Of mining, money & misfortune

Telemark’s mining history—a long journey, a violent uprising, and a minting of money

Photo: Bjorn Olsen Farmers chase the German miners outside Guldnes mine in Seljord in this painting from the Kongsberg Mining Museum.

Photo: Bjorn Olsen
Farmers chase the German miners outside Guldnes mine in Seljord in this painting from the Kongsberg Mining Museum.

Bjorn Olsen
Skien, Norway

Centuries before emigration to America, one of the most dramatic stories in Telemark history occurred. The first speciedaler (coins) were made of silver from Guldnes mines, located at Lake Sundsbarm, 15 km northwest of Seljord. Mining started in 1538 and continued until 1888, running smoothly for most of those 300 years. However, in the early years of the mining period there was a dramatic conflict between farmers and German mine workers, which resulted in several farmers from Seljord being sentenced to death.

In autumn of 1537 the Danish King Christian III learned that copper and silver had been discovered in Norway and Telemark. Two mining specialists from Sachsen in Germany had been in Norway and returned with ore samples for the king.
In April of 1538, the king authorized mining in Norway using mine workers from Germany. The king granted funds for operations and provisions for workers, and work started in Sandsvær, Seljord, and Fyresdal, which are all in Telemark.

Photo: Bjorn Olsen Old mining tools.

Photo: Bjorn Olsen
Old mining tools.

A dramatic journey
Transportation was difficult in the 1500s; the workers who were going to Norway had no option but to go on foot. The first leg of the journey was a trek from Schneeberg in Germany, where they had to go on foot to Magdeburg (a distance of about 250 kilometers). From here they were transported by boat on the river Elbe to Hamburg. From Hamburg they had to walk to Aabenraa in Denmark (another 200 kilometers). There by boat to Fyn and again a long hike to Odense and Nyborg. From here they were transported by sailing ship across the Kattegat and Skagerrak to Drammen. Along the way, they were attacked by a Hanseatic ship. When they arrived in Drammen, 32 people drowned before making it ashore, 17 of whom were mining men going to Seljord. Only two of the victims were found and buried.

Workers from Germany
One hundred miners came from Sachsen in Germany to Telemark to work in the mines at Guldnes. They had brought all sorts of tools used for mining work, since Norway had little knowledge of mining operation and recovery of metals at the time. German Hans Glaser was appointed as chief of mining, and he hired German workers who were specialists in mining. By 1549 at least 300 German mine workers had arrived from Germany, and the Telemark mines were a flurry of activity.

Photo: Bjorn Olsen Several farmers were sentenced to death after the uprising. Here the executioner is ready with the axe. Painting from the Kongsberg Mining Museum.

Photo: Bjorn Olsen
Several farmers were sentenced to death after the uprising. Here the executioner is ready with the axe. Painting from the Kongsberg Mining Museum.

The uprising
In 1540 the king had promised that everything should be adapted for the German miners, but it did not happen. Food supply did not come and settlements were not accessible. There was a confrontation between local farmers and the German miners. The farmers were poor but were not fooled. Miners took the law into their farms, accommodated themselves in barns and outbuildings, and stole food from farmers. The farmers from nine villages had enough of it and began to chase the German miners out of the area. This struck the state down hard, and the Royal Army from Denmark, Bohuslen in Sweden, and Akershus were sent to Telemark to clean up the mess. It ended with 16 farmers sentenced to death. Of these, 10 bought their lives back with large fines. One of the farmers was named executioner and forced to kill five farmers who had been his friends.

The first Norwegian Speciedaler
The first Norwegian daler was made in 1546, using silver from Guldnes mines. The silver was transported to Gimsøy monastery outside Skien, where in the years 1543 to 1546 mark coins were made, worth eight shillings. I believe the original coin minted there is in the Coin Museum in Copenhagen.

Photo: Bjorn Olsen This silver coin was minted in Skien in the 1600s using metal from the Guldnes mines. From the Kongsberg Mining Museum.

Photo: Bjorn Olsen
This silver coin was minted in Skien in the 1600s using metal from the Guldnes mines. From the Kongsberg Mining Museum.

Misfortune and management
In 1619 came the first great tragedy. A huge landslide blocked the exit from one of the mines and many workers were confined. The story says that the trapped workers were fed with water and peas sent down to them through a gun barrel. But whether or not that method was employed, in the end all of them died trapped underground.

Over the years, the mines changed hands many times. In 1863 an English captain operated the mines at Guldnes. He built the so-called “Captain building,” which still stands there today. That captain’s project ended in 1870, but operations continued on for another 18 years, until all mining at Guldnes was stopped.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 5, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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