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Railroads Europe - The Snows Of Scandinavia

( Originally Published 1927 )

FAR to the north in Europe engineers have built some of the most remarkable railroads of that continent. These are the lines that cross the Scandinavian peninsula in various directions, roads that do not cover vast stretches of territory, but that have been constructed through snow-bound and hostile country. The most important of these railroads are the Bergen-Christiania, which is confined to Norway, and the Narvik-Riksgrænsen-Kiruna, which traverses territory in both Norway and Sweden. The latter road is the most northerly trunk line in the world, lying as it does in the Arctic Circle, yet it carries a great amount of traffic, due to the fact that it supplies the steel-works of central Europe with iron ore from the vast storehouse of Lapland and Sweden.

In the regions traversed by these roads there are few settlements on account of the length and severity of the winter season ; such few hamlets as there are lie near the ore-mines and the forests where lumber is cut for the wood-pulp trade. The seaboard of Norway is a fringe of high mountains and fiords, the interior is a lofty plateau, open to storms from the Arctic, with a tremendous snowfall and very cold weather most of the year.

The mountain barrier of the coast was a great obstacle to the commercial development of this region; a few trading centres, notably Bergen and Trondjhem on the Atlantic Ocean, were fairly prosperous, but their business was much limited owing to their isolation from the flourishing country to the south, and particularly from Christiania, the capital, with which all commerce was by sea.

The inconvenience of the route by water caused a demand for some overland road and in 1811 engineers were sent out on an exploring expedition. They reported such difficulties in the way of building a road through the ranges that the project was given up. Trade was carried on by ships until the Norwegians began to hear accounts of successful rail-road construction in other mountainous countries, and agitated for a railroad of their own. In 1870 two engineers again tackled the problem of the ranges, and reported that a railroad could be built, but that the work would be very expensive and difficult.

The enumeration of the difficulties attending the laying of tracks through such a country delayed the start of the enterprise, but in 1875 the government appropriated the money needed to build a trans-peninsula rail route from Bergen to Christiania. The road started out from the western coast between the Hardanger and the Sogne fiords, which wind for more than 100 miles into the high mountains. The engineers had to build almost due south for some six miles and then double back towards Bergen in a great loop of nearly fifteen miles. Another loop took them again towards the south, and the road twisted and turned now this way now that before it reached Vossvangen on the eastern line. Sixty-seven and one half miles of tracks had been laid to cover a distance of less than forty miles by crow-flight.

The road from Bergen to Vossvangen was opened in 1883, and there the rails stopped for a long time.

Vossvangen lies at the foot of a great granite barrier, and as there was no way of flanking the range the engineers must plunge through it. Surveyors hunted for a route through, and decided there was only one point at which a road was possible, at Urhovde Mountain; and a road could only be made here by tunnelling for three miles.

Ten years were spent in making surveys and studies of the range at Vossvangen. Stations were established in the mountains to collect information in regard to snow and wind. As a result it was learned that, if a winter's fall of snow was heavy, the snow would last over into the next winter ; also that al-though the layer of snow frequently did not exceed a few inches on the mountain-tops the snow would drift and pile up into banks of fifteen feet or more in the valleys and protected places. For ten years the government debated whether to go on with the work ; then in 1894 it voted the funds to carry the rails to the summit of Taugevand, 4,250 feet above the sea, and forty-five miles from Vossvangen.

From Vossvangen the climb was made through the Dovrefjeld range by a course along a narrow shelf that was blasted out of the solid cliff to Opset Station, a distance of twenty-eight miles. Here began the Gravehals Tunnel, which burrowed through the mountain for 17,420 feet. From the eastern end of this tunnel the road continued to Myrdalen Station, situated in a great amphitheatre of mountains. Here in the depth of winter the rails and station are not infrequently covered to a depth of thirteen feet or more by snow and the rotary snow-plough is constantly at work to clear the track for trains.

A mile beyond Myrdalen Station the engineers bored another tunnel, the Reinunga; before the rail-road was completed from Vossvangen to the summit of Taugevand twelve tunnels in all had been built, of a total length of 11 1/4 miles. Not only was the work itself difficult, but it was hard to obtain laborers in this practically uninhabited, storm-swept and barren land. Yet the rails were lengthening, and in 1898 work was commenced on an eastern section to be built towards the track that was pushing over the mountains. This section also required some tunnels, but the work was easier, on account of the more level country.

In the high country, at Taugevand and beyond in the Bodladal, it was impossible to work in the open in winter, because of the piercing winds and the snow, and the laborers were used in tunnel-boring. Avalanches frequently swept down on the road and workmen tired of the constant combat with the elements sought less harduous employment in the south. In summer rails were laid and ranges conquered, and presently the road was descending through Gjello and Hol to Aal, and from there through low-lying valleys to Got. Here, following the Hallingdale River, the track proceeded more easily to Rea, where it joined the main line, which had a comparatively level road into Christiania.

On November 27, 1909, the King of Norway officially opened the railroad of 291 miles that connected the capital of the country with the Atlantic seaport of Bergen and that made it possible to journey from the one city to the other in fourteen hours instead of in fifty-four. It had taken ten years to build the road from Vossvangen to Christiania and the engineers had been obliged to drive 184 tunnels and construct 14 bridges ; an immense amount of dynamite had had to be used, for most of the way was blasted out of sheer walls of granite.

Six hundred miles north another railroad was built. Narvik is situated near the head of a peninsula formed by the Beis and the Rombaks fiords emptying into the Ofoten fiord, which washes the eastern shores of the Lofoten Islands, about two degrees within the Arctic Circle. In this wilderness of Lapland there is a mountain, Kiruna, of enormous richness in iron ore. To develop the Kiruna ironfield a seaport was desired, and it was determined to continue the Great Northern Railway of Sweden from Gellivare through Kiruna and Riksgrænsen on the Norwegian-Swedish frontier to the coast at Narvik.

A group of financiers secured the concession in 1883 to build a railroad from Ofoten fiord to Lulea, at the head of the Baltic Sea, and organized the North of Europe Railway Company, afterwards called the Swedish and Norwegian Railway Company. This concession was later taken over by the governments of the two countries and by them the road was completed. From Narvik to the frontier the line forms part of the Norwegian State Railways system; the eastern section, connecting with the main line to Stockholm, belongs to the Swedish Government.

This most northerly of trunk railroads crosses the wildest and loneliest part of the Scandinavian peninsula, a world of ice and snow. The line is used almost entirely for the transportation of ore and of those who work in the iron-fields. In 1899 the settlement at Kiruna consisted of a few buildings around the shore of a lake, and the only means of communication with Gellivare, 60 miles to the south, was by a rude wagon road or sledge track. The railroad has made Kiruna a busy town, where work in the mines of the mountain goes on night and day for part of the year, since this is the country of the midnight sun. Up and down the mountain crawl trains of cars as the ore is brought from the summit to the base for transfer to the railroad. Kiruna is situated 1,655 feet above the sea; from there the road runs northwest toward Riksgroensen on the Norwegian-Swedish frontier through picturesque if desolate country, the mountains, lakes, waterfalls, dense forests and roaring rivers of Lap-land. On this section of the road, which is 81 miles in length, only 22 miles is level line. The rails cross the top of the Norwegian mountain backbone, which here, far to the north, is much more jagged than in the latitude where the Bergen railroad was built, owing to the channels made by the melting snow as it rushes down into the great watershed of the peninsula ; here much tunnelling had to be done and elaborate defenses constructed against snow-slides.

Riksgransen is the junction of the two divisions of the road. It is about 241/2 miles from Narvik, but this section to the coast, although less than one-third the length of the Swedish division, was far more difficult to build because of the greater steepness of the western slope of the range. The problem was to obtain a foothold for the grades and then to secure that foothold against the heavy impact of descending avalanches.

Over this Lapland railroad passes an immense traffic because Narvik is an ice-free port open all the year. Much of the line is protected by high snow screens or fences, snow-ploughs battle with the drifts, and all the locomotives carry a small scoop-plough in place of a cow-catcher. By these means the trains are able to pass back and forth on the rim of the Arctic Circle and to bring the ore from Kiruna to the factories of Europe.

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