The world's most northerly town is full of surprises

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MICHELE SOLOMI
  • Photo by Michele Solomi

Except for the high-powered rifle slung over her shoulder there was nothing unusual about the young woman wheeling her baby carriage down the main street of Longyearbyen. In almost any other town the gun would have raised eyebrows if not a general alarm – but then Longyearbyen is not your ordinary town. Located on the west coast of Spitzbergen Island at 78 degrees north latitude it is the earth's most northerly town and one of the few settlements where polar bears are of more concern than traffic. Although the big carnivores rarely enter the town it happens often enough to warrant some precautions — a sturdy chain link fence surrounds the kindergarten play area, university students are issued rifles and taught how to use them, and all roads and trails leading out of the town have signs warning people that they must be armed if they venture beyond the town limits. If you don't own a gun you can rent one.

It was early morning when we pulled into Longyearbyen, said goodbye to the crew of the Expedition, and prepared to disembark. From the dock it's a short walk through town to the Svalbard hotel. A well-stocked market in the town centre is surrounded by a scattering of small shops catering to the tourist market. Unlike the rest of Norway there is no value added tax in Longyearbyen, making shopping an option for even local tourists.

The lady with the gun smiled and said hello as we passed and as we approached the hotel a reindeer leapt across the street in front of us and started munching weeds among the acres of snowmobiles parked for the summer. "Who owns the reindeer," I asked the hotel clerk. "Nobody," he chuckled, "they just wander in from the tundra looking for green stuff to eat." You don't need to be in Longyearbyen very long to realize it's not your average small town.

Like many far northern communities Longyearbyen began as a fur trading and whaling centre. But it was the discovery of coal that transformed it from a disorganized, seasonal encampment into a full-fledged town. In 1906 John Munroe Longyear, an American after whom the town is named, established the Arctic Coal Company and began exporting coal to the south. A small community grew up around the industry but living conditions were deplorable. Worker dissatisfaction and frequent strikes forced the company to close and in 1915 the mines were taken over by the private Norwegian company SNSK. The community immediately became a "company town" and until the nineteen-sixties Longyearbyen was completely governed and operated by SNSK. The company owned everything needed for living — housing, stores, communication and transport. Women and children were discouraged and the miners, many of whom were forced to leave families behind, were housed in company barracks.

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