For me, Odda is a small, industrial town close to lots of beautiful places. But Odda itself is not exactly beautiful; the large factories overshadow the small town. The Netflix series Ragnarok used Odda as its setting to critique the heavy industry in the town. Odda is on the first day of my Ultimate Norwegian Roadtrip, so I took the time to read up on the town. And boy, the history of Odda is fascinating.
I’ve put together a summary of my History of Odda notes for this article. I am a tour guide and not a historian, so this article is a collection of my notes. I have included a list of resources at the bottom of this article.
Here’s the history of Odda.
The Early Years
The name ‘Odda’ comes from an old farm that stood close to where the Odda Church is today. At the time, churches are on the largest farms; this is a sign of wealth. Until the 19th century, Odda was a small farming community. In 1801, there were 10 houses in Odda with a total population of 59.
19th Century Tourism
Odda’s growth begins with tourism. In Norway, tourism starts in the 19th century. Many fjord towns (for example Flåm and Geiranger) emerged as legitimate towns and not just isolated communities. The same thing happened with Odda; cruise ships began making the journey into the Sørfjorden and docking in Odda. Once on land, farmers with horses greeted the tourists and took them to see nearby attractions.
Thanks to tourism, Odda grows rapidly. By 1900, the population had risen to 383. The Hotel Hardanger opens to accommodate the rise in tourists. Sadly, it burns down in a major fire in 1895; this is an event the Odda locals consider to be one of their most devastating. However, just 10 months later, a new Hotel Hardanger is standing.
Tourists in Odda
Who came to Odda? Many visitors were English, but there were also some celebrities. Most famous is the German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II. He vacationed in Norway all the time and visited Odda every year between 1891 and 1914. He gifted the town with its first hospital and many fire hydrants. Kaiser Wilhelm is famous throughout Norway because he is the one who helped to rebuild Ålesund after their devastating fire. Maybe he didn’t want the same thing to happen in Odda!
The new Odda Church is from in 1870, one year after the historic church is torn down. The old church is from 1250, but it was too small for the growing community. The new Odda Church seats 500 people.
Early Industrial Growth
Shortly after the cruise ships began coming to Odda, industrialists began to visit. They saw the potential of building industry here. After all, Odda has many waterfalls and watercourses that can produce electricity. Waterfall buyers (yes, that is a thing) at the time were travelling Norway to buy waterfalls. Most buyers came from overseas, and 75% of developed waterfalls are by foreigners. It’s important to note that Norway at the time is a poor country with little skills. The foreign companies didn’t keep it to themselves; they taught Norwegians how to do it. The same goes for the oil industry in the 1960s. The ice-free harbour only furthers interest in building up Odda.
Professor Albert Petersson came to Norway from Sweden to find a place to build a factory that produced carbide and cyanamide. Honestly, explaining what those are is beyond me, so you can click them to read about them. Anyway, he found Odda and waterfalls. The factory is built in record time and creates hundreds of new jobs. It is the largest in the world at the time. In 10 years, the population rises from 383 to 3077.
Most importantly, Odda Fabrikkane employs around 1000 people. The daily wage is 4-5 NOK for 10 hours of work, well above the standard salary for the time; a good suit costs 15 NOK. The company builds houses and apartments for its workers, some of which you can still see today.
Meanwhile, neighbouring Tyssedal is undergoing the same rapid growth. A hydropower plant is built within two years and begins supplying electricity on 4 May 1908. Odda is one of the first towns in Norway to get electric power for lights and simple appliances in 1913.
The Decline of Tourism
Of course, the rapid increase in industry causes an effect on tourism. What was once an idyllic, natural and clean destination for travellers is now overcrowded and polluted. Hotel Hardanger turns black from the emissions, and the smog covers the fjord. The hotel tries to sue the factory for damages, but it is not paid out until 1922. The hotel is already bankrupt by then.
Cruise ships continue to come to Odda until World War I, but they stay on the ship instead of the hotel.
World War I
More importantly, Odda grinds to a halt when World War I breaks out. While Norway remained neutral throughout the war, it had a huge impact on the industry in the country. 1000 men are fired in one day, and a couple of days later only 700 men are left in Odda. Also, Dr. Albert Petersson disappears; he is travelling to England on a ship when no one sees him fall overboard in the middle of the night.
The road between Odda and Tyssedal begins construction in 1916; they use mostly factory workers that are laid off.
It is not all bad for Odda, though. the Odda factories are producing calcium cyanamide, a chemical fertiliser. Until after World War I this was the chief alternative to nitrate fertiliser. It also serves as a raw material in chemical compositions, for example in the explosives.
Firstly, war and smoke have put a stop to tourism, and Odda has too many hotels. Most of them are empty all year round. As a result, Hotel Hardanger is sold to the municipality and converted into the town hall.
Secondly, the chemical industry in Odda is based on war production. After the war, there is a great deal of overproduction and large stocks. Odda Fabrikkane goes bankrupt and shuts down in 1921. In Tyssedal, the Nitriden factory – one of the world’s largest producers of crude aluminium – goes bankrupt and closes a couple of weeks later. 1000 people are unemployed as a result of these two factories closing.
Despite this, forced labour in the 1920s and 1930s leads to Odda getting 103km of new roads.
In 1924, the factories merge under the name Odda Smelteverk. They have the purpose of running factories and selling chemical and metallurgical products. Many of the unemployed get their jobs back, but it doesn’t last too long.
Five years later, the economic crisis of 1929 leads to record unemployment in Odda. In 1935, around 15% of all Norwegians depend on public poverty relief to make ends meet. In Odda, 900 people are unemployed. The huge unemployment makes the welfare expenses are too high and the municipality goes bankrupt in 1932.
World War II
The first indication of World War II coming to Odda was on 3 April 1940 (6 days before Germany invaded Norway). A German plane dropped a bomb on a pile of stones on the hillside, followed by more German planes dropping bombs to spread fear. One hits a house and crushes it, while another one hits a cafe.
Germans don’t arrive in Odda until the 15th of May, over one month after the initial invasion. At the first meeting of NS (the Nazi Party of Norway) in Odda, few people attend while hundreds protest outside. There is an active resistance movement in Odda throughout the war. On 1 March 1943 nine locals are executed at an internment camp in Oslo.
The Germans are drawn to Odda with its various factories, and they begin exploiting the aluminium factory as well as building their own. However, development is too slow and they abandon plans in 1943. They are building on agricultural land, and it is now destroyed.
Things are looking up for Odda in the 1950s. A new hospital, city hall and school are finished using taxes from the factories.
Moreover, in 1961, the road between Odda and Tyssedal is (finally) finished. In 1968 the European Highway 134 finally opens too – it is the oldest open winter road connection between east and west Norway.
In 1970, the population of Odda is 10,000. To make way for modern housing, historical buildings are torn down. This includes the historic Hotel Hardanger.
In the 1970s, more attention and care is being given to how much these factories are polluting. And boy, is Odda polluting.
It starts with the Norwegian state introducing a law that Norwegian companies must report their marine discharges. One factory in Odda alone dumps 600 tonnes of waste material per day into the fjord.
The Sørfjord is declared one of the most metal-polluted water areas in the world, and it is spreading into the Hardangerfjord.
The zinc factory begins the first purification measure. It builds a purification factory for mercury. Their method eventually becomes an important example of environmental technological innovation that reduces global pollution of mercury. Another plant builds mountain halls to store waste. By the end of the 1980s, emissions in the fjord are reduced by 99%.
Ways to reduce pollution are still ongoing in Odda, with new methods of recycling and reduction constantly developed.
Preserving the History of Odda
By the 1990s, the situation for Odda Smelteverk is not looking good. The factory goes bankrupt in 2002.
In the 1990s, the end of a factory in Odda does not mean huge unemployment. New industries are growing in Odda, and the dependence on factories is declining. Meanwhile, the history of Odda and its industry is important, so several books are written. A movement begins in Odda to get on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Most importantly, the council is for it but the locals oppose it. Odda Smelteverk is protected in 2011 as a national heritage site.
The Folgefonn Tunnel opened in 2002, allowing people to drive 11km under the glacier. This reduces travel time to Bergen dramatically.
In 2020, Odda merges with the neighbouring districts of Ullensvang and Jondal to become a new municipality called Ullensvang. Finally, in 2024, work is going to begin on a new and safer winter road between east and west Norway.
The history of Odda ends with it almost coming full circle. Today many people in Odda still rely on the factories for a living, but many people are now working in new fields, particularly medical and social services. However, tourism is rapidly growing in the region, thanks to the natural beauty that attracted tourists 170 years ago. The Odda Smelteverk is now a museum you can visit. Next time I get to Odda I’ll be sure to cover this fascinating part of the town.
In conclusion, you can read more about Odda today on my page Interesting Facts about Odda (click here).
Finally, visit my page with all articles about Odda by clicking here.
Resources about the history of Odda.
Kraft Museet, Industrialisation of Odda, http://www.nvim.no/the-industrial-history-of-odda/category603.html
Kraft Museet, Pioneering Industrial History, http://www.nvim.no/history/category602.html
Paul Torpey, Industrial Revolution, The Guardian (3 Oct 2007), https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2007/oct/03/norway.heritage
Kraft Museet, The Odda Factories 1906-1924, http://www.kraftmuseet.no/exploring-odda-s-old-industrial-site/the-odda-factories-1906-1924-article922-1042.html
Karsten Eitrheim, Endre Skaar, Nils Georg Brekke, Odda – the Industrial Town, Grind.no (6 Sept 2015), https://www.grind.no/en/hardanger/odda/odda-industrial-town
Axel Fohl & Rolf Hohmann, Taming the Waterfalls: Rjukan/Notodden & Odda/Tyssedal Industrial Heritage Sites, https://web.archive.org/web/20140222023754/http://www.riksantikvaren.no/filestore/Tamingthewaterfalls_AxelRolffinal.pdf
Store Norske Leksikon, Odda, https://snl.no/Odda_-_tidligere_kommune