It’s a birthday party that began in the dark and bitter cold, with attendees remembering the most tragic moments of the past 100 years. But shortly afterward there was plenty of warm merriment, with outright ridicule still to come.
The many moods will continue over a three-day period as Longyearbyen residents, former employees and a sizable collection of VIPs celebrate Store Norske’s 100th birthday. The emotions reflect the history of the mining company that has been the identity and economic foundation of the town throughout virtually its entire existence.
That dominance resulted in the community as a whole toiling to keep the proverbial machine running, celebrating roughly when the coal dust was washed off and mourning colleagues who lost their lives in accidents. Hundreds again came together Thursday afternoon beneath Mine 1A for the unveiling of a memorial featuring the names of the 124 workers who lost their lives on the job.
“It is with reverence, respect and great sadness that we have undertaken the task of unveiling the memorial,” said Frank Jakobsen before he and his brother, Bengt, removed the cloth covering the 2.4-meter-high monument. Their brother, Geir, was killed by a boulder in 1991 in Mine 3.
“This is very important,” Frank Jakobsen told NRK. “Previously, there existed lists of those who perished. For us this is a place to come to commemorate, light candles and leave flowers.”
Jakobsen and other speakers recounted key moments in Store Norske’s history during the 45-minute ceremony where the temperature was minus 11 degrees Celsius. Among them was an explosion in 1920 that killed 26 workers, the biggest loss of life in the company’s history.
Dozens of current and former employees, community and political leaders, and others placed candles and flowers at the base of the memorial while the Store Norske Men’s Choir sang after the unveiling. A minute of silence and a cannon salute concluded the ceremony.
The landmark anniversary comes only a couple of months after Store Norske officially ceased nearly all mining operations after laying off most of its employees due to a coal price crisis that nearly bankrupted the company. The company itself is therefore keeping its birthday activities subdued, but local residents who joined together to host tributary celebrations say the company will remain a dominant community influence even if its mining days are largely in the past.
“Every business that is here comes from Store Norske,” said Anne Lise Sandvik, one of the lead organizers of the celebrations.
Other scheduled events:
• An invitation-only gathering at Huset after the memorial dedication for Store Norske employees, community and industry leaders, and a delegation of officials from various ministries whose work involves the company.
• A variety show who’s title translates in English to “Store Norske in Revue: 100 Years and (Almost) Nothing Forgotten” at 7 p.m. at Huset, which will largely feature highlight performances from largely satirical revues that have been staged annually during the past 19 years.
• A Harvest Festival celebration at 8 p.m. Friday at Huset featuring a smorgasbord and dancing to live music by the band Slampan. Sandvik said the event is modeled after similar celebrations the company used to host every year after the final cargo ship departed for the year.
• An open day at Mine 3 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.