In 1965, this was a typical sight of the town harbor, full of fishing boats. The island was an ideal location for fishing, close to the largest cod spawning grounds in Iceland and with large catches often readily available within a mile of shore, and the protected harbor lined with fish processing plants was a good place to land each day’s catch.
Everything changed for the normally-peaceful fishing town, though, when a 1,600 meter fissure opened at 1:50 am on January 23, 1973 and began spewing smoke and lava into the air. Luckily nobody was injured that night – largely because the wind was blowing away from town and most of the 100-boat fishing fleet was in port due to a storm and was able to begin evacuating the island’s residents almost immediately – but by the time the eruption ended five months later, a third of the town had been destroyed and much of the rest was severely damaged from the hot debris that had broken windows and set much of the town on fire and from the ash that blanketed the entire town, forming a layer four meters thick in just the first week.
In a feat that illustrates the islanders’ ingenuity, stubbornness, and dedication to their home, they were determined not only to salvage as much as possible – which included not only personal possessions such as furniture, but also 2,500 tons of frozen and salted fish from the island’s processing plants – but also to preserve the town so they could return when the eruption ended. This was a particularly daunting task, since even though the eruption only lasted five months, the island of Surtsey which had emerged from the ocean only ten years prior as the newest of the Westman Islands had erupted on and off for nearly four years from 1963-1966. Yet despite all odds, crews remained on the island working day and night, reinforcing windows and roofs to protect the town’s homes, shoveling off fallen ash, and building barriers to try to protect the town from the flowing lava.
Of particular importance was to prevent lava from filling in the harbor, without which it would be impossible to resume fishing. A few geologists did some back-of-the-envelope calculations in the initial days of the eruption and concluded that the progress of the lava might be halted if sprayed with sufficient amounts of water to cool and harden the outside of the flow. Pumps were brought in from all over the country and eventually even from the US, and over the course of the eruption, 6.2 million tons of seawater was pumped onto the lava, operated by as many as 75 men at the time of peak lava flow.
There’s no way of telling, of course, whether it was truly the human intervention or just the luck of nature that preserved the harbor, but at the end of the eruption the harbor had actually been improved by filling in part of harbor opening and providing protection from southeasterly gales.
Even before the eruption this was an area of significance, housing a Norse timber church, a gift from the people of Norway and the only one of its kind in Iceland, the second oldest building on the islands after the church, and the canon set up to protect the old harbor after the attack by Moroccan pirates in 1627, where 36 people were killed and 242 taken as slaves. Today though the area has a new significance as the place where the past and present harbors meet.
and a gigantic task of rebuilding a town where 400 houses had been destroyed and many left uninhabitable.
About two-thirds of the displaced population of the island did return to rebuild, along with crews of volunteers from all over the world who worked at tasks ranging from heavy construction to the labor-intensive job of shoveling the ash from the buried cemetery. Even though the town was rebuilt and people were more or less able to go back to their daily lives, however, the new landscape is an undeniable reminder of what has changed.
People still live right next to the edge of the lava flow, on streets that end abruptly in the places where other streets formerly part of the town are now buried in lava. Ten houses on one of these streets, Suðurvegur, are now being excavated, giving a sense both of the extent of the damage and of what was left behind in the hurry to evacuate the island thirty-four years ago.
The portion of the old town now covered in lava is also marked with memorials to show the locations of old buildings that had been central to the town’s culture and with street signs indicating the layout of the old town many meters below.
Islanders have also done their best to try to make the new portions of the island feel more like home, the most notable example being a garden in the midst of the lava grown by a retired couple who brought soil and plants to a hollow in the lava and eventually built up a flourishing garden in the midst of a mostly barren area.
So here’s what the town and harbor look like today, looking down from the top of Helgafell, the original volcanic crater (as opposed to Eldfell, which formed in the 1973 eruption) that flanks the town.
It’s a small enough place that everyone here knows each other, and people have no qualms about sending their children outside to play in the streets or even picking up hitchhikers in a car with their children. Just while I was in town for two weeks, I had multiple people take me along to the far side of the island to see their children release baby puffins and was invited along to a meeting of a group of “alien” women not originally from Iceland but who live on the island, some of whom already recognized me as a “new face” in the grocery store or from seeing me in town.
Even Icelanders from the mainland don’t always realize how small a place this is. During the three-day festival the first weekend in August, extra police are brought in from Reykjavik to help manage the huge crowds who come from all over the country to party around the clock for three days. One of the women in the aliens group told a story of how her husband was delighted to be pulled over by one of these police when he was driving home from the festival at night – it was his first time being pulled over in fifteen years. The officer from Reykjavik began to ask him whether he had been drinking, a fair question on a night when pretty much everyone in town gets drunk, and the other officer in the car, from Vestmannaeyjar, started laughing: “You don’t need to worry about this one – he hasn’t had a drink in fifteen years. We go to AA meetings together.” Like everyone else in town, the police here know pretty much every person and every car on the island.
Vestmannaeyjar is no longer Iceland’s premier fishing port as it was in 1973, partly because other industries – particularly tourism in the wake of the world coverage of the eruption – have grown, but also because small boats based close to the fishing grounds have mostly been replaced throughout the fishery by larger, farther-ranging boats like these trawlers, that now do most of the cod fishing from Vestmannaeyjar.
Despite this, however, two of Iceland’s largest fishing companies are based in Vestmannaeyjar, and a large proportion of the jobs on the island are on the fishing boats or in the fish processing plants that line the harbor.
The largest company on the island, Vinnslustöðin hf. í Vestmannaeyjum (VSV) began in 1946 as a fish processing company that bought the small boats’ catches, and fish processing is a long tradition on the island, even depicted in a mural in the center of town.
The volcanoes, the fish, the smallness of a place of 4,800 people a three hour boat ride from the mainland – I find all of it fascinating, but it’s just part of daily life here.