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The Josva Copper Mine

Modern mining technology in Greenland 100 years ago
- a look at a pioneer mining operation in Southern Greenland

by Karsten Secher and Jørgen Burchardt


Click on each photo to greatly enlarge it

    Mining in Greenland has long been an important element in the exploitation of the country's natural resources, and the mining tradition extends far back in Greenland's history. The Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede actually reported the presence of graphite shortly after his arrival in 1721. Exploration for minerals continued in the 1700s and 1800s, although it was of course on an extremely modest scale in comparison with present standards. Exploitation of the mineral ores increased at the start of the 1900s, when the cryolite mine operated by Øresund Chemical Factories A/S in lvittuut was active in southern Greenland where there had been mining operations since 1854. An attempt to mine copper in the area had been made half a century previously, at the lnnatsiaq (Josvas) copper mine in 1852-56. Inadequately known quantities of ore, simple technology and a number of ship losses were significant reasons why the copper mine had to be abandoned at that time.

A new mining company

This 1912 photo of the tower over the Josva mine shaft shows a tipping wagon being pushed to the shaft.     This was the situation when the energetic engineer Marius Ib Nyeboe, manager of GMA (Grønlandsk Minedrifts Aktieselskab A/S), recommenced mining at the Josvas copper mine from 1907-14. GMA was active until 1925, and the sister company A/S Grønlandsk Grafit Compagni was formed in 1916, carrying out another mining activity in southern Greenland: the graphite mine Amitsoq near Nanortalik. Although both copper and graphite were well known in Greenland's economic geology, hitherto without great success, it was right here in the period before the First World War that industrialisation required serious quantities of copper and graphite for the rapid developments occurring in the use of electricity. It was also now possible to refine copper by electrolysis to an extremely high level of purity for electrical cables and similar uses.

    Mining in Greenland must, then, be organised from the ground up with the requisite plant and infrastructure, and the entire operation must be based on all necessary materials, supplies and fuel having to be transported to Greenland by sea. The necessary logistics and know-how were possessed by the engineer Nyeboe, and he was also an experienced, imaginative and competent technician for whom the latest technology was the route to efficiency and success. No sooner said than done. He proceeded to construct a mining industry in accordance with the most advanced technical principles.

    Although the smelting of crude ore also required extra fuel in the form of coal transported to Greenland, GMA decided after a few years of activity to construct a smelter at the mine. The gain in doing this was obvious as it was thus possible to save on the extensive ship transports with the heavy crude ore from Greenland to Europe - ship transports which with the technology and navigation of the time, were a sensitive and risky affair. The smelter was ready for use in 1911 and it was the first, and the only, one of its kind in Greenland

The Josva copper mine and smelter 1905-14

    The copper mine at Innatsiaq on the southern coast of Kobbermine Bugt (Copper Mine Bay) included the nearby Josva and Lillian mines. The name innatsiaq alludes to a place with steep cliffs, and the place is obviously a challenge for whoever wants to establish himself in terms of modern facilities. Difficult harbour and weather conditions with steep cliffs lying out towards the swells of Davis Strait, often together with low pressure weather with storms and rain from the Southwest, were the everyday environment. Apart from this, drift ice, in summer too, often packed the waters for long periods. From the beginning, it was an important precondition that a hydrographic survey could be made quickly. As early as 1911, a printed marine chart of the areas important to the company was available.

Preparing the infrastructure

A photo of the ruins of the Lillian mine in Greenland, built near the Josva mine in 1909-1910.     Although there was a natural contact with Ivittuut on some points, the manager Nyeboe quickly discovered that contact to the south with the administrative centre in Qaqortoq/Julianehåb could be strengthened if the traditional coastal route was improved. Motorboats and smaller cutters were forced to sail out towards the west through Nunarsuits Strait - Torsukattak and this resulted in an often choppy trip in strong swells in Davis Strait. Row boats and umiaks could use a route which was over 30 nautical miles shorter via Itilliastslaq in the inner eastern Alangorsuaq, a locality quite close to the copper mine. But this required that the boat be carried the almost 40 m over land! When work at the copper mine was well underway, a passage was dug, and in the summer of 1908 the first ship was able to sail through "Nyeboes Channel", where the former carrying site of Itilliastslaq was. The channel was of a size which allowed smaller boats to pass, and since then it has been a big help to navigation with small boats in southern Greenland.

    Another extremely important part of the infrastructure was the logistics, i.e. the options for transport of supplies to and from the site. The company was in no doubt about the significance of this functioning perfectly. As early as 1905, GMA had to charter the small steam bark, the S/S Expedit. Two motorboats were also vital nerves in daily navigation and for coastal trips and for geological surveys along the West Coast. For the long transports with supplies and the expected ore freight to Europe, GMA had acquired the steam ship S/S Danmark in 1909 from the newly completed "Denmark Expedition" to Northeast Greenland in 1906-08.

The importance of energy

    An efficient power supply to the mining village was naturally of decisive significance for success with mining and extraction in a corner of the world where all sources of energy had to be fetched from afar by ship. From the beginning, the plant was based on the most common power source of the time, the steam engine, which produced the compressed air that, via metres of pressurised hoses, provided power to the drills at all underground levels. A generator provided electricity, and it must have been an unusual. sight in the Greenland winter night to approach the Josva peninsula, lit up by electric street lights from light poles and house gables! Technological developments proceeded rapidly at this time, and in 1913 GMA installed a diesel machine to replace the steam engine. It was again possible to see that it was the newest technology, which was introduced into the mining village. It was only 15 years since the first diesel engine had seen the light of day. For comparison with all this, it is worth noting that at the cryolite mine in lvittuut, it was only in 1926 that electricity and the transition to diesel machines arrived! The Josva copper mine thus enjoyed the most modern form of mining operation.

The copper ore

    Geological surveys confirmed what was already known 50 years before, a so-called "ore lode", which consisted mainly of the copper-sulphur mineral bornite. The verdigris coloured copper mineral malachite was also present, but it was not significant for mining. However, it is a help when the ore has to be found because the colour quickly reveals the presence of copper. This was exactly the situation for the Greenlander Joshua, who found the first green copper-bearing stone at the place at the beginning of the 1800s.

    The Josva lode can best be described as an enormous steep wedge about 120 m from top to bottom, standing on its edge in the direction NE-SW. The top of the wedge's broad end measured only 32 cm! The lode was exposed on the surface of the land for almost 100 m. The reality for GMA was described from the beginning as something quite different. As the thickness was not known from the start, an optimistic but erroneous estimate was made that the lode became broader as it deepened. It was assumed that the average copper content of the ore was 20%. With the estimated quantities and the prevailing price of copper, it was calculated that at least the first ten years of operation would be profitable. Unfortunately both quantity and grade of the ore were very greatly exaggerated. This was acknowledged eight years later, and the mine was closed at a loss amounting to several million DKK in the money of that time.

Technological pioneering

A photo of the ruins of the Josva copper mine in Greenland.     If we look at mining technology and sales plans for the Josva mine, we have to note that it was a very professional piece of work, which followed the principles of equivalent activities in Europe. The ore was to be shipped with the company's own ships to buyers in Germany and Denmark. Until the smelter in the mining village was ready for operation in 191 1, the ore was sold as crude ore to Germany, cleaned of impurities only by hand sorting. When the smelter was established, the mine was able to supply a product consisting of over 20% metallic copper. In 1911, up to 500 tons of smelted copper were apparently supplied to NKT Trådvaerket's copper factory in Middelfart, where the company Nyeboe and Nissen had assisted NKT since 1904 in constructing a copper electrolysis factory. NKT was Denmark's only factory for electric cables and wires. There was thus an opportunity for the companies in Denmark and in Greenland to enter into joint planning.

    The mining itself proceeded from a steeply inclined 88 m deep shaft. Horizontal drifts and crosscuts were constructed from the shaft at five levels so that the ore could be extracted underground. A total of 490 tunnels were constructed which, even now, together with a number of vertical test shafts of up to 10 m, are a striking but dangerous testimony to the mining activity on the peninsula. The tunnels at the fourth level (at a depth of over 50 metres) were the longest with a total of 103 m. Underground mining was difficult, not least because here, 50 m under the surface of the sea, there were major problems with seepage of sea water.

    For the smelting to proceed effectively it was necessary, apart from large quantities of coal, to add various slag-forming materials. This flux could not be created in Greenland and it therefore had to be imported. The smelting process was based on mixing the crude ore with various fluxes, so that the process could finish with impure liquid copper, so-called matte, being tapped and cast in bars. Lime and pyrite were to be used as flux. The lime was imported from Denmark as Faxe lime and the pyrite came from one of the Scandinavian mines. All types of flux are still to be found in bunkers, always together, at a number of harbour localities in the area. Records indicate that from 1911-13, a total of 1295 tons of ore were smelted, equivalent to 93 tons of copper matte, from which over 19 tons of copper was extracted.

The mining community

A topographic map of the Josva mine village as it remained in 1986.     The mining village on Josva peninsula was established on exposed rock in accordance with the state of the art. The only purpose of the plant was to serve the mining company, for which reason GMA was alone in establishing the village. There were thus no buildings and functions from the public administration in Greenland, which at that time was exceptional. The state inspector, whose duties were surveying and supervision as well as policing the unofficial mining in lvittuut, was also required to inspect the mine in Innatsiaq.

    The Josva mining village consisted of 16 buildings spread over the peninsula, which had 250 m of roads and over half a km of tipper wagon tracks as the required transport network. Apart from the buildings belonging to the mining operation itself, mess rooms, living quarters, workshops, warehouses and a shop were the daily facilities for the total of up to 50 persons who worked at the place when activity peaked in 1913. Life in the mining village was built on the same model, also known from lvittuut. The mining company thus provided all essentials for its workers, who were all men. Only administrators could bring their families.

    The village plan was a logical distribution of buildings by function. Most buildings were of modular construction, which at that time was common and used at many places in Greenland. The oldest buildings were typical stone houses of sometimes attractively trimmed ashlars. The ashlars, fetched from a little quarry in the middle of the village, were also used to reinforce shafts and foundations. Concrete was also used frequently, typically with an aggregate of slag from the smelting oven. Many ruins of buildings and other constructions are still visible, and visitors quickly sense the pioneering spirit expressed in the area.

    The wooden houses were easy to dismantle and they could easily be moved. When the Josva adventure was over, individual houses were sold to Ivittuut, while many were moved to the Amitsoq graphite mine in southern Greenland. There is even an example of a house of 100 sq m, which was moved from Josva to Amitsoq in 1914, and from there further to Qaqortoq/Julianhåb during the Second World War. The building was reconstructed in 1942 as a gymnastics hall, and is actually still in use as a carpenter's workshop. after another move in the village in 1969.

Daily life in the mining village

    Only two administrators had families, wife and children, with them and all used the mine's mess rooms for everyday activities, festivals and special occasions such as Christmas and Shrovetide. From 1911, the mining company had its own coins in circulation, which were used to pay wages and which could be used in the village's shop. Food was based almost exclusively on goods from Denmark, from where live cows, pigs, goats and chickens and large quantities of salted food were supplied. Two Greenland hunters were employed at times to provide traditional Greenland food.

    The manager's residence, "The villa" at the top of Josva peninsula, was ready in 1910, and it commanded some respect for its construction with its 300 sq m in two storeys, equipped with the most modern furniture and fittings. But it is a part of its history that this impressive house was divided into two flats, which also accommodated the site manager and mine engineers with families.

Revenue from the pioneer exploitation

    The mine was closed in 1914 because there was obviously no more ore. Mining operations on the Josva peninsula were in abeyance for 10 years. Two mineworkers died while working and they were buried with dignity in Ivittuut, in the churchyard, where snow white cryolite gravel still highlights the imported gravestones. The miners were Nils Johansen from Kongsberg in Norway, who died on 25 August 1909, and the Dane H.C. Christensen, who died on 21 May 1914.

    The result of 10 years of mining can be summarised thus: 2252 tons of copper ore were mined, yielding little more than a mere 60 tons of copper, As a minor bonus, over 50 kg of silver and half a kg of gold were also extracted. Hardly more than a couple of hundred tons of ore now remain. Recent geological surveys have, however, shown that there re other copper-bearing ores in the area.

    The situation today is probably that the area's copper reserves are too small for modern exploitation. However, there is some potential for gold throughout the area, but currently known maximum ore grades of 5 gm per ton gold are not enough to be economically viable.

    When the GMA adventure began in 1905, the subordinate share capital was DKK 315,000 (10% of which belonged to the government), When GMA with subsidiaries stopped its activities in Amitsoq, there was a deficit of approx. DKK 6 million in 1925 currency, two thirds of which was attributable to the copper mine. Technology and logistics functioned perfectly for GMA as things were in Greenland, and with the right geological conditions, this pioneering activity would also have been sustainable apart from being a textbook example of establishment of a new activity in Greenland.

One hundred years of mining in Greenland

    The exploitation of minerals in Greenland during GMA's period of mining activity experienced an upswing in the first half of the 1900s, which the colonial administration had hoped would continue. But only the contemporary cryolite mine in Ivittuut survived because, since I854, it had gradually developed profitably. This mine was only definitively closed in 1987. Greenland's government and later the Ministry for Greenland and the Ministry for Environment and Energy attempted several initiatives in the 1930s and in the years following the Second World War. From 1956-1963, a lead-zinc mine was operated at 'Mestersvig in eastern Greenland. The most important operation in recent times was, however, the Maarmorilik mine in western Greenland, where zinc, lead and silver ores were successfully extracted from 1973-90.

    Although both public and private bodies have been taking various initiatives to find and exploit Greenland's underground minerals, it is a fact that since 1990 there have been no mining operations in Greenland. GMA, under the management of Nyeboe, introduced modern mining to Greenland almost a hundred years ago, and showed that the difficult natural conditions could be tamed with modern technology. If there are crude ores of the right type and in sufficient quantities, a level of profitability may yet be achieved. At the turn of the millennium, the next Greenland mine is hopefully at the starting line - a gold mine at Nanortalik in southern Greenland, not far from the graphite mine at Amitsoq - which ironically enough was the end of the GMA adventure.






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Photographs and article were published in This is Greenland 2000-2001, © 2000-2001 by the Government of Greenland. Reprinted here with the express permission of the publisher.