We like to think that many of the great challenges humanity has tried to overcome are born of a thirst for discovery and adventure. However, often they may be motivated by something else entirely: the exploitation of resources. Over the centuries, this has stimulated the intelligence, creativity and determination of humankind, particularly during the nineteenth century, when nothing seemed out of the reach of technological progress. The story we’re going to tell today – that of the Ofotbanen, the first train line built beyond the Arctic Circle – is the logical continuation of this history.
The idea dates back to the seventeenth century, when huge amounts of iron ore were discovered in what is today the north of Norway. Despite efforts to use convoys pulled by reindeer and transport vessels of varying sizes, the resources were underexploited for nearly two centuries. The technical means available during this period weren’t able to cope with the extreme climatic conditions and wild nature of the region. For the explorers of the time, each hill, each river, each lake and each degree dropped below zero became an insurmountable challenge.
It was the invention of the train that would allow them to really conquer this territory. Since 1882, the British, who were eyeing up the minerals of the gion, won the right to build a train line linking the Victoria Havn (today’s Narvik), in Norvège, and the Swedish city of Kiruna, itself located beyond the Arctic Circle, making it the only Norwegian train line to be linked to the Swedish network without being connected to the rest of the country.
Quickly, the workers encountered the same problems as their predecessors: the cold, storms, the early nights, the brute force of nature and difficult topography. But thanks to a generation of ultra-determined workers, called navvies in English or rallar in Norwegian, the works went right ahead. They started, paradoxically, by building a road allowing them to move the building material necessary for the project. Still today, it carries a name that pays tribute to them: the Rallarvegen.
The presence of these workers, acclimatised as they were to pretty extreme conditions, notably gave birth to the town of Rombaksbotn. Home to farmers and fishermen, this small, tranquil town transformed rapidly into an agglomeration of more than 500 people comprising homes, a hotel, a bowling alley, a grocers, restaurants and bars for the workers, engineers and soldiers carrying out the construction work. Two sisters went as far as opening a brothel. Finally, perhaps as a logical conclusion to all the rest, a polite station and prison also appeared.
Sadly, the town of Rombaksbotn only survived for five years after it was destroyed by a huge fire. Today only a few ruins remain. It feels almost ironic that such a northern settlement should disappear into flames. It would later be replaced by the town of Narvik in 1902, the year the train line was inaugurated.
It was only with the start of World War II in Europe that the Ofotbanen really experienced its hour of glory. On April 9 1940, the forces of the Third Reich disembarked in Narvik having sunk a few Norwegian battleships. Sixty-two days of naval, then land battles raged over the control of the railways and the powerful potential it held to transport minerals long distances. Iron was a fundamental resource for building planes, boats and tanks. The first victory of the Allies during the war, the battle of Narvik offered only fleeting respite – soon they would treat and the town was retaken by the Nazis on June 9 1940. At least 8,500 people lost their lives as a result.
Despite the difficulty of the building works, the Ofotbanen inevitably presented a highly profitable enterprise. Twenty-five years after it was inaugurated, the line had already transported more than a billion tonnes or iron ore and thus has helped construct a vast swathe of the modern world, Better still, it has equally allowed locals and tourists to discover the beautiful, extraordinary nature of the region.