The short human history of Svalbard, 400 years, tells us of hard cores during whale hunting in the early 16th century, exploring and expedition activities conducted by many countries all the way back to 1750, and during the last hundred years, mining and trapping. Many nations have had activities on Svalbard and until 1925 Svalbard was no mans land. With the signing of the Svalbard Treaty on February 9th 1920, Norway was granted sovereignty over the entire archipelago. The sovereignty was formally put in effect on August 14th 1925.
The English whale hunter Jonas Poole dicovered the first pieces of coal on the southern banks of Kongsfjorden in 1610. Another threehundred years were to pass before commercial exploitation of the coal deposits in the area commenced, when Peter S. Brandal - a Polar Sea captain - needed coal to fuel his steamships during the first World War. In 1916 he and three partners established Kings Bay Kull Compani AS (KBKC) in Ålesund, mainland Norway, and started to exploit coal around Kongsfjord - hence the name Ny-Ålesund (Norwegian for New Ålesund). Due to the low prices of coal the company constantly had to apply for government aid in form of advance payment for coal supplies to the state. In 1929 all mining operations in Ny-Ålesund where stopped, and in 1933 the Norwegian state acquired all the shares in KBKC. In the years 1929-1941, following the close-down of the mining operations, KBKC still had a few people staying in Ny-Ålesund, looking after the buildings and all the equipment.
In 1929, KBKC decided to set up a supply base and fisheries station in Ny-Ålesund to serve the hundreds of vessels fishing in the waters surrounding the archipelago. In 1936 the idea of starting a hotel was proposed, (tourists cruising the Arctic waters is not a new appearance!) and Nordpolhotellet opened its doors to guests for the first time in 1939. Today the hotel has been restored and is again functioning as a hotel.
In the summer of 1941, 80 workers were sent to Ny-Ålesund to restart summertime operation in the mines, but only shortly afterwards the Allied High Command in London decided to evacuate all inhabitants of Ny-Ålesund (as well as the rest of Svalbard) since they did not consider themselves able to defend Svalbard from the German forces. At the evacuation the power station, radio masts, railway track and entrance to the mines were destroyed to prevent these resources from falling into the hands of the enemies.
There was no further activity in Ny-Ålesund until after the war, and in 1945 mining activity was restarted. But the operating conditions were difficult and in December 1948 Ny-Ålesund was hit by its first major mining accident - an explosion in one of the mines cost 15 lives. Two more fatal accidents followed, in 1952 and 1953, killing 28 people in total. The company finally closed down operations in 1962, following the last big accident on November 5th 1962, when 21 mineworkers lost their lives in an explosion. All mining activities in Ny-Ålesund were stopped in 1963.
In 1964 the Norwegian authorities signed an agreement with the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) regarding the establishment of a Norwegian satellite telemetry station in Ny-Ålesund. Shortly afterwards, in 1966, Nordlysobservatoriet in Tromsø set up operations in Ny-Ålesund and in 1968 the Norwegian Polar Institute set up in their station in one of the houses in Ny-Ålesund.
KBKC resumed primary responsibility for the practical operation of the community by 1974. Ny-Ålesund was becoming a popular destination for scientific field research, also providing services for the fishing fleet and tourist vessels. It was not until the 1990s though that research activities really took off in Ny-Ålesund and in 1998 Kings Bay Kull Compani AS changed its name to Kings Bay AS, thereby removing the reference to coal.
Today the former small mining community Ny-Ålesund is a centre for international arctic scientific research and environmental monitoring.
North Pole expeditions
In 1926 Roald Amundsen, accompanied by the American Lincoln Ellsworth and the Italian Umberto Nobile, set out on a joint expedition in the airship "Norge". The historic expedition was a success. As planned the airship flew over the North Pole and landed in Teller, Alaska.
Amundsen and Norway took all the honour of this successful journey, a sensitive matter to Nobile, Mussolini and Italy. By sending an all-Italian expedition lead by Umberto Nobile, Mussolini wanted to regain the honour as constructors of the airship. In 1928 Umberto Nobile came back to Ny-Ålesund with the airship Italia, modelled on the same basic design as "Norge", but with certain technical improvements and operated by an almost all Italian crew. Unfortunately this expedition ended in disaster - after having flown over the North Pole the airship crashed onto the ice north of Svalbard. Around 1400 persons and countless vessels participated in the rescue operation. Only 7 of the 16 crewmembers where rescued from the ice alive. Roald Amundsen also took part in the rescue operation - flying his seaplane Latham - but crashed somewhere into the Atlantic Ocean on his way north to Svalbard. Amundsen was never found.
All traces of human activities on Svalbard from 1945 or earlier are protected cultural remains. One of today's challenges is to preserve the cultural heritage in Ny-Ålesund at the same time as people are living and working next to it. Therefore a special plan for Ny-Ålesund has been set up in cooperation with The Governor of Svalbard in order to protect and preserve cultural heritage in the area.
Within Ny-Ålesund there is a small mining museum. The exhibitions include equipment and pictures from the mining periods and daily life in Ny-Ålesund.