Little known World Heritage
site truly remarkable (Part I)
The view of the open pit mine – no longer operational – is seen from the second floor of the main museum structure. © SGE, Inc. All rights reserved.
LEGEND HAS IT that the riches at Falu Gruva mine, about three hours northwest of Stockholm, Sweden, were discovered in the eighth century when a goat returned to a farm one day with red horns.
The next day, the farmer, curious, followed the goat and found the first copper ore nuggets.
While this may or may not be true, it set off the exploitation of the richest find of minerals and metals in Scandinavia at least – and makes a wonderful story.
Falu Gruva mine, expertly restored and now a World Heritage site protected by UNESCO, is filled with the most remarkable stories.
There’s the one about “fat Matts,” a large man who in the 17th century fell into the mine one day, died, and his body was petrified by the vitriolic acid in upright position. (That is an entirely separate tale coming soon to “In the (K)now”)
Helmets and protective capes are mandatory for all visitors. The changing room is the first stop on the tour. © SGE, Inc. All rights reserved.
AT THE FALU GRUVA WEBSITE you will discover that Falun was Sweden’s second-largest town in the 17th century.
“[I]ts copper production affected the economic, social and political situation throughout Europe… This is why the historic industrial landscape around Stora Kopparberget (the Great Copper Mountain) and Falun were inscribed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites in 2001.”
Another story, so expertly told by the guide who took us down almost 200 feet into the mine, Emma Larsson, 26, concerned “the bucket.”
This was no ordinary bucket. In the early days, when the mine was only a few hundred feet deep, the miners had few options about how they could get to work. (NEVER complain about the traffic on the freeway again! Well, you wont, after you learn what these poor men had to endure to get “on the job.”)
One way down was by rope. Early ropes were made of cow hides – hundreds of them for each few meters of rope. Then came hemp, and later wire. The miners had to slide down the ropes and then
Our guide, Emma Larsson, prepares the visitors for their trip below the surface. © SGE, Inc. All rights reserved.
climb their way back up.
But ropes were not the only option. There were ladders. Long, long ladders, with hundreds of steps. There was no “going up” for lunch.
Each miner had to carry a load for every trip down the ladder: food for the day, tools to dig with (big heavy sledge hammers were used early on), and, of course, a miner’s light, Larsson told our small group – Bjorn, me and four from Germany who couldn’t understand a word of English.
It was as if we had a personal guide. And, she was so personable. (Her story will be told separately on “In the (K)now”)
THE DARKNESS in this mine is almost indescribable. There is zero light. Never before have I experienced the sensation I did when the Larsson shut off the lights. Just nothing!
You hold your hand up in front your face and it’s not there. Well it is there, you can feel it, but you cannot see it.
When Larsson hit the switch that turned off the illumination, she told us that all the other lights in the facility – which is sublimely lighted with muted, shaded bulbs, at about waist level, dotted at crucial intervals along the way – were still on, but we could not see them around the corners.
Back to the miners’ lights. …
Torches were the only option. The flames were carried down the ladders or ropes contained in iron torches held in the miner’s mouth. There was no other way. Of course, many miners got their eyebrows singed.
The third option for getting to work was so dangerous and claimed so many lives – it was eventually forbidden; but many did it anyway because it was faster and easier than the ropes or the ladders.
The bucket used to transport the extracted ore from below ground to the surface for processing was not designed for human transportation, but that was how it was frequently used.
The miners had to swing the 100-plus gallon conveyance – which could hold seven men at a time – dangling hundreds of feet on a two- or three-inch thick wire – back and forth across the shaft until it came close enough to the platform on which they were standing.
Then, timing it perfectly, they had to jump in.
Mistiming or coming up short by a mere inch, meant instant death, in a horrible plunge to the bottom of the shaft.
How many died this way is not known, because records were not kept in the early days. The mine owners believe they retrieved all the bodies from the bottom, but no one can be sure.
In this way and others, more than 800 are known to have died exploiting the treasures below ground for successive generations of Swedes.
The “visitor book” where the signatures of those invited to sign it – members of the Swedish Royal family – are inscribed into rock and lined with gold leaf.
But that is only since records started being kept of the deaths.
Perhaps the single most impressive sight underground is the Royal “guest book.”
In the modern era, many members of the Swedish royal family have personally visited the mine to see where their income is derived.
Those that do, sign the “guest book.” Then their imprint is carved onto a rock face, and etched in gold. The effect is stunning.
Some of the biggest names in Swedish royal history are there. Margerita. Victoria. Current king Carl Gustaf.
Part two of this story will appear on “In the (K)now” tomorrow.