"National route no. 1"

1: Lindesnes lighthouse during a storm. Photo: Rolf Dybvik.
1: Lindesnes lighthouse during a storm. Photo: Rolf Dybvik.
2: Photo: Norwegian Maritime Museum.
2: Photo: Norwegian Maritime Museum.

An important prerequisite for the development of the fishing industry in the latter half of the 19th century was the state’s contribution to the building of new fishing harbours and the improving of older ones. Even though the Norwegian coast is well endowed with natural harbours, the waves and winds are in many cases so difficult that protective measures are needed in the form of breakwaters, deepening of entrance channels and sheltered basins, building of jetties and the like.

In 1900 there were 90,000 fishermen with 100,000 boats, 80 per cent of which had fewer than four pairs of oars, and only 3,500 had a deck. There were no more than 100 steam fishing boats, as against thousands in countries like Great Britain. Dependence on oars and sails required safe harbours near to the fishing grounds. As the fishing fleet was rapidly motorized after 1905, demands on harbour facilities increased further still.

In the 150 years between 1840 and 1990 the State Harbour Authority invested enormous sums in 750 fishing harbours along the Norwegian coast. Most facilities were of course in the counties of Rogaland, Møre og Romsdal, Nordland, and Finnmark, where most of the fish was landed. Fishermen also benefitted from the public commercial harbours, which were built up from the 1880s onward in the coastal towns to handle the rapidly growing traffic of steamships that carried cargo, passengers, and mail to overseas, coastal, and local destinations.

The many long fjords and mountainous massifs such as Langfjella, the Romsdal Alps, and Dovre as well as the harsh winter climate of the highlands created difficulties for the construction of both roads and railways between different parts of the country and along the coast. The important Bergen Line (Bergensbanen) was first opened in 1909, the Sørland Line between Oslo and Stavanger was completed in 1944, and the Nordland Line from Trondheim to Bodø in 1962. As late as 1930 one could not drive farther than 30 kilometres from Bergen before reaching either the sea or the mountains. At the same time the town had 80-90 coastal steamers serving 700 destinations in all the fjord arms, channels, and inhabited islands in the counties of Hordaland and Sogn og Fjordane.

This special regional sea-based transport system was presumably the largest of its type in the world. The town’s own shipping line for long-distance commercial traffic, the Bergen Steamship Company (Det Bergenske Dampskibsselskab), was founded in 1851; by the time of the outbreak of the Second World War it had a fleet of 50 sea-going steam- or diesel-driven ships. They served all the harbours along the Norwegian coast, the most important ports on the North Sea and the Baltic, and a few cities even farther away.

Bergen was the central hub of the fine-meshed, complex network of steamer routes. Until the 1960s the situation was largely similar in the other coastal towns that functioned as regional or county junctions, with variations according to differences in the towns’ size and location. By far the majority of the approximately 65 Norwegian towns were located on the coast. Of the eight inland towns, only Hamar, Kongsberg, and Gjøvik were of any size.

Most of the coastal towns had grown up round a good natural harbour as a collection point and shipping station for products from the fishing industry, forestry, and mining. The largest of them became also ports of entry and distribution centres for many sorts of imported goods needed by a small population so far north in Europe: grain, salt, hemp, groceries, and much else besides. Taking into consideration that overland communications and economic integration were so poorly developed, a well-known Norwegian historian has called Norway up to 1860/70 "a periphery without a centre".

Individual coastal towns often had closer economic and cultural connections with their most important trading centres abroad than with their country’s own capital city Kristiania (renamed Olso in 1925). This urban pattern, together with the difficult inland topography, made the sea and coastal waters the country’s most important transport arteries for passengers, mail, and freight until relatively recent times. In other European countries most domestic freight was transported along inland routes: barges on rivers and canals, railways, and more recently lorries using a steadily more efficient network of roads and motorways.

As already mentioned, traffic along the coast is as old as the country itself. When the new Norwegian state was established in 1814, one of its first tasks was to prepare the groundwork for the most efficient and safest ship traffic along the inner seaways, in the fjords, and in the seaward approaches to the towns. The state-run Directorate of Canals, Ports, and Lighthouses was established as early as 1811. A few decades later it was split into three separate governmental services: the Director of Lighthouses in 1841; the Director of Canals and the State Port Authority in 1846.

The oldest lighthouse in Norway was built at Lindesnes in 1656. Three new lighthouses were set up with private means in the 18th century, and the large-scale state-sponsored building of stone and iron-frame lighthouses started in the 1830s. Some hundred years later there were 136 lighthouses and one lightship, all manned. Shipping lanes were provided with 2,500 sector lights, more than 60 light and sound buoys, 90 foghorn stations, and 12,000 fixed and 2,000 floating beacons.

Together with the 60 commercial ports and the many hundreds of fishing ports, this constituted a formidable technical infrastructure – "National Route No. 1". Its development was an major part of the state’s organising of sea-based industry and an important contribution to nation-building. The Pilotage Authority (Losvesen) and the Maritime Survey (Sjøkartverk) are also a part of this development. The obligation to provide pilotage into and out of major ports dates from the 16th century. From 1725 all ships going to or coming from abroad had to have a pilot. The modern Pilotage Law was promulgated in 1824, but for a long time pilots had to compete among themselves for assignments and provide their own boats.

Picture 2: The brig "Leon" was built in Larvik in 1880 for a shipping company in Arendal, which at the time was Norway’s greatest seafaring town. After 1900 the ship was sold first to a company in Kragerø, then to Solum, and lastly to Porsgrunn. Under a voyage with coal from Great Britain to Porsgrunn in autumn 1915 it sprang a leak and sank in the North Sea.
<= Previous page Next page =>