If rock had a voice, Årdal would resonate with the history of hydroelectric power and industrial development, with the sound of picks and shovels joining in a never-ending salute to the workmen who wielded them.
The story of how the farming community in Årdal, at the foot of the great Jotunheimen mountains, became a modern industrial society is long, full of conflict, uncertainty and coincidences. And decade after decade of human toil.
The industrial potential of the Tyin lake, which is 1000 meters above sea level and the source of the Tya river, was seen as early as 1898. An industrialist and engineer from Bergen purchased the rights to the river from the farmer for NOK 2000 (EUR 250 at 2003 exchange rate) on the condition that “the factory does not pollute the water in the river”. The farmer, meanwhile, retained the rights to the other side of the river.
These rights were not utilized for a few years, but then Bruun in Bergen and Spangelo in Grimstad agreed to join forces to find investors. At the beginning of 1907, the German company Badische was about to enter into a partnership with Norsk Hydro on the development of the fertilizer industry in Norway. Badische wanted to acquire rights to hydroelectric power.
An agreement was signed, the concession was granted and plans began to take shape: a water head of 900 meters, several tunnels, the longest of which would be 11,000 meters long. Two hundred men started building a road in 1910, but the following autumn work had to stop. The German investors were withdrawing from the Hydro partnership and were no longer interested in the plans for Årdal. Hydro took over their shares in the company: AS Tyinfaldene.
“Rjukan first”, said Hydro
However developing the Tyin waterfalls was not at the top of Hydro’s agenda; completing the on-going work in Rjukan was far more important. But the authorities required Hydro to continue the work that had been started, which was a term of the concession. So it did – at snail’s pace – with 100, 200 sometimes nearly 300 men at the site. Then work came to a virtual standstill when World War I started.
Meanwhile the question of what Hydro was going to do with the hydroelectric power from the river Tya remained unanswered. There were discussions in 1918 on the possibility of building an aluminium oxide plant based on labradorite. This proved to be easier said than done. Efforts to develop production technology did not give the results hoped for. Meanwhile the work on the site continued – year in and year out.
The construction sites in Årdal were not like other sites where large numbers of workers arrived, worked and then moved on to new jobs, so it was important for the local authorities to ensure that the local workforce was given preference for the jobs that were available. This is how the “rallar” workers became a natural element in the local community. They worked in the mountains during the week and came home to their villages at weekends.
Sigurn Kloumann says no
Towards the end of the 1930s Hydro again considered building an aluminium plant in Årdal, this time together with NACO in Høyanger, whose director was Sigurd Kloumann – the man who had been in charge of Hydro’s first development of Notodden. But Kloumann declined, and the plans were put on ice.
Attempts were also made to sell the Tyin power on the general consumer market. Oslo municipality was contacted several times in this connection, but these efforts were also unsuccessful.
Part of Göring’s great plan
The German invasion of Norway in 1940 speeded up the development of Årdal. The Germans needed more aluminium for their armaments industry, particularly for the production of war planes, and this again required a significant increase in hydroelectric power capacity. In the autumn of 1940 they had completed a plan for expanding Norwegian aluminium industry, increasing production by a factor of six by the end of 1944.
Årdal was one of the sites chosen for the first phase of this plan, together with Glomfjord, Eitrheim, Sauda and Mår/Herøya. An oxide factory was to be built at Årdal with an annual capacity of 50,000 tonnes, together with a metal plant with an annual capacity of 24,000 tonnes. Årdal was a particularly attractive site as so much of the power plant had already been built.
In 1941, Hydro sold the Tyin falls to the company A/S Nordag for NOK 17.5 million (EUR 2 million at 2003 exchange rate). During the first phase, most of the workers at Årdal were Norwegian, and they increased from a few hundred to over 4,000. However progress was slower than planned.
From the early part of 1943, the Germans also used Russian, Ukrainian and French forced labor – up to 1,000 Russians and Ukrainians and 600 Frenchmen. Work proceeded on the hydroelectric power plant, the metal plant, the oxide factory and the road construction all at the same time. Årdal was a veritable beehive of activity.
In October 1944, Berlin ordered all work in occupied countries to be stopped unless it would be completed before 1 April 1945. The work at Årdal should have stopped, but proceeded slowly.
By the end of the war on 8 May 1945, NOK 265 million (EUR 33.5 million at 2003 exchange rate) had been invested in Årdal. Three out of five generators had been set up, and furnaces had been installed in the metal plant. Nordag was transferred to the newly established Directorate for Enemy Property, which soon announced that Årdal should be completed – but new investment was needed.
Not surprisingly, there were political questions. Who should be responsible for the further work. “The results of production are more important than the form,” said Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen. Nevertheless state ownership was settled on and the state-owned company Årdal Sunndal Verk (ÅSV) was established and completed the development of the Tyin water falls and the associated Årdal plants.
Some considered this to be a “fantastic experiment” – Norwegian aluminium industry in competition with powerful international competitors. Others were more sceptical. But in Årdal the die had been cast: the small agricultural community had become an industrial society.
Hydro returned to the scene 40 years later – in 1986 – when ÅSV was integrated in Hydro’s aluminium operation.