Not every gold rush changes the world like the California gold rush, the Yukon gold rush, or the Black Hills gold rush. Some simply change the history of a region and become part of the local character and lore. American examples of such include the Carolina gold rush and the Georgia gold rush. But for Finland and Russia, this gold rush is the Lapland gold rush, a rather obscure point of history for both of those countries, but one of immense significance and importance for gold hunters around the world.
The Lapland gold rush, also known as the Ivalo gold rush because it began in the village of Ivalo, which is currently in the Republic of Finland, but at the time was in the Grand Duchy of Finland, which was an autonomous region of the Russian Empire prior to its independence in 1917. The Ivalojoki River formed the core of where the gold rush took place.
The 16th Century Origins
The presence of gold in the region was known as far back as the 16th Century. Gold was discovered in Utsjoki, which is now the northernmost municipality in the entire country of Finland. This, of course, means that this is another one of our very cold gold rushes, similar to the Nome gold rush that flooded people into Alaska.
As this was the 16th Century word traveled very slowly and so the presence of gold was not widespread knowledge until literally hundreds of years later, in the 19th Century. It wasn’t until the 1860s when a mineralogist and geologist by the name of Tellef Dahll conducted a survey in the far northern area of Finnmark, which was in Norway. He found gold in the Tana River. What he found, however, was that the best deposits for development and mining weren’t in Norway, but Finland and reported his findings to a government office in Helsinki.
The find couldn’t have come at a better time. Finland, which was an autonomous region of the Russian Empire at the time, was in the middle of the Finnish famine of 1866and it was thought that the gold would help to pull Finland out of its dire economic situation. All told, over 8.5 percent of the entire Finnish population died of hunger during this period, with people resorting to eating pine bark because the situation was so dire.
An engineer named Conrad Lihr led the expedition and he would later be rewarded for his hard work by being named the head of the Mint of Finland. It was in September of 1868 that they discovered gold in the Ivalo River of Inali. So rich was this deposit that it was the impetus behind reform in the mineral laws of the Russian Empire, with Emperor Alexander II decreeing that all “noble metal” deposits were no longer the exclusive property of the Emperor. Instead, any “decent man” from the Russian Empire could engage in gold prospecting in the region.
1870: The Gold Rush Takes Off
As mentioned above, word traveled very slowly during this time, as well as in this part of the world which had always been backward in comparison to its Western European neighbors. By 1870, however, the gold rush had begun in earnest. Prospectors had to work very hard to get to this part of the world. Boats, walking and even skis were common methods of transportation.
The Russian Imperial Government quickly set about drafting measures to manage this massive influx of newcomers into the region. Kultala Crown Station quickly became the center point of Russian management of the region, as well as the center of services for miners and prospectors flooding into the region. It was where licenses for the miners were issued, as well as where they cashed in their gold. Law enforcement, cartographers, a restaurant, and a post office went up to serve the region.
This community was soon home to 600 residents at its peak. This might not sound like a lot, but Russia was a sparsely populated nation and this was one of the hardest to reach areas in the entire Empire, not even taking into account the harsh conditions that one would meet upon arrival.
Regulations and Fees Choke the Gold Rush
One problem for those arriving in Lapland, however, was that fees and licenses were exorbitantly expensive. In practice, this meant that only 19 of the richest prospectors were entitled to any claim on the region. This elite group of 19 prospectors employed the remaining population who had entered the region. The largest of these claims had between 30 and 40 employees working 11 hour days, six days a week. Ten kilograms of gold were produced by larger claims annually, however, these quickly started to dry up.
So quickly did these claims play out that by 1873, the government had cut their fees in half in an attempt to lure more prospectors into the region. A special law was passed to attempt to encourage mining in the Tana River as well and by the early 1880s, the Ivola River region was all but abandoned by those who had so recently made the hard trek in search of vast riches. The handful of prospectors who stuck around in hope of striking it rich moved onto Sotajoki and to the Laanila village, which was about 10 kilometers from where the gold rush began.
The Kultala Crown Station was later converted by Finnish geophysicist Selim Lemström into a station for studying the Northern Lights. This was closed in the year 1900. In the 1920s, two industrial gold mining companies entered the region, hoping to turn a profit with some of the harder-to-extract gold, but they ultimately fell flat.
Werner Thiede and the Second Lapland Gold Rush
There was a find of gold in the Norwegian area of Lapland in 1890, but it never led to anything. However, there was a second wave of the Lapland gold rush in Finland which began in 1934. Sami people, basically Nordic Eskimos, found gold in Sodankylä originating in Tankavaara. This, of course, attracted the attention of Finnish prospectors, but also Swedish mining interests who were keen to get what they could from this new find.
One strange story arising from this second gold rush is that of Werner Thiede (not to be confused with the prominent German theologian). He was a German miner from Hamburg who came to the region during the second Lapland gold rush. Eventually, he was deported in 1938. When the Second World War came, Thiede served in the German occupying forces in the country of Norway. He later returned to the Tankavaara region in 1944 as part of the German attempt to build a defensive wall. When the Germans began their retreat, they engaged in a scorched earth campaign that destroyed all the mines — save for the ones that had been built by one Werner Thiede.
Since the 1970s, the area has become a tourist attraction in Finland, much like many other, more famous gold rush boom and bust towns that we have covered on this site. And despite the fact that the big boom played out quickly, there are still 20 prospectors and 50 working claims in the region, producing collectively over 20 kilograms of gold on an annual basis.
These are all in Lemmenjoki National Park, which is a beautiful place to visit even for those who have absolutely no interest at all in gold mining. It is the biggest national park in all of Finland and one of the largest in Europe. It seems far more backpackers than prospectors — 10,000 every year.
The Gold Rush Continues Today
Lest you think that the prospectors there are simply legacy holdouts from a bygone age, however, this is simply not true. Indeed, people do still flock to the region in the hopes that they can be one of the lucky few to find some of the gold that is still up for grabs in this region of Finland. The official website promoting tourism in Finland offers tales of modern-day prospectors who have come to the region in search of the adventure of finding gold.
Part of what has driven this is yet a third gold rush in Lapland. This one didn’t begin way back in the annals of the colonial age, or even at the turn of the 20th Century, but in the year 2009. Europe’s largest currently operational gold mine is currently in Lapland, the Suurikuusikko gold deposit. Drilling samples conducted in 2011 did much to fuel this new case of gold fever in Finland, proving that the days of the gold rush are not behind us. At that time, there were five operational gold mines in Lapland, with geological surveys finding high concentrations of gold in the surrounding ore — in a stunning 200 deposits. What’s more, the price of gold continues to increase, making the threshold for entry into the market lower and lower with each passing year.
Perhaps this is why, as of July 2019, there were 20 full-time gold panners in Finland as well as another 150 part-timers. Note that these men are not “miners” in any sense that it is normally meant. They simply pan for gold as the prospectors of old (in the summer, of course — it’s far too cold in the winter), like what one might see in an old Western movie. Again, rising costs of gold make the trade more attractive and very little equipment is needed to join the ranks of these modern-Caday gold hunters.
If you want to give it a try in Finland, you can always check out the Tankavaara Gold Village in Lapland where panning is the main activity. Here you can get a taste of whether or not you have what it takes to do this for hours on end, day after day. Guides are available in both English and Finnish. You should also check out the Gold Museum while you are there to get a feel for the history of gold prospecting in the region. There’s even a Gold Prospectors Association of Finnish Lapland.
You might think that you have no chance of striking a decent find as a tourist, but you couldn’t be more wrong. In 2020, a tourist happened upon 61.9 grams of gold, worth a whopping $36,000. He did this right next to where he was staying and in an area that all the smart money said had been played out for decades. Before this, the biggest nugget that happened upon by a tourist was 3.2 grams, with finds of one to two grams not all that uncommon.
Indeed, the equipment has gotten much better making it not only easier to find gold using high-tech metal detectors like the detectors available for rental at Kellyco but also to extract the gold from the earth. For example, you now have machines like the XP Metal Detectors Deus or the Minelab GPZ 7000 that makes detecting deep gold nuggets a lot easier than it used to be.
Fortunately, unlike many other countries outside of the United States, Finland does not have a ban on the private discovery of gold or other minerals within its border. The legal concept of “Everyman’s Right” drives mineral extraction law down there. This doesn’t mean you can simply set up shop wherever you like and start your hunt for gold. There is some red tape to cut through and you can only conduct mining in designated, approved areas.
There have been several films made about the time period, but the two most prominent are 1951 At the Rovaniemi Fair, which is something of a classic in Finland, and Gold Fever in Lapland.
Finland’s gold rush didn’t dramatically change the landscape of Finland in the manner of North American gold rushes. But it’s fascinating perhaps in large part because of its perennial nature and the fact that it’s still going today. As such it provides inspiration for a new generation of gold hunters looking for their fortunes in the ground.