1879: travel in Iceland

ponies fording a river from girl's guide

Photo courtesy of: http://blessiblog.blogspot.ca/2012/11/have-icelandic-will-travel.html

How hard was it for your ancestors to get from their farm to the harbour where they would meet the ship that would take them on the first leg of their journey to Amerika?

Rodwell was in Iceland, the summer of 1879. He describes his trip. He’s traveling at the same time as some of our ancestors were making their trip over the mountain passes, through the lava fields, past the glacier covered mountains, over the bogs. Unfortunately, I don’t have a diary from my Great Grandparents describing their journey. However, I have Rodwell’s report in Nature.

This is what he says:

Climate.—The presence of jokulls covered with perpetual snow; of the Gulf Stream, and of an arctic current, tend to make the climate of Iceland very variable and subject to sudden changes. On August 20, when we left Kalmanstunga, in the centre of the island, the sun was as hot as during an English mid-August day; later in the day as we passed the Geitlands jokull a piercing icy wind bore down upon us with great force, and again towards evening when we entered the northern end of the Thingvellir valley it was warm and summer-like. During the course of that day we experienced a difference of more than 100 degrees F. Again on August 30, at Eyrarbakki, on the south coast….a crust of ice had formed on all exposed water. At 10 A.M. a bright hot August sun was shining and the air was still. At 3 P.M. rain and violent wind occurred, and towards evening, again cleared up. Frequently the wind drops suddenly and a complete change of weather may take place in the course of a few hours. The summer has been unusually dry and warm, but on August 31 the weather began to break up. On that day we travelled from Eyrarbakki to Reykjavik by way of Rekir (in Olfusahreppr), and we shall never forget the difficulties of crossing the Helliskard, a low spur of the mountain Hengill. The whole tract is either the living palagonite rock, or detached fragments heaped together in confusion. Hence it is only possible to proceed at a slow (sic)space. A violent wind swept over the face of the mountain, driving the rain in almost horizontal sheets along the surface. From time to time mists floated over the mountain, and it was bitterly cold.”

Did you know that? Did you know that this was what your lang lang amma braved? To come to Amerika so that her children and children’s children could have a better life? That your lang lang afi endured?

What he describes is not winter. It is August. “Piercing icy wind with great force” a difference in temperature in one day of a hundred degrees. Rain and violent wind. The travelling from Eyrarbakki to Helliskard is so hard that he says he will never forget it. The wind drove rain in “almost horizontal sheets”. It “was bitterly cold.”

It wasn’t just adults that endured this type of trip to the harbour. It also was children. In my family there were daughters. Everyone would have been on horseback. Luggage on horseback. Riding into driving, horizontal rain. Battered by wind. Unable to go any faster.

Why do you celebrate Islendingadagurinn? Why do you go to Thorrablots? Why have you got a name plate in Icelandic in your yard? Why do you walk to the rock? Why do you eat vinarterta?

I hope you do them because you are proud of your Icelandic ancestors, because you enjoy the events and the food. I hope, though, you take time to think about a line of Icelandic horses with people hunched against wind and rain, following the tracks cut deep into the ground from centuries of use. Because that’s why you and I are here.

Report on Iceland: 1879, Nature

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When I am researching a subject, the strangest bits of debris turn up, sort of like driftwood on the beach, not surprisingly there but still a surprise. I stumbled across a copy of Nature Magazine, 1879 and lo and behold, there was a report on conditions in Iceland.

I was most pleased to see the report because 1879 is right in the thick of the emigration from Iceland to Amerika. To stay or to leave was not only a difficult choice for many because it would mean leaving everything they knew behind for an uncertain future, leaving family behind, leaving farms that may have been where their people had lived for centuries.

One of the arguments for not leaving was that conditions in Iceland were improving. However, I’ve never come across any precise description of these improving conditions. Until, that is, I discovered Nature, 1879. There are a number of parts to the report but the one I immediately was drawn to was the following:

“Improvements in Iceland.—During the year which has elapsed since we last visited Iceland, several very marked improvements have been set on foot. In no respect is this more conspicuous than in the case of the roads. A few years ago a writer made an assertion “there are no roads in Iceland.” At the present time road-making is making great progress, and many scores of miles of excellent roads exist. Of course we mean such roads as alone are possible, without great expenditure of money and labour, in a country which is one vast volcano. Driving roads are impossible, but excellent pony roads are being constructed, and will greatly facilitate despatch of business and intercommunication. The first bridge in Iceland is about to be commenced. It will cross the Olfusa, and materially help to establish a better communication between the east and the west. A second bridge is to be thrown across the Thjorsa. The first lighhouse in the island was erected a year ago, and the light-dues paid by ships at the port of Reykjavik have already almost paid for its construction. There is some talk of founding a school of farming at Modrudalr in the north- west, and a law school in Reykjavik, where a divinity school and a a medical school already exist. In Reykjavik new houses are being built; there is a proposition on foot to build an hotel, and a new house for the Althing, which now holds its biennial meetings in the Latin school. Hafnafjord and Eyrarbakki are flourishing little ports; Akureryri does a fair trade in shark liver oil, and in ponies; and the Krisuvik sulphur mines appear to be in good working order and to yield a rich product.
Reykjavik, September 2 G. F. RODWELL

My thanks, these many years later, to G.F. Rodwell for his report. Think of the importance of what he says. Travel, every writer says, is difficult and dangerous. People die because of the weather, they drown crossing rivers, they suffocate in bogs, they fall from their horses. There are no roads, just tracks made by horses over the centuries, tracks often cut so deep that they are often filled with water. Travel, even in summer, and Rodwell gives a detailed account of his summer travel, is often painfully slow and filled with hardship. Yet, there, right at the top of improvements is that the pony tracks are being improved. Not roads for wheeled vehicles. That will have to wait but in this land of lava and morass an improved pony track is a blessing.

Not only that but a bridge is going to be built. The first in Iceland and a second one is being planned. Imagine what that means. No more having to ride horses through rivers dangerous with unpredictable bottoms, glacial debris that can break a horse’s leg, knock it over, ice from glaciers, no getting soaking wet with no place to dry out.

Not only that but a lighthouse has been built the year before. It seems unimaginable in a country like Iceland that there have not been lighthouses for hundreds of years. Iceland is an island with a hostile coast. Safe travel by ship is critical and yet there have been no lighthouses. Now, a lighthouse has been built. As an aside, look at what Rodwell has to say about his visit to the lighthouse keeper. Rodwell is the first visitor during the entire year. How is that for living in isolation. It is, for us, with our highways and cars and buses and trains and planes nearly impossible to imagine living in such isolation.

In Reykjavik, new houses are being built. Not only that but there’s going to be a new building for the Althing. There’s talk of founding a school of agriculture. These are events as foundation shaking as an earthquake. Iceland has depended on agriculture for survival since its founding and, yet, there has been no school of agriculture. It seems impossible to believe but, now, in 1879, enough has changed in the way people think for such an idea to appear. Iceland is poor and that limits everything but poverty can often be overcome if you can just change the system. The proof of that is in Rodwell’s report. Only a year has passed and that first lighthouse has nearly been paid for by dues charged to ships. The money was there. The way of thinking had to be changed.

Yes, there are changes happening in Iceland in 1879 but the biggest change of all is that the way of thinking has begun to change. First you have to imagine something like roads, bridges, lighthouses, before you can build them. In Rodwell’s report we see the beginning of the possible, of what could be but those changes would be slow coming and would make little difference to our people who chose to emigrate. They needed change now, in 1872 and 1873 and, perhaps, it was their leaving forced those who stayed, especially the wealthy landowners, to grudgingly accept that change was necessary.