Mine, All Mine! The Underground World of Sala Silver Mine
Text: Annika Hipple. This article was first published in RealScandinavia.com
Deep underground at the Sala Silver Mine, my guide, Marcus, begins to sing. I close my eyes as the words of the psalm reverberate around me in the appropriately named Echo Chamber. There’s no other sound except this single voice bouncing off the soaring stone walls, 155 meters (more than 500 feet) beneath the surface. It’s unexpected and altogether magical.
Sweden’s most important silver mine of all time, Sala Silver Mine produced about 450 tons of silver, along with 36,000 tons of lead over the course of its lifetime. It’s now a historic site that provides a fascinating glimpse of an underground world and the industry that grew up around it. The Echo Chamber is one of the highlights of the 155-meter level, the deeper of the two levels that can be visited in the mine. The other is at 60 meters and is accessed by stairs and walkways. (Combination tours of both levels are also available.)
After the notes have died away, I open my eyes to a world that’s not much brighter than the one behind my closed eyelids, the darkness broken only by discreet lighting along the walls. Marcus tells me that the echo here can last as long as 22 seconds.
We continue on through rough-hewn, winding passages that suddenly open up into cathedral-like spaces. Much of the 155-meter level is covered by a lake named in honor of Queen Christina, created during the 17th century when a system of waterways was constructed and pumps installed to enable mining as deep as 260 meters. Pumps are still used to keep the water level constant, and divers are gradually exploring the underwater portions of the mine, where artifacts such as wagons, shoes, and porcelain have been found.
Small-scale silver mining in Sala began as early as the 12th century, a few kilometers from the current shafts. However, it was in the late 15th century that mining really got going here, and the height of production occurred during the 1530s and 1540s, when close to 3,500 kilograms of pure silver were extracted each year. The king at the time, Gustav Vasa, called the mine the “Treasury of the Kingdom” for the amount of silver produced — and the associated taxes paid to the state!
After a series of terrible collapses during the 17th century, German mining engineers were called in to make improvements, which resulted in changes in production techniques and the digging of several impressively deep shafts. To enter, we descended through one such shaft, Knektschaktet, now equipped with elevators. The trip from the surface to the 155-meter level takes about 4 1/2 minutes. As we exited the elevator, Marcus instructed us to knock three times on the stone wall to greet Gruvfrun, the legendary female spirit of the mine. It’s important to keep Gruvfrun happy by following her rules, which forbid swearing, whistling, or spitting inside her domain.
These days it’s not all mine shafts and tunnels, however. Two chambers are now heated and available for special events. Marcus shows me the Victoria Chamber — named for the Crown Princess, who inaugurated it in 2008 — whose amazing acoustics are showcased annually in an atmospheric Lucia celebration in December. Tickets typically sell out months in advance.
The mine’s other heated space, also at the 155-meter level, is the banqueting hall and adjacent Mine Suite, billed as the world’s deepest hotel room. Adventurous visitors can book an overnight stay in the suite, which consists of a pair of small heated (18ºC or approximately 64ºF) chambers with a double bed and two armchairs, and a small dining area where evening refreshments and breakfast are served. A simple toilet is available in the main mine tunnel, guests also have access to showers and a lounge area at a hostel above ground.
Silver production at Sala Silver Mine finally ceased in 1908, although a new mine, Bronäsgruvan, operated for a couple of decades in the mid-20th century. Since 1962 there has been no silver mining in Sala. Yet the mystique of the mine remains alongside its centuries of history, echoing into the present like the lingering notes of a song.