From the History of the Litlabø Mines

Mining 1865 – 1903
The first find of pyrite ore on the island of Stord was registered with the lensmann (similar to sheriff or bailiff) on October 10.1864 by Gotskalk Nilsen Evanger. The find was made at Rossneset near Litlabø. The day after Tørres Dale reported a find at Nysæter. More reports of discoveries followed in swift order. Both at Nysæter and Øvre Litlabø large deposits of pyrite ore were found, ideally situated for surface mining. In addition the deposits lay close to Storavatnet.

Mining at Nysæter and Litlabø is believed to have started in 1865. During the first years the largest mines were those at Rossneset and Nysæter. From 1874 the Høgåsen mine was in operation. The miners at Nysæter suffered from bad ventilation in the large shaft, and mining there was eventually given up in 1874. The Rossneset mine was in operation throughout 1875, employing 25 people during the two last years. Later the Høgåsen mine was the only one running. On the other hand it was a very important mine and lasted until September 1900.

A number of other prospects were operated for shorter periods of time. Many of them were placed far away from Storavatnet, which made the best transport facility.

Det Bergenske Grubeselskab (Bergen Mining Company) is a pivotal name in this early period. The company was formally established in Bergen in March 1866, but had been in activity even the previous year. Consul Peter Jebsen and civil engineer Nils Henrik Bruun, both from Bergen, and solicitor Christian Fredrik Heidenreich, Stord, were the men behind it.

In 1866 the company bought half of Øvre Litlabø at 1260 rix-dollars. They operated the Høgåsen mine, among others. In addition, it was this company that started producing dynamite at Litlabø in 1876, probably to increase income at a time of slump in the pyrite market. For a shorter period also a company from Haugesund was operating at Litlabø. The haugesunders bought the other half of Øvre Litlabø in 1867. They were mining and processing pyrite ore somewhere on the cultivated ground of the farm, but we are not certain of the exact location. In 1876 Det Bergenske Gruveselskab bought the Haugesund-based company’s part of Øvre Litlabø, and so became the only remaining mining company on the farm.

One interesting feature of the Litlabø mines during this period is that the owners were Norwegian throughout. A number of other Norwegian mines had, or gradually got, foreign ownership. In 1894 the mining company was sold to Stordøens Dynamit Compagnie, which in its turn was owned by Nitrogycerin-Compagniet in Oslo. The company continued both dynamite production and mining at Høgåsen, but unfortunately mining went downhill. Besides, in the early 1890s there was a new actor waiting in the wings. He was engineer Hans Olaf Lind, formerly mine manager in Det Bergenske Grubeselskab. In 1884 he had sold out of the company, but later he started encroaching on the old company rights. Among others, the Rødkleiv prospect had been forfeited and Lind acted fast in getting claim rights and beginning experimental operation. In 1902 Lind got prospecting rights to all of the old mines. And in May the following year he eventually bought the entire Litlabø farm with all its mines. Sadly enough Lind did not achieve much, as he died in May 1904.

On the whole, things did not turn out the way the investors had believed in the middle of the 1860s. An unusually low content of sulphur in the pyrite caused market struggle for the Stord operators. They had to compete with pyrite of better quality from both Norwegian and continental producers, especially the latter. As early as in the 1870s pyrite mines in Spain and Portugal supplied the majority of the world’s output. As time passed, the prices of Stord pyrite were pressed down, and operation turned marginal. The companies had problems finding deposits that were commercially viable during the depression periods. Therefore mining at Stord was discontinued in 1903. The small mine that Lind ran at Rødkleiv was the last one in operation.

In total, 108.909 tonnes of lump pyrite were shipped during the years from 1865 to 1903, extracted from about 85.050 cubic kilometers of rock from the mines around Storavatnet. In his report Chr. A. Münster mentions some of the purchasers of the pyrite in the 1880s. Evidently, pyrite from Stord was exported to various concerns in Gothenburg, Stettin and Memel, and sold to the domestic industries of Hafslund and Stavanger Kemiske Fabrik.

The ore processing plant at Litlabø in 1910.

A/S Stordø Kisgruber is Established
After 1903 mines at Stord fell into disuse, but soon opportunity knocked in the shape of all new, foreign interests. An Antwerp financier, H. Fasting, had taken an interest in Stord pyrite deposits and considered investing large sums of money in starting modern-day mining in the island. Thus in 1905 Stord witnessed the arrival of mining engineer Christian Münster, who was sent by Fasting to make an intensive assessment of the pyrite deposits. Münster’s studies resulted in a comprehensive report, which he sent to Antwerp in 1906. It is worth noting that Münster envisioned a bright future for the Stord mines, estimating the total construction cost of the complete new mining works at NOK 600.000. In that sum was included a large ore processing plant, a shaft with a hoist machinery, a large and up-to-date shipping dock with storage facilities and an electric railway from the mines to the dock.

Supported by Münster’s advice the Belgian Fasting ventured to invest in the Stord pyrite deposits. As early as in 1904 Münster had secured the option on Stord mining rights, acting on Fasting’s behalf. Fanny Lind, mining pioneer Hans Olaf Lind’s widow, sold Øvre Litlabø farm with all its rights to Münster at NOK 11 216. In addition Fasting had secured the ownership of several other pyrite deposits at Stord, again in Münster’s name, as foreigners were not allowed to own claim rights. Then, in 1907 Münster conveyed all the properties and rights to the newly established A/S Stordø Kisgruber.

A/S Stordø Kisgruber was founded February 11. 1907. It had a share capital of NOK 300 000, and Fasting’s company, Compagnie Minière Belge-Norvégienne, owned the majority of the shares. On June 17. that year Stordø Kisgruber was granted mining rights. The Belgian company soon discovered that the construction work could not progress so swiftly as envisioned and by no means so inexpensively as calculated! Münster’s technical ideas were followed, and largely they proved viable. But in the economic field Münster had been far too optimistic. Eventually the project was rescued by German capital. In February 1908 an agreement was made between Compagnie Minière Belge-Norvègienne and Zellstoff-Fabrik Waldhof, Germany. The German company got two thirds of the shares in Stordø Kisgruber in return for providing NOK 300 000 as construction capital. Waldhof was a major producer of cellulose pulp and thus in need of large amounts of sulphur. By securing ownership parts in the Stord pyrite mines the company ensured delivery of sulphur for its own use. Through the years Waldof would spend close to NOK 15 million on the Litlabø mines, without ever collecting surplus income from their mining company. On the other hand the Germans determined the price paid for the pyrite they sold to themselves! The cooperation between the Belgian and the German companies was never actually knocked into shape. In 1912 Fasting and his company pulled out of Stordø, transferring the remaining shares to Waldof. Waldof was to remain the sole owner of Stordø Kisgruber from 1912 to after World War II, with the exception of a brief interruption in the period 1917 – 1924, when Nordisches Ertzkontor, Lübeck, held half of the shares.

Early photograph from the mine level area. Later, the shaft tower was built in the hollow to the right, seen above the rooftop.

The Stordø Period of German Ownership
All the time during Münster’s research, and later while construction work was going on, test mining was carried out. Records from spring 1906 show about 20 employees. In the following year the work force was increased by 10 – 20 men. Public mining statistics of 1908 tells us that the main activity was extension work at Høgåsen. During the latter part of that year mine captains’ quarters, seven workman’s houses and a grocer’s shop including a bakery were built. The next year also work was done at Høgåsen and the neighbouring deposit at Sadalen. In addition some mining was done at Rossneset. Close by the portal of the ground level drift at Høgåsen work was started driving a shaft for the deeper-level floors. The claims at Nysæter, Rossneset and Bjørnåsen were regarded by Münster as reserves. The other finds were all to be extracted by adits and drifts from the new shaft.

The annual report of 1910 states that (translated from Norwegian):”The past year can mainly be regarded as a year of construction. Work in the mine has been done to inquire into the mightiness of the ore deposits plus to prepare pitting.” Most of the construction work began in 1910. Then the ore shipping dock was built, and at Litlabø arose the ore processing plant, the compressor building and the steam central. 1911 saw the raising of the shaft tower and the hoist building, and at Grunnavågsneset three bunkers with a storage capacity of 6000 tonnes altogether were established. Railway, ore processing plant and dock were all test run in the spring of 1911, but were stopped after a short time due to a labour conflict. In September work started again. 1912 is frequently regarded as the first proper production year, with an output of 20 000 tonnes of pyrite, – which was less than a third of the annual production assessed by Münster.

The management of Stordø Kisgruber certainly had many things to worry about. Not only had the company had a troublesome start economically. When production got going, the pyrite ore proved much poorer than what Münster had calculated. The raw ore had a sulphur substance of 22 – 23 %, and 2,2 tonnes of raw ore produced 1 tonne of export ore. It has been said that no other mine in the world has been based on such ore poverty! Consequently, Stordø Kisgruber found it difficult to sell and achieve a good price for its end product. Another problem was the ore processing plant. The cleansing mill in particular did not meet the expectations and had too small capacity. On several occasions alterations were attempted. Only after a larger reconstruction in 1938 did the management express its satisfaction with the ore processing plant. Despite the difficulties the owner, Zellstof-Fabrik Waldhof, never gave up on the company in which so much had been invested. Through the years they adapted their own machinery to the poor pyrite from Litlabø, and between the world wars Waldhof was practically speaking the sole purchaser of the pyrite.

Only as late as in 1926 Stordø reached the level of 70 000 tonnes of exported pyrite, which was the yearly output calculated by Münster. Production increased further to about 130 000 tonnes before World War II. Thus 1937 saw a total shipment of 124 259,6 tonnes of pyrite and 17 005,8 tonnes of cleansing residue as coarse gravel. In 1938 the company employed 329 workers and 38 salaried personnel.

Building the railway bridge from Litlabø to Holtangen. Photo ca. 1909.

From Surface Mining to Drifts
In the 19th century most mines at Stord had been surface ones. In accordance with Münster’s plan the new company applied tunnel mining from the outset. Stordø took ore from almost all the old deposits, but gained access to them and did the extraction by means of mining tunnels, stopes and drifts. During the ten first years extraction took place from floor 2, that is from the same level as the gallery. The shaft leading down to the deeper levels was started in 1911, but not put into use. When World War I broke out, the pumps were removed. For several years afterwards the shaft and floor 3 were flooded, until they were emptied again in November 1920 and extension began. Through the 1920s more floors were developed, gradually growing into a veritable spider’s web of drifts, with the shaft as a kind of center point. None of the drifts is supposed to have been much longer than one kilometer, but they stretched out in all directions. In 1965 the length of shaft, stopes and drifts totalled 8,25 Norwegian miles (more than 80 kilometers). The hoist shaft reached floor 16, at a depth of 720 meters.

The mine level area as seen from the shaft tower ca 1930. The ore processing plant in the background. The foreground railway took ore from shaft to processing plant. In the 30s the railway was replaced by a conveyor belt.

The Mine is Taken Over by the State as Spoils of War
The Litlabø mines were operated largely throughout World War II, but had to halt its activity after a British – Norwegian raid on the night preceding January 24, 1943. The fact that the pyrite was exported to Germany was an important reason for the sabotage. Several dynamite charges were set off in various buildings at Litlabø, and the hoist machine, the compressor house and the locomotive engine shed, among others, were blown up. The attack led to a production halt up to March 15. 1943, but the repercussions were long-lasting and slowed down production seriously. The destruction of the hoist machinery proved especially hampering to the company. The old hoist was still intact, but was in a bad state and had too small capacity.

In June 1945 Stordø Kisgruber was reported enemy property, and in October that year the Office of Enemy Property decided to stop production at the plant. Later on the Office changed its mind and ordinary business was resumed as of September 1946. The Norwegian State then bought Stordø Kisgruber, becoming its rightful owner from January 1. 1948. At the same time all debt to Germany, amounting to NOK 5,8 million, was cancelled! This provided a sound economic basis for future activity. Also, the company now had large ore reserves to exploit.During the war more effort than necessary had been put into exploration and an unnecessary amount of useless rock had been excavated. It was a cleverly disguised form of war sabotage. At the end of the war large, pure strata of pyrite were thus ready for extraction.

During the post-war years various modernizing projects were launched and new materials were bought. Among other things the ore crusher was altered, the shaft was extended to make room for new and larger mine wagons, the old steam central was adapted for oil-based heating, the dock got a wire drawn scraper, the mine got nine new loaders and new battery electric locomotives, and there was a new flotation machinery for the ore cleansing plant. The need to update had been present for a long time, but the work had been delayed by the war. Some equipment was worn-out and obsolete. Some had to be renewed simply to improve production capacity.

The period from 1947 to 1960 is usually regarded as the golden age of Stordø Kisgruber. During these years there was a favourable pyrite export market, and then Stordø did quite well even with it’s normally less competitive pyrite. A significant factor was the re-emergence in 1950 of former Stordø owner Waldhof as a major buyer of Litlabø pyrite, continuing as a customer for 15 more years. In 1948 the output was 7 360,9 tonnes of pyrite containing 41,2 % sulphur, and 51 631,5 tonnes of cleansed pyrite containing 39,2 sulphur. In the same year 39 545 tonnes of coarse gravel were sold. Up to 1965 7,53 million tonnes of raw ore were extracted. From this 3,32 million tonnes of pyrite were produced for export.

An electric locomotive pulling ore wagons in front of the ore processing plant at Litlabø. The photo probably dates back to about 1950.

The Great Last-Minute Rearrangement
Towards the end of the golden age the old, worn-down condition of the production facilities became increasingly noticeable to the company. In 1959 production stops due to repairs were so frequent that they resulted in significant output failure. At the same time the whole mining industry experienced a large and swift reduction of pyrite prices. As far as Stordø was concerned the expenditure per tonne of pyrite surpassed the income from 1959 onwards. Thus the company showed a deficit. A continuously improving supply of pure sulphur on the European continent was the cause.

In the autumn of 1963 the Board of Directors of Stordø Kisgruber launched three alternative solutions. An immediate close-down, continued production at a loss in the hope of better times in the future, or an effort to make the company competitive. The Board opted for the third alternative. It would keep production at 70 000 tonnes of pyrite a year, but with a reduced labour force. In order to hit this target NOK 4,5 million would have to be invested in the shaft, hoist machinery, ore processing plant and dock facilities. The Ministry of Industry and Finance on its part was sceptical as to whether Stordø would achieve the productivity increase that it hoped for. The following year a new Board put forward a new plan of modernization. That was a lot more pessimistic than the old one, which was withdrawn.

Another year, and a renewed plan was launched. In the Board’s view the totally worn-down ore processing plant could not be expected to keep running throughout 1966. The Ministry still hesitated in acknowledging the plan, waiting to see price development, but eventually accepted the proposals of modernization.

The large rearrangement took place during the general summer holiday of 1967. The changes took place in the ore processing plant, where all machinery was remounted, with the exeption of two ore crushers and the flotation department. All the old setz jiggers were replaced by four new remer jiggers. The railway was torn away and its track was transformed into a road. A bogie lorry took over transport to the dock, where a dumper replaced the scraper winch and the conveyor belt. Altogether, 1967 investments amounted to NOK 3 million.

The mine area around 1950.

The comprehensive modernization of the transport road and the ore processing plant had been successful, but necessitated an updating of the other open-air production facilities. Among them was the 30 year-old ore copping unit, which was in very bad shape. Further necessary improvements were calculated to cost about NOK 2,2 million. At the same time it was even more difficult to find purchasers for the pyrite. In the autumn of 1967 price levels were substantially higher than only two or three years earlier, but the product was hard to sell! In 1968 almost all Norwegian pyrite manufacturers experienced sales difficulties. Besides, Stordø’s chief purchaser, Waldhof, signalled definitively that no more pyrite was needed, as the company was restructuring. A market survey effort brought depressing results. Prospects of selling pyrite were gloomy, not only in 1968, but in the long run as well. A close-down grew inevitable. The argument against a full stop was that the market situation might change again and the completed modernization would be wasted. Besides, Stordø was regarded as an important provider of jobs.

The 30th of April 1968 was the last normal day of work at Stordø Kisgruber. The production of coarse gravel still continued for some time, by crushing rock from the base rock dump at Hustredalen. In the course of 1969 52 000 tonnes of coarse gravel were produced, but in January 1970 also this part of the company had to end its activity. There was no more suitable rock left. Renewed gravel production by way of new or modernized machinery was considered, but gravel prices were seen as too low to ensure a profitable business. Some thousand tonnes of pyrite had been stored at the dock, but were eventually shipped out in June 1970.

Intentionally, mining equipment was to be kept intact until the future of the mine had been determined. But the sad realization grew that bringing new industry to Litlabø would be far from easy. The pyrite deposits were in reality the only natural industrial asset of the locality. From October 24. 1969 water was no longer emptied out of the mine.

Stord Verft was in the end the only prospective buyer of the mining company, planning to locate partial shipyard production at Litlabø. A contract had been drawn up, when the majority of the Council Board decided that the Council would use its right of preemption. The decision was made by a bare majority, after voting at four Board meetings, numerous discussions and loads of heated reader’s letters in the local newspapers.

On December 2. 1972 Stord Council formally took over Stordø Kisgruber. During the 70s the Council demolished many of the old mine buildings. The ore processing plant as well as the copping house and the ore crusher were levelled, as were many of the old workmen’s houses. Houses that were regarded as usable were sold to private owners. Trade businesses have got rooms for rent in the remaining larger buildings.

Written by Per Ivar Tautra, English translation by Sigmund Grønsdal.