Norway: A phoenix from the ashes

There are few religious symbols on display in the cavernous interior of the church in Røros, central Norway. Instead, it boasts the portraits of former mining industry bigwigs

By Caroline Bishop
Published 3 Dec 2013, 13:00 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 15:24 BST

The Røros Copper Company built this church in 1784 as a symbol of its wealth and power, says my guide, Lars. Back then, it was one of the most important and richest mining companies in Norway and it knew how to splash its cash. The church is the fifth biggest in Norway, is painted in the pointedly expensive pigment 'Prussian blue' and has gutters of sparkling copper. From its location at the top of the main street, it lords it over the town's 3,700 inhabitants as though it owns the place.

In fact, it did. The company practically invented the town, says Lars. Prior to 1644, there wasn't much here, in this isolated spot amid the low-lying mountains of Central Norway, where temperatures reach -50C in winter. Just forests and a smattering of the country's indigenous people, the Sami, who still herd reindeer in these parts.

But for over 300 years from 1644, the Røros Copper Company transformed this area into a thriving mining district with 35 mines and 12 refineries.

Given the beauty and tranquillity of the UNESCO-protected town today, it's hard to picture how it would have looked then. I wander through the quiet streets admiring the brightly painted 17th-century wooden houses. Most are russet-red or ochre — cheap pigments derived from the earth. But a few are white, an expensive colour indicating a wealthy family lived there — no doubt someone high up in the firm. The fashion for painting houses sprung up in the 1900s. Before that, in the company's heyday, the houses would have been naked pine, weathered dark brown by airborne soot from the smelting works.

That same smog would have caused sulphuric acid to rain from the sky, preventing the already heavily logged forests (used for fuel for the refineries) from re-growing. It would have settled in the lungs of the people, and caused a constant fug over the town.

As I climb the dark slag heaps for a view over the town, I can hardly fathom it. It's a bright autumn day and the now abundant birch trees on the hills are as colourful as the houses in the town. Grass grows liberally out of the sod used on the roofs of the old workers' houses, lending them comical hairdos. It's a peaceful scene, with none of the sounds and smells that the copperworks' presence would have brought.

There's no mining now. After burning down seven times, the town's smelting works burned for the last time in 1953, and is now a museum. The Røros Copper Company went bankrupt in 1977 due to rising production prices.

I can't say I'm sorry. What has grown from the ashes is uniquely beautiful, and now attracts one million visitors a year to stay in its painted houses and eat reindeer and moose in its restaurants. Most of its inhabitants are now artists, rather than miners. But with the slag heaps and that dominating church, sitting tall and proud on the hill, we're unlikely to forget its past. And that's as it should be — because without the Røros Copper Company, this very special town wouldn't exist at all.


Follow National Geographic Traveller (UK) on social media 


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved