Ny-Ålesund 1928. Behind town can we see the mines and the airship hangar. Photo belongs to Svalbard Museum.
The history of Ny-Ålesund is both interesting and dramatic. Below we present a summary of the history of Ny-Ålesund and Kings Bay AS:
The English whale hunter Jonas Poole referred to the coal deposits on the south side of Kongsfjorden as early as 1610. Another three hundred 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 in mainland Norway and started to mine coal around Kongsfjorden. Due to the low price of coal the company constantly had to apply for government aid in the form of advance payment for coal supplies to the state. In 1929 all mining operations in Ny-Ålesund were stopped, and in 1933 the Norwegian state acquired all the shares in KBKC.
During the 1930s a fishery station was established in Ny-Ålesund to serve the hundreds of vessels fishing in the waters surrounding the archipelago. Later the idea of starting a hotel was proposed, and Nordpolhotellet opened its doors to guests for the first time in 1939. Neither of these two activities was a financial success.
In the summer of 1941, 80 workers were sent to Ny-Ålesund to restart summertime operations in the mines, but only shortly afterwards all inhabitants of Svalbard were evacuated. During 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.
After the Second World War in 1945 mining activity was restarted in Ny-Ålesund. The operating conditions were difficult and in December 1948 Ny-Ålesund was hit by a major mining accident - an explosion in one of the mines cost 15 lives. Two more fatal accidents followed, in 1952 and 1953, where a total of 28 people lost their lives. The last big accident happened on November 5th 1962, when 21 mineworkers lost their lives in an explosion. This accident had grave political consequences and led to the closure of the mines in Ny-Ålesund 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. The station was operated from 1967 to 1974. KBKC resumed primary responsibility for the practical operation of the facilities in 1974. Ny-Ålesund was becoming a popular destination for scientific field research. It was not until the 1990s, however, 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 and the mining period.
The airship "Norge", 1926. Photo belongs to Svalbard museum.
North Pole Expeditions
In 1926 Roald Amundsen, 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. 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. Roald Amundsen
took part in the rescue operation with the seaplane Latham, but crashed
somewhere into the Atlantic Ocean on his way north to Svalbard, Amundsen
and the plane were never found.