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Lødingen: The Mecca of the telegraph

Lødingen telegraph station, the "old station", is one of the most stately objects on Telenor's cultural heritage conservation list.

Written by Marie Laland Ekeli for Telemuseet and Telenor Cultural Heritage

The exhibition ended in 2024.

- The telegraph history here is very special, promises Kyrre Bjugn* (89), and invites you to a tour of the old station in Lødingen. Meeting Kyrre is like an encounter with living telehistory.

He greets us in the doorway, leaning against a cane because his health has begun to fail, but with a clear look and a handshake that is firmer than most people's.

Kyrre Bjugn is a ring fox in Telenor and one of the pensioners who is still on the company's payroll. Today he has driven the 500 meters from home to show off at the station, and tell about what was popularly called the "Mecca of telegraphers". At the beginning of the last century, Lødingen telegraph station was the main center for all telecommunications in northern Norway. All telegrams from Bodø, Vadsø, Hammerfest, Tromsø and Vesterålen had to stop by the white log house at Tjeldsund in the Vestfjorden before being forwarded. And there were not a few messages in question: in 1917 over 2 million telegrams were sent from here. In old black-and-white photographs, corseted female telegraphers sit bent behind polished Morse machines - like a patch of refined civilization in the middle of the barren Nordic nature. But what was it really like to work here in Lødingen? And what role did the telegraph station play for the village? Is it true that there were as many women as men working in the company?

Kyrre will tell.

With steady steps, he points into the impressive Swiss villa. He has his private archive with him; a red binder filled to bursting point with anecdotes, minutes, photos and correspondence. For the next four hours, Kyrre will entertain with detailed knowledge of the history of telegraphy in general, and the Lødingen telegraph station in particular.

- What Kyrre doesn't know isn't worth knowing, says Bjørnar Pedersen, manager and caretaker of the house.

He too has worked at Telenor all his life. - Bjørnar is a blessed man, says Kyrre.

- I waited for twenty years for someone to take over from me.

Now I will be 89, and you see how my health is. Then Bjørnar appeared. So I'm so happy for him that I can't say it. They have known each other for years, ever since Bjørnar as a sixteen-year-old rode around Lødingen on a tuned moped.

How did they get to know each other?

Bjørnar smiles: - We lived here in Lødingen telegraph station at the same time, Kyrre upstairs with his family, and I in a dormitory in the attic. Once I had a visit from the boys, Kyrre counted 14 pairs of shoes outside my room.

It started with the Lofoten line...

Private memories mix with memories from Norwegian telehistory as we enter what has been the Los - and Telemuseum since 1995.

Half of the first floor is dedicated to the pilot profession, the rest deals with the district's telecommunications history. In the middle between the two displays is a table with greased rolls. - Take the cups in the right-hand cabinet, says Kyrre, when Bjørnar goes to get the crockery.

Eldstemann is in every way on home soil, and before we have finished our coffee he begins to tell: - To understand the origins of the Lødingen telegraph station, we have to start from the Lofoten line, he says.

- During the Lofoten fishing in 1859-60, it was calculated that a telegraph line up here would increase the catch by 25 percent.

Because a fisherman in the west of Lofoten did not know what was going on in the east of Lofoten, and vice versa. The politicians bit on that argument, and allocated money to a local line in Lofoten. During five months in 1861, they stretched 17 miles of telegraph line, from Brettesnes to Sørvågen. Along the way, small telegraph stations were established in local fishing villages. - 17 miles in 5 months, there were enterprising people?

- Yes, but the workers who were hired from Lofoten ran away after a couple of days.

Do you know why? - No?

- They were not used to going to pay. They were fishermen!

A weather owner with some pretty daughters

Such detours make it fun to listen to Kyrre.
A subject such as telecommunications can, truth be told, be quite dry and difficult to access. Not when Kyrre tells. With infectious enthusiasm, the old man turns facts about technical and industrial heritage into living history. For him, it is about people's lives and living conditions. Therefore, the answer to why there was a telegraph station in Lødingen can be about a weather owner with some beautiful daughters: - In 1868 the Lofot line was connected to the main network for Norway, and the first telegraph station was added to Kjeøy.

Herring fisherman Roness had a house there that had been transported from Bergen. (After the big fire, as we know, the town was closed to the wall.) It is a bit uncertain why the Telegraph Service looked around for a new location, but after a few years at Kjeøy they looked west and east. On Offersøy in the west there lived a weather owner who supposedly had some pretty daughters. The weather owner didn't want these telegraph operators near his daughters. Thus they turned their eyes to the east, to Lødingen. And in June 1875, a telegraph station was established here. - In this house?

- No, they rented premises from a trader who had established himself in the harbour, Arentz Schøning.

A local community is emerging

The business grew, and the telegraph station soon needed something of its own.
After all, Lødingen had become the telegraph inspectorate in Northern Norway, after inspector Bødtker Lie moved from Tromsø in 1875. - I use to say that Lødingen won and Tromsø lost, Kyrre smiles happily.
In 1895, the new station was completed;

two spacious floors, plus attic and basement. On the first floor there was a telegraph station with dispatch, Morse hall, Wheatstone hall and Simens hall, on the floor above lived the inspector and his family. In the attic were dormitories for the employees. - And then there were barns on the other side of the yard, says Kyrre.

- Did they have animals?

- What do you think?

They had to have milk! Not only animals came to Lødingen.
Despite gloomy predictions from one of the first inspectors ("The desolate and lonely place, surrounded by stretches of marsh and rocky expanses is not very attractive to young telegraph operators"), the telegraph business constantly lured new work groups to the village. - In 1865, not many people lived here, only the priest, the lessee and those who belonged to the vicarage.
When the Televerket came, there was a need for craftsmen, and more. Here were shoemakers, here were tailors, here were stoneworkers, says Kyrre. - The telegraph station had become a cornerstone company?
- Yes, that was the very basis for the development of Lødingen.

Enterprising northerners

And the foundation for the telegraph station?
It was, of course, the teletechnical development, which really accelerated in the middle of the 19th century. In 1837 Samuel Morse developed the Morse code, and in 1895 the Italian Marconi invented wireless telegraphy. Northern Norway was in no way lagging behind, neither in a Norwegian nor international context. The second wireless civilian connection in Northern Europe was established between Røst and Sørvågen in Lofoten in 1906, across the dreaded Moskestraumen. - A telegraph operator called Øwre wanted to see if it worked, and it did! But they didn't have a transmitter on Røst, so you had to row 60 kilometers back in a boat to tell them that the experiment was successful. When the rower saw people on Sørvågen, he stood up in the boat and shouted: "We heard it, we heard it!"

Another example of progress-friendly northerners can be found in Kyrre even further north:

- The first telegram in the world was sent in 1844, between Baltimore and Washington.

Just 26 years later, in 1870, we had telegraph lines as far as Vardø. - That says something about how quickly people realized the usefulness of telegraphy up here?

- Yes.

That's when eternity set in. - It must have been terribly new and exciting what happened right here, says Bjørnar thoughtfully.

As curator of the exhibition, he is constantly reminded of the rapid development in telecommunications – for example, when schoolchildren appear who do not understand the point of wires in the telephone. - Many times I have thought about the first telephone lines, and messages sent via Morse code. I was in Tromsø in 1990-91 at a large congress with scientists from all over the world. There were some Japanese participants who were supposed to have something called an "internet line". On the internet line, they could check their mailboxes in Japan. It sounded really strange. How on earth could they sit in Tromsø and look in a post box in Japan? We didn't understand. Presumably, people had the same feeling when the first telegrams went out from here.

"The decline into melancholy and hypochondria"

At one point, Lødingen was number three in relation to the number of dispatched telegrams in Norway.
But, points out Kyrre: - It was mostly intermediary traffic.

Because the signals from the northern lines did not reach further than Lødingen, they had to be relayed from here. - All communication in Northern Norway went through this room, says Bjørnar, and tilts his head towards the green-painted room called "Circus".

Up to 36 people worked here at the same time. The room bears the stamp of activity. In several places there are deep pits in the solid timber planks, from heel irons that have been rubbed into the floor. - How was it to work here?

- It was probably nice, Kyrre thinks.

- Down in Oslo it was said that the telegraph operators in Lødingen "easily fell into melancholy and hypochondria".
Well. Telegraph inspector Strømsted came here in 1896, and did not travel further until 1931. He could not have fallen into melancholy and hypochondria. Kyrre points to a cardboard figure of a uniformed man with a tight moustache.

- By the way, a great personality on site.

So they can easily say in Oslo that people fell into melancholy and hypochondria, but the history of the telegraph at Lødingen is completely unique. - What are you thinking about then?

- The activity! That they made things up!

Like that time in 1904 when they were going to set up some cabins, and got the confirmants in Lødingen to transport materials in exchange for juice and waffles. Or when three of the assistants were going to pick mullets on a nearby island, but lost the boat and had to sleep outside in the rain. Or all the talk that came out of the "story about the troublesome stove", described in detail in the correspondence between the fair committee and house owner Schøning - an exchange of letters Kyrre has of course taken care of.

- And if they had nothing else to do, they went downstairs and practiced with the key.
It is said that you could tell if a telegraphist had been in Lødingen. They had their own rhythm on the Morse code. Eventually, Lødingen became a place all young telegraphers should have visited.

According to Kyrre, it made for good conversation. - It looks rather stately in the old pictures?

- Yes, it was probably a bit crazy here, Bjørnar thinks.

- If you were an employee of the Telegrafværket, you were a professional.

Then you were something, Kyrre nods. - Not least because you were employed by the state.

Security came with it. - Wasn't there a bit of snobbery attached to the place too?

Bjørnar looks questioningly at Kyrre. - They had nice garden parties in the park down here, where they played cricket?

- Yes, that was enough, admits Kyrre.

- But that sort of thing was over when we got here. Anyway, I come from a working-class family. That doesn't bite me.

Women's workplace

The daughter of telegraph inspector Strømsted, who has also become a cardboard figure in the museum exhibition, does not back down from her father when it comes to harsh authority.

With a steady gaze and folded arms, the young telegraphist reminds of equality advocates in the English suffragette movement. Kyrre confirms that yes, Telenor (Det Norske Telegrafvæsen) was one of the first workplaces for women: - The first four telegraph operators in Norway were civil servants who took telegraph training, in 1854. After that time, two women came, in the late 1850s. In Lødingen, there were mostly only women, says Kyrre.

The first women to be employed by Telenor (Den norske Statstelegraf) were the sisters Nielsine and Martine Breda from Kristiansand. It happened in 1858. Early on, Telenor was an important workplace for women, but should not brag too much about the company's innovative equality policy. In a letter to the ministry, telegraph director Carsten Tank Nielsen writes: "According to the circumstances, female telegraphers would be satisfied with a lower salary than men"

Kyrre entered the company by chance. As the son of a fisherman from Bø at the far end of Vesterålen, it was not a foregone conclusion that he would end up at Telenor, but in 1949 - 50 he took "the ordinary education" at Kirkegata 9 in Oslo. After a few years of mast climbing in Finnmark, he ended up in an administrative position in Lødingen in 1963.

- I plunged straight into a worse interesting property case, he says eagerly.

The attached plot was to be returned from Telenor (Telegraph Agency) to the rectory, a process which involved complicated mapping of the property and border crossings. - We didn't finish the case until the late 1970s, he says.

- And every time I wondered about something, I went to the books.

I always found more than I was looking for. Interest in telehistory was awakened. Eventually, people approached Kyrre with questions about everything from the telegraph station, to relatives and local communities. And what Kyrre doesn't have in his head, he finds in the books that are neatly stacked in the office he still manages in the attic. Here are boxes upon boxes of papers, collected over a long life.

End of the telegraph station

In 1936, operations at Gammelstasjonen came to a complete halt.

It is the classic story of new technology making old jobs redundant. We're getting used to it now. In Lødingen in the 1930s, it was a disaster. - The new technique meant that telegrams could be sent over longer distances.

You could send from Tromsø to Trondheim, from Hammerfest to Trondheim, from Svolvær to Trondheim. There was no longer a need for mediating traffic here at the site. So they didn't need that many people either, says Kyrre. - Telegraph manager Kjeldsø himself sat on the board, and it is he who penned the complaint against the Telegraph Agency: That they could tear this society apart.

People had built houses, bank loans were the culprits. What were they going to do for a living when the job stopped? But the future did not stop.

Not only could telegrams be sent over great distances, people soon stopped sending telegrams altogether. The phone took over. Remaining operations moved to Lødingen station - and administration building, called Messa, and Gammelstasjonen became housing for the employees - including Kyrre and his family with children, and Bjørnar, who had a father in the Televerket. New room solutions and wallpapered plasterboard changed the house from a workplace to a home, and that's how it was until the beginning of the 90s. Telenor then decided that the station should be renovated and returned to its original style. - That's when they found these lovely mouldings, says Kyrre, and leans the log against some wide, carved skirting boards.

- And brought out the original panel. Of course it cost money, but if it hadn't been done then, it would never have been done.

He looks around the room. It is filled with relics from another time, and a subject that no longer exists. Kyrre knows that things are transitory, and that history must be told to be kept alive. Only then can we learn from the past. The old man takes his stick. He has done his part.


* Kyrre Bjugn died in 2018.

Sources:

  • "Telehistorikk fra Lødingen" by Kyrre Bjugn, printed in Yearbook for Lødingen 1991, published by the Lødingen local history association.

  • Historic lines - Conservation plan for Telenor's buildings and installations.

  • Former websites of the Telemuseet

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