Sweden: Once the "king of copper," now a tourist destination

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    Tourists dig Falun mine: the view, 230 feet down.
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A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

FALUN, SWEDEN – While much of the globe struggles with recession, tourists continue to flock to a now-defunct mine that was once the globe’s “king of copper.”

“July visits are up at least 10 percent,” said spokeswoman Anna-Lena Grusell last month, noting 250,000 visitors come yearly.

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According to legend, the mine began around AD 700, when an adventurous goat returned home with reddish horns and led its keeper to discover copper, a whole mountain of it. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Stora Kopparberget (Great Copper Mountain) reigned as the world’s largest copper producer.

In its heyday, as many as 1,200 workers labored underground, with the genius of Swedish engineer Christopher Polhem multiplying their efforts. In the late 17th century, Polhem developed a number of revolutionary mining systems, including one for lifting the ore from mines using a water wheel for power. By the 18th century, another byproduct of the mine was reddish-brown paint, still seen today on Swedish cottages and barns.

According to UNESCO, Falun’s mine “exercised a profound influence on mining technology in all parts of the world for two centuries.” In 2001, UNESCO named Stora Kopparberget a World Heritage Site, partly because much from its fabled past still exists, including a number of vintage mine­workers’ homes. (Production at the mine stopped in 1992.)

A tour brings visitors through a labyrinth of passages, a place where light shimmers off prisms of mineral deposits and working scenes from the past remain present. Tourists’ steps take them over flooring dating from the Middle Ages – transporting them to another era’s golden age.

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