Archaeological finds have shown that humans have lived within the area of the present town for about 9000 years, but it was through the royal sagas of Snorri that the place name of Ålesund first emerged from the half light of history.
Places in Ålesund such as Steinvågen, Hundsvær, Nørve, Borgund and Vegsund provide the framework for dramatic happenings during Olav II (the Holy) Haraldsson’s flight before the Earl of Lade’s men in 1028. Borgund and Skuggen appear here in a rather unflattering light. The King had sent a messenger to Borgund and Skuggen to rally the people. They responded by killing the messenger...
The medieval market town of Borgund was, in the national context, the first ‘town’ in Sunnmøre in the middle of the 1100s. ‘Market Town Borgund’ flourished and the Giske clan on Giske, who were close to the throne, kept an eye on the place. In the 1100s Borgund was also the largest religious centre between Bergen and Nidaros there were all of four marble clad stone churches here.
The Black Death and the Hanseatic League have been blamed for the market town losing its position as an economic centre in the 1400s and Bergen gained control over Sunnmøre’s trade.
The Borgund market town from the Viking era has provided countless finds during excavations and today the site is a part of the exhibitions making up the Sunnmøre Museum in the area known as Borgundgavlen. The Museum is about 10 minutes by car east of the centre of town.
Ålesund’s good harbour and the short distance out to rich fishing banks and seaways were important conditions for the growth of the new economic centre in Sunnmøre. The town received limited small seaport rights in 1793 and full small seaport rights in 1824 - despite tough resistance from Bergen, Molde, Kristiansund and Trondheim. It was in the 1500s that the first merchants settled along the sound between Aspøya and Nørvøya.
During the next two hundred years a small seaport grew up. The original Ålesund was just the shoreline on both sides of the sound.
In 1824, 288 people lived within the boundaries of the small seaport of Ålesund.
In 1824 the first shipments of klippfisk were sent direct from Ålesund to Spain (Bilbao) and from 1835 the Spaniards came to Ålesund to fetch the klippfisk themselves. In the spring months 20 - 30 Spanish sailing ships lay in the harbour for weeks on end, waiting for the drying of the year’s klippfisk to be completed. This “Spanish time” lasted until the 1870s and made a significant contribution to Ålesund’s economic growth in the middle of the century before last.
Production of klippfisk started in Sunnmøre around 1750. We acquired the skills from the area around Kristiansund, where it was already well under way. Klippfisk gradually became Ålesund’s most important export.
In 1845 the merchant Carl Esaias Rønneberg, along with exporters of split, salted and dried cod (‘klippfisk’) from Kristiansund, had opened up the Latin American market for this product. Several vessels for international trade were built in the 1850s and Ålesund ships sailed to both Latin America and the East. In 1851 master shipbuilder Carl Joachim Haasted from Flekkefjord founded the town’s first shipyard in Skutvika and, at about the same time, the dyer Ole A. Devold established his knitwear factory at Skaret.
Ålesund’s progress, in terms of its economy and it population, led to the small seaport being granted town status on 13 April 1848.
At that time the population had increased to nearly 1,500.
In the Spring of 1861 two Swedish bank smacks came into Valderhaug. Fishermen from Bohuslän had heard about the rich line-fishing on the Storegga bank. As early as the following year merchants in Ålesund ordered 10 bank smacks from Haasted in Skutvika. The transfer from open boats to decked vessels within Norwegian fishing had begun. Operating bank smacks gave fishing town Ålesund a further boost and turned Sunnmøre into a pioneering area in Norwegian deep sea fishing.
In 1864 the first fishing industry trade fair was held in Ålesund, and in 1884 a contract was drawn up for the first steamship built for fishing. Before the century was out, Ålesund had the country’s largest fleet of steam fishing vessels and bank smacks, taking catches over large parts of the North Atlantic.
On 12 December 1895, Ålesund town started to use electric power from the steam power station Nergaard Electricity Works in 22, Kaiser Wilhelmsgate (the ‘Steam Centre’).
The alarm was sounded at 2.15 a.m. on 23 January 1904. The cause was a naked flame in the factory of Ålesund Preserving Co, located where Nedre Strandgate 39 stands today.
In less than 24 hours, 850 houses burned to the ground. Over 10,000 were made homeless, but only one person died.
The main reason for the extent of the fire catastrophe was a south westerly storm gusting to hurricane strength. Incredibly, in the course of 1907, 600 houses in Ålesund town centre were rebuilt.
A notable feat is associated with the date of 7 August 1904. It was then that Ole Brude and his crew sailed from Ålesund on a strenuous five-month journey across the North Atlantic in the enclosed lifeboat Uræd.
It took all of three years to build a new town after the big town fire. Over six hundred new houses were built. Never before had so many Norwegian architects been engaged on such a large assignment in a single place. New building regulations required stonework construction in the new houses in the centre of the town, whereas the old town had been a traditional Norwegian town built of wood.
In 1905, in the middle of the reconstruction of Ålesund, Norway’s union with Sweden was dissolved. The determination to have identifiably Norwegian architecture was reflected in the use of materials and in the ornamental work in the reconstructed town. This, along with the architects’ international leanings and education, created a very distinctive town where international and ‘national’ elements were fused together.
The bonds between Ålesund and the surrounding villages are tight. The rapid population growth in the second half of the 1800s, from 1,200 inhabitants in 1850 to around 10,000 in 1900, was due to inward migration from the villages in Sunnmøre.
The population stabilised at approx 18,000 in the 1920s. A further expansion of the town took place in 1923, when Skarbøvika became part of Ålesund. The town remained structured in this way until long after the Second World War, but as a town municipality Ålesund was still cramped. In those days, the town limits started in Skarbøvika and ended at Ålesund University College by Nørvasundet.
The new school on Aspøya was built in 1921 and was formally opened in 1922.The Post Office in Korsegata 4 was built in 1929 for the postal and telegraph services.
In the first instance, it was the value brought in to the town by the fisheries that made the reconstruction after the town fire possible. In 1898, trials were carried out fishing for herring using drift nets. This introduced a period lasting nearly seventy years where the annual harvest of the “silver from the sea” gave Ålesund the name Herring Town.
The fishing fleet was motorised and mechanised in the years up to the First World War and the fishing grounds were steadily expanded.
Hunting of whales and seals also developed in this period. The town was at a high point in fishing, hunting and seafaring. More than ever, Ålesund became a centre for trade and crafts in Sunnmøre.
During the Second World War Ålesund was described as ‘Little London’ because of all the illegal resistance activity in the town and because so many managed to escape to England via Ålesund.
The town was occupied, but was largely spared during the war. Most military activity took place at sea outside the town and a large shore battery and other installations were built on Tueneset. Major German installations were built a good way further inland and up on Aksla as well.
180 Ålesunders died during the war: merchant seamen, military and civilians.
The town environment in the centre of Ålesund remained largely unchanged until the 1950s. Then some houses were demolished to give room for modern business buildings. There were few protests.
On the contrary, most Ålesunders thought that new buildings were an indisputable beautification of what at that time was regarded as a town that had failed to keep up with the times.
The Steinvåg bridge was officially opened on 30 August 1953. Hessa was now linked to Aspøy. Travel between the islands within the municipality became easier.
Buying a car shortened the distance between the town and the outlying villages for many. Communication with the outside world became easier when Ålesund Airport at Vigra was opened in 1958.
The end of the 1950s and the whole of the 1960s were marked by people, firms and jobs moving out of the centre of town. Concurrently traffic moved from the sea to the land and the demand for more space increased.
Ålesund was merged with the neighbouring municipality Borgund in 1967-68. The whole of the island of Hessa became part of Ålesund. So did Ellingsøya, Spjelkavik and the series of villages leading inland to Magerholm.
The town grew from 18,699 to 38,589 inhabitants. But the people on the island of Sula grumbled. Nine years later, on 1 January 1977, Sula became its own municipality.
After that, Ålesund Municipality dropped back by 6,000 inhabitants to 34,649. The “new” municipality retained some of the new and very necessary land area from what had previously been Borgund.
During the 1970s interest in Art Nouveau as a cultural historical phenomenon increased steadily. Several much discussed projects engaged people’s attention. Business buildings displaced old houses and then gradually, the town’s bird cliffs. Kittiwakes, gulls and Art Nouveau buildings had to make way for Ålesund Town Hall and car parks.
Prior to the blasting away of the bird cliffs and the demolition of the Rønneberg Villa early in the early 1970s, there were protests and demonstrations.
From this time onwards, Ålesunders slowly opened their eyes to the cultural treasure represented by the architecture created when the town was rebuilt after the fire in 1904. But a long time passed before the town’s distinctive features became its pride and joy.
In the 1980s, the centre of gravity of the communications network in this part of Norway moved from the port in the centre of Ålesund town eastwards to the major road junction at Moa. Previously Moa was largely open meadows and agricultural land, principally owned by the Municipality.
The whole thing began in 1979 when the Municipality opened a health centre with a GP surgery, a centre for the aged, a chemist and a library.
Ålesund Town Hall was built in 1980. The new approach road was opened in 1986 and subsea tunnels, financed by tolls, linked Ålesund to the offshore islands in 1987.
Most recently, in the 1990s, the town grew at its eastern end with new and larger department stores. This happened first at Moa, then later in Breivika as well. They drew customers both from the old town centre, from the middle of Spjelkavik, from neighbouring municipalities and even further afield from adjacent counties.
Ålesund town marked its 150-year jubilee in 1998 and the town put in place cultural buildings, namely Sunnmørshallen, the Parken Arts Centre and the Atlanterhavsparken aquarium. In the same year the national Art Nouveau Centre was established.
Earlier in the 1990s the town centre had acquired a new shopping centre and the central streets had been upgraded.
If we look back in time we can see that a severe climate and a demanding nature have created people with strong can-do attitudes, persistence, courage and competitive instincts. There is a willingness to take risks, well balanced by a strong desire to succeed. These created amongst other things a unique collaboration between designers, ships engineers, ship owners, maritime personnel, shipyard workers and the higher education environment that has led to impressive creativity in the shipping industry. These are the things that will keep us working at a high level for a long way ahead and will secure a living for many of those who live here.
The tragic accident at Fjelltun in Ålesund which cost the lives of five people, and endangered the lives of many more, came as a great shock 26th of march 2008. It was inconceivable that anything like this could happen in the middle of a town and in a new apartment block.
Ålesund is growing by about 1.2% per annum. The forecasts predict that we may be over 50,000 inhabitants by 2020. Approximately 16,000 people have their daily work within the municipal boundaries. New business start-ups and domestic building development are mainly taking place in the inner districts, but the town also faces challenges in the town centre. From 2009, travel between the islands outside Ålesund and the town centre has been free of charge, through the tunnels under the sea. It only takes 10-20 minutes to travel from the housing estates furthest at the western end Ellingsøy to the centre.
The town and the surrounding country were bound more strongly together when Aalesunds Fotballklubb (Aafk) gained promotion to the national premier league in 2002. The legendary stadium at Kråmyra on Aksla was abandoned in 2005 in favour of the new stadium at Volsdalsberga.
In 2009 the club reached the Cup Final for the very first time and became Norway’s champion club by beating Molde 6-7 after a penalty shoot-out.
Ålesund is among the 20 largest towns in the country and the municipality is nearly twice as large as Molde and Kristiansund.
The local economy is both nationally and internationally orientated. Ålesund is the capital of Norway’s fishing industry and is at the centre of the world’s most outstanding maritime and marine cluster. Ålesund is a power centre, with over one hundred firms involved in the fishing industry, ship design, shipbuilding, equipment supplies, research and development and financial and consultancy assistance within the marine and maritime industries.