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Vemork and the Rallar

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

By David John Smith

The Hydroelectric Plant - Vemork

When Vemork was finished in 1911 it would become the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world.

Vemork, which powered factory operations known as Rjukan I, is situated just east of the massive Rjukanfossen.

Designed by architect Olaf Nordhagen, this facility would become the first large hydroelectric power plant built in Rjukan, the first key in fulfilling Sam Eyde’s vision of creating a new industry based on hydroelectric power.

Construction began in 1907, and to make it possible, a 5.2 kilometre long siding was built from the railway station area in Rjukan to Vemork. Called the Vemork Railway Track and completed in 1908, the connection by rail was necessary to be able to move the massive equipment and material necessary for construction.

Thousands of workers were involved in this complex and difficult task.

The People - Raller

These workers were called the Rallar, the Swedish name for wheelbarrow, also a small type of railway car. Many of the menial jobs such as taming the thundering waterfalls, tunneling through miles of bedrock, or laying railway tracks fell to the Rallar.

These tough and resilient workers were driven by good conscience and were proud of their skills as they did dangerous work with drills, pickaxes, shovels, wheelbarrows and dynamite.

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 wanted to earn some money and try something new.

Some came from the mines of Sweden and other countries and were hired here and sent deep into the tunnels. Ventilation in the tunnels was very poor as the men struggled for each breath. Serious accidents were not uncommon, and it was then that the roughneck Rallar showed their solidarity, knowing that any one of them could be the victim of the next accident.

They worked diligently — and they worked together.

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 created a new infrastructure that would change industry forever.

Photo 1 and 2: Ian Brodie

Photo 3, 4 and 5: Courtesy of NIA

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