A Greenland pioneer

An engineer among polar bears and ice

Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American

Willy Garaventa

Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Photo: Cynthia Elyce Rubin
Willy Garaventa at his home in Switzerland, March 2019.

Last month, I sat down with Willy Garaventa in Switzerland. He is the son of the founder of the Garaventa Company that builds tramways, aerial ski lifts, and cable cars. I wanted to know if he had ever worked in Norway. “No,” he responded, “but I did work in Greenland in 1973.”

And so I learned about the construction of the invaluable cable system that went up to the Black Angel Mine located near the settlement of Maamorilik, a mining site in the Qaasuitsup municipality in northwestern Greenland, approximately 300 miles from the Arctic Circle and 15 miles northeast of Ukkusissat on the southern shore of the Qaumarujuk Fjord, a tributary fjord of Perlerfiup Kangerlua, an inner branch of the Uummannaq Fjord.

Here in the 1920s, the Danes started mining marble. This mining continued into the 1940s, always yielding a high-grade marble reputed to be as good as Italian Carrara. Then in 1936, a young Swedish boy and his father, workers in the marble quarry, found strange glittery stone on the opposite mountain side from the marble mine. It was forgotten until the 1960s when a Danish geologist, visiting the family, saw the stone. It was lead and zinc. At the time, the only other mine in the world with such a concentration of ore was located at Mester Vig, on the eastern coast of Greenland. This Danish man, working with Cominco Ltd. (Now Teck Cominco) in Canada, convinced his Canadian colleagues to prospect the area and concluded that the ore was situated across the fjord from the marble quarry on a vertical cliff. A dark outline on its face gave the mine its name of Black Angel by the neighboring Inuit.

In 1973, workers built a harbor that would house a retired icebreaker used as the mine’s first lodging. Next would come the necessary cable system, and this is where the story of Willy Garaventa comes in. This cable system would have to move miners and mined zinc, lead, and iron ore, as well as equipment and fuel, in and out of the mine. High winds might slow down or stop the cable system, but without it, no mining could ever be successful. Cominco hired Garaventa to accomplish the task.

Willy Garaventa

Photo courtesy of Willy Garaventa
View of the mining camp from one of the cableway portals. The fjord below, stretching seaward to the Davis Strait and the North Atlantic, is frozen for 7-8 months of the year.

In 1928, Karl Garaventa had built his first aerial tramway. Later in 1957, sons Karl and Willy expanded the company and then in 1967 broke into the international market with the construction of a large tramway in Squaw Valley, Calif. At Black Angel, Karl built a cable car for transportation of the material ore. Then Willy and his brother, along with a company blasting crew, built a bigger barn for transportation and a second cable car for personnel. At that time to reach the mine, Willy had to travel from Switzerland to Copenhagen, then fly to a WWII military base, Sondre Stromtfjord, then travel by helicopter to Jakobshaven.

Garaventa remembers, “I was overwhelmed by the scenery and glaciers.” He was sure from the very beginning that he would enjoy his time in Greenland. Workers lived on the ship, 30 men the first year and 350 the second. There was no alcohol and no women allowed. You worked three months and then had two weeks’ holiday. For the seven months that Garaventa worked there, 18 men worked in two shifts for 24 hours a day. At first, everyone ate on the icebreaker, but later there was a cafeteria on land. Every two weeks, there was whiskey or beer available. Then barracks for workers were built on land, with 300-400 men living there. Garaventa remembered that later there were two women, one a specialist for stones and the other a geologist and chemist. Beatrice, his wife, came to visit once for 10 days.

Life could be boring, cold, and isolated. But there were always polar bears and whales to watch. The material from the mountain went to a cone breaker to be smashed into gravel. Tools were transported in the smaller cable car. It was always working, fully automatic, 24 hours daily. Garaventa took time to make some excursions into nature. He did some fishing and collected mussels. He was interested in the icebergs and the Inuit way of life. The climate reminded him of an alpine environment, even though he was very far away from the Alps. He was, indeed, a pioneer before computer imaging worked out engineering problems.

Cominco scheduled the mine for closure in early 1986, having discovered richer reserves elsewhere in the Arctic. Swedish mining company Boliden AB took over Black Angel and kept it in operation until 1990. Mining companies have come and gone. Black Angel has opened, closed, reopened, and closed again, but as far as I know, the Garaventa aerial tramway survives.

On June 1, Hier und Jetzt Verlag in Switzerland will publish Willy Garaventa’s story, Willy Garaventa: Biografie des Schweizer Seilbahnpioniers, written by Rebekka Haefeli, in German.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.

This article originally appeared in the May 17, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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