Norway is a kingdom of mountains and deeply carved fjords. At the head of Oslo Fjord is the county’s capital city. Unlike London or Paris, Oslo does not have a large river flowing through it. But it has the Akerselva, (Aker River) a creek whose fast flowing current was harnessed by industries, contributing to the city’s growth over the centuries.
The above 1926 image of the Oslo Steel Works shows the Akerselva flowing past the factories on its way to the sea. since the 1980s, most of the stream’s course has been cleaned up and lined with parks, except for the last quarter mile where it is hidden in a tunnel, as it flows beneath Oslo’s Central Station.
Where it Flows
In this 1901 map, the city is known as Cristiania, and the Akerselva is highlighted, flowing to the east of the city center. The largest green space within the city is the royal palace, used on occasion by Swedish kings until Norway’s independence in 1905, when parliament chose a new king for the country.
The river’s history is a long one. In the pagan Viking period it was called Frysja, a name likely derived from the verb frusa “froth,” in reference to the many waterfalls in the river, or the word frusa for “frozen” in reference to its cold water. Its present name refers to a collection of farms by a river. This alternative name also dates to the Viking period.
Industries to Office Space
The Akerselva flows for eight miles from the Maridalsvannet lake to the city’s fjord. It passes through 23 waterfalls, giving Oslo more waterfalls than any other city in Europe. In the Americas, the city with the most waterfalls within its borders is Hamilton, Ontario, a city worthy of a future blog post.
In the second half of the 19th century, textile, paper, and steel mills were built along the water’s edge, using the speed of the water to power turbines and sawmills.
Oslo was at once exciting and depressing as thousands of rural and young Norwegians moved here for work, finding themselves in the midst of a growing city, working long hours in unsafe conditions.
Their memory is preserved in the Ellen Jacobsen sculpture Factory Girls, installed on the Beyer Bridge in 1986. But long before this work, the Akerselva inspired local artists including the great Edvard Munch, who lived near the river and painted its surroundings, including “Aker River opposite Grünerløkka” in 1882. His sister Inger Munch, photographed scenes along the Aker River, capturing its industrial appearance.
What in German translates to as fatherland, in Norwegian means water land, the downtown neighborhood near the river’s mouth. As late as 1953, the factories were belching dark clouds from their smokestacks as barges transported goods in its Vaterland section, as seen in the video below.
In the 1965 aerial below, the smokestacks are gone and the river appears calm. The tracks crossing the Akerselva lead into the Central Station. By 1980, the station was no longer a terminal, with the completion of the Oslo Tunnel that extended the tracks to the city’s western side. The station received additional tracks and the result was a 250 meter culvert that plunged the river into darkness beneath the trains.
Before its disappearance into the culvert, the Akerselva is lined by Vaterland Park, a pleasant green space amid the office towers. Beyond the culvert portal, a short elevated roadway, Nylandsveien runs above the buried stream, crossing the train tracks, and ending at the city’s harbor.
Oslo Opera House
Sydney, Australia is not the only major city with an opera house on its harbor. The Akerselva reemerges in the Bjørvika neighborhood, a former seaport along the harbor that is being re-imagined as a hub of tourism, commerce and parks, akin to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and New York’s South Street Seaport. The centerpiece of the 21st century Bjørvika is the Oslo Opera House, designed by the celebrated Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta. It opened to the public in 2008.
In contrast to the South Street Seaport, which still has an elevated highway following the shoreline, Bjorvika’s waterfront highways were removed with the traffic diverted beneath the harbor through a shortcut tunnel.
Then and Now
I found the before-and-after photos while doing a Google Images search but could not find its author. The positioning of the present-day scene says so much about the changes of the past half century on the Akerselva. Where small boats moored there is now a park. Daylighting of the 250 meter culvert section of the river is unlikely at this time on the account of the rail yard approaching Central Station.
At the same time, the construction of parks along the river’s course from its source to Vaterland Park has transformed the Akerselva into a blue and green corridor used by joggers, bikers, canoeists, residents, and visitors, connecting neighborhoods to each other and giving Oslo a greater awareness of its long history.
Books on the Akerselva
The pride of Oslo, this river has been the subject of a few historical guides. Here’s a sampling. Click on the books above for details. My proficiency in Norwegian is nearly nonexistent, but these books offer plenty of images and maps that I’ve found helpful in my research. Overall, I found the Akerselva to be very similar to the Bronx River as it originates in a lake that holds the city’s drinking water supply, has former mills along its course, and is now followed by a linear park almost entirely from source to mouth.
In the News:
Curbed reports on the curious history of Ramblersville, a waterfront neighobrhood in Queens on Hawtree Creek.
Curbed also has the history and photos of Udalls Cove and Gabler’s Creek in Queens by Nathan Kensinger.
Queens Chronicle reports on delays in the city’s acquisition of a private undeveloped lots abutting the Udalls Cove Preserve.
DNAinfo reports on a photo exhibit on Staten Island documenting the transformation of Freshkills Park from a landfill into a park.
NY Daily News reports on the discovery of hundreds of bags containing a black substance in Newtown Creek.