THE ROUGHNECK RALLAR

By David John Smith


The roots of the Bluestown Rising story lie deep in the history of the region. Here we tell you the story of the RALLAR, the weather-bitten fearless roughnecks who sweated, bled, sang, dug, tunneled, chopped, exploded and picked their way through the mountains of the Wild Telemark.


To begin our story, let us go back in time to the early 1900´s when Notodden and its northern neighbor of Rjukan were just small agricultural villages, with some industry having been created the decade before by Ole Holta with Tinfos.

In 1894 Ole Holta became part owner in the Tinfos Paper Factory in Notodden (photo above), and five years later founded the Notodden Calcium Factory as he created the first power station Tinfos 1


Then, a few years later industrialist Sam Eyde arrived on the scene and declared he was going to tame the mighty waterfalls surrounding Notodden and neighboring Rjukan to the north to create new industries driven by hydroelectric power - a radical new concept. Eyde found investors in Stockholm, Paris and New York who invested in total more money than all Norwegian banks combined and the Klondike began literally overnight.


Here in the Wild Telemark, there were vast sums of money to be made in the seemingly impossible task of taming the thundering waterfalls, tunneling through miles of bedrock, laying railroad tracks through the remote and bitter wilds to construct the worlds most modern power plants and factories in this remote region in the high mountains of south central Norway.

Note: A ´Klondike´ is a migration triggered by hopes of economic gain, the term taken from the Klondike Gold Rush, a migration by stampede of 100,000 prospectors to the Klondike Region in northwestern Canada from 1896 to 1899.


The Roughneck Rallar

To get the job done, harden workers were needed, and they came by the thousands. Tobacco spitting, swearing, drinking, fighting, praying, singing songs of work, sorrow and hope as they descended upon Norway from all over the Nordics.

These tough and resiliant workers ready to work until they dropped, ready to risk life and limb to make a days pay, coming from near and far with different backgrounds and cultures.

Photo: Norsk Industriarbeidermuseum


These tough and resiliant workers ready to work until they dropped, ready to risk life and limb to make a days pay, coming from near and far with different backgrounds and cultures. The work ethic of these roughnecks could vary, but for the most part they were driven by good conscience, proud of their skills as they did dangerous work with drills, pickaxes, shovels, wheelbarrows and dynamite.


These were the Rallar, the Swedish name for wheelbarrow, also as a small type of railway car. Like the wheelbarrow and the train, these hardened workers moved from project to project, the rolling stones who built the new Norway.

Some of the Rallar came from farms, others from the poorhouses, others were military deserters sent to work as punishment, and many were just down on their luck and just wanted to earn some money and try something new.

Photo Credit: NIA


New World

Many of the Rallar came from the mines of Sweden and other countries, and were hired here and sent deep into the tunnels that would channel the waterfalls and create the hydroelectric power that would change industry forever.


Ventilation in the tunnels was very poor as the men struggled for each breath. The dust and the dynamite powder made the men sick. Serious accidents were common, and it was then that the roughneck rallars showed their solidarity, knowing that any one of them could be the victim of the next accident.

Photo: Norsk Industriarbeidermuseum


For the better part of a decade there was plenty of work for the Roughneck Raller, and hard work it was. Machinery was almost non-existent and the work was done by the sweat and the blood of the men as they worked with their pickaxes and shovels carving their way through a mountain or tunnel or high mountain forests.


Most of the workers were relegated to housing in the noisy and chaotic worker shelters, where at least there was a cook on hand to make food, a place to sleep and the possibility to wash themselves and their clothes. Day after day into the tunnels or the high remote rocky forests, building a new nation.

To make life more difficult, there were those who preyed upon the Rallars. The Rallar had money, and money is for the taking. So many a man´s earnings disappeared to the cynical schemes of the opportunists who looked for every chance to get their hands on the money the men had earned.


The Musical Rallar

Photo: Norsk Industriarbeidermuseum


Many a Rallar brought their music, dance, song and instruments with them to Notodden and Rjukan. which became a melting pot of young strong workers from all over Norway and beyond with their cultures, their music and their traditions. When they worked their long days, their songs – work songs, rhythm songs, hollering songs and others helped to pass the time.


The traditional music of legendary musicians such as the Myllergutten fiddler (Millerboy) from the mountains of Telemark were now brought together with the music being made in the new industrial boomtowns. Working, sweating and bleeding by day, making music by night. These were the times of the Rallar.


The songs and the music of these young strong Rallars had a profound impact on the local cultures, especially with those who decided to stay and make the transition to the industrial workers in the giant factories that were being built.


Creating a Life

The Rallar came and went all the time. When a job was finished, some would move on, but others might stay to find the next opportunity. If their work situation became too desperate, some would just immediately pack their bags in the middle of a job and move on to a new location and hope that the next job would be better.

Photo: Norsk Industriarbeidermuseum


There were those who were lucky and found themselves a room on a farm and a steady job could stay if they chose and began to carve themselves out a life. Some of these who stayed brought with them political ideology and ambitions that would later help set the stage for unionization in Norway and the first 8 hour work day. Their youth, strength and ambition created industry in a region that would never be the same.


The Rallar that stayed in the region as industrial workers and even management in the factories play and important role in the next chapter of the industrial heritage of region.

Photo: Norsk Industriarbeidermuseum

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