegian language. Longyearbyen was founded under Norwegian command and new era could begin.