When Lake Ragunda (Ragundasjön) was emptied on the evening of June 6, 1796, life changed forever in the nearby village of Västerede. This is the biggest natural disaster ever to have occurred in the history of Sweden, however few people today have even heard of it. The large waterfall of Storforsen (The Big Falls) as well as one of Scandinavia’s largest salmon fishing areas was replaced with devastation and a dead waterfall. Today, The Dead Falls (Döda Fallet) is a tourist destination, however if you are unfamiliar with the complete story it is difficult to fully appreciate what you are looking at.
This story began as early as the 1750’s and ended a little over 200 years later in a settlement with the village of Västerede. Disputes had erupted over an excavation near Lake Ragunda and the building of a canal that would eventually lead to the disaster, but there was also a dispute in parallel over who owned the fishing rights in the river Indalsälven; the Crown or local residents (i.e. the local taxpayers). The fishing rights in the river were very sought after and were constantly being fought over, a battle that had been on-going on for hundreds of years, however this is a story will have to be for another time.
Several generations of Västerede inhabitants opposed the excavation and the canal, and therefore protested as much as they could. At the time (1750’s) the population of Ragunda parish was about 650 and in the Fors parish a little over 500. Of these people, about 40 lived in the village Västerede. There were six owner-farmers, three dragoons (18th century light cavalrymen) and two homesteaders each with their respective families.
The farmers were also part of the ‘Västerede Byamän’ (Västerede Villagers Association) and consisted of the brothers Olofsson (Olof, Sven and Jon), their brother-in-law Isak Eriksson and his neighbor Per Jonsson who was blind. The brothers Olofsson all grew up on the Bullergården estate, and the oldest brother, Olof, built the farm we now know as Västerstugan. The manor house of the farm, today called Gammelbyggninga (Old Building), was completed around 1780. Olof was my great, great, great, great, great grandfather and today, many generations later, I live here.
In 1752, Sundsvall resident Peter Modeen requested a state grant to excavate a canal around Storforsen, but it was not until 1763 that the inhabitants upstream of the waterfall in the parishes of Ragunda and Stugun began seriously questioning the digging of the canal alongside the rapids. The main reason for considering this undertaking was that the 30 meter height of the waterfall crushed and splintered the wood timbers and logs they were floating down the river to the Bothnian Sea. Also, they believed that a canal would result in a lowering of the overall height of Lake Ragunda thereby uncovering additional land that could be cultivated, with the added benefit of improved fishing as the salmon would now have a way to swim upstream to the lake through the canal.
The plan was to dig the canal through a sandy ridge called Remmen, and then lead it through ‘Lokängarna’ back into the Indalsälven river. Between 1776 and 1777 a study and valuation of Lokängarna was further carried out to see what financial damage this could inflict on any landowners in the villages of Västerede and Näset.The study found that any and property as well as hay cuttings on the Lokängarna would likely be lost, but that anything higher up on the slopes away from the direct path of the water would to some extent not be affected. The villagers of Västerede pointed out that much of their salmon fishing gear including 4 to 5 net-pairs lay exactly where the new river would flow, altogether producing eight barrels of salmon a year (corresponding to about six full bathtubs). In addition, they paid 6 riksdaler 28 in annual taxes for these fishing rights. The hardest hit by the canal would be Olof Olsson of Bullergården, father of the aforementioned brothers Olofsson. Of the 16 barns that stood on Lokängarna, he owned seven of them.
As the years dragged on and some digging of the canal began, the Västerede Byamän and other residents did what they could to stop it. In 1779, King Gustav III give his final permission to proceed with the project, but it was again stopped in 1780. The peasants in Ragunda and Stugun were fed up with those who lived below the waterfall, and in a letter written about them in 1781 the Västerede Byamän were accused of having prevented any progress from happening on the project for 18 years.
In 1781, a four-year famine began and any excavation work stopped. It was not until 1792, when the Svea Court of Appeals ruled that salmon fishing rights in Fors did in fact not belong to the Crown, but belonged to the local taxpayers, the clergy and military residences (dragoons), that the project was revived. So, in 1793 a group of residents from Ragunda and Stugun began digging with the help of an individual named Magnus Huss. However, the project was again halted almost immediately as the claim for damages and any settlement for the residents of Västerede had still not been resolved.
A settlement was finally reached in 1794 and the Västerede residents were awarded the following:
- They would be reimbursed for any lost hay cuttings, both in quantity and quality.
- Their annual catch of salmon estimated at 7½ barrels of salted salmon, would be replaced with access to new fishing spots if possible, otherwise they would be compensated with 10 riksdaler per barrel.
- Should the village mills become inoperable, the Ragunda and Stugun farmers would have them moved and rebuilt at a site designated by the Västerede Byamän.
- This agreement would be valid for all time and in perpituity.
Fifty-four of Ragunda’s and Stugun’s residents agreed to these conditions and formed a collective that would become known as Storforsbolaget (The Big Falls Company). The excavation project began again immediately following the settlement, however it was not long before other villages in Fors parish also requested similar settlements. They demanded cessation of the excavation until they had secured their settlements, which was granted by the county governor Bunge on April 20, 1795. The Storforsbolaget appealed of course, but the decision was upheld until further notice.
Then came the fateful day Monday, June 6, 1796 when the disaster happened. Sven, the middle Olofsson brother and neighbor to Västerstugan, left a written testimony of that day. Sven writes that he received a visit from Magnus Huss who said that water was going to be released into the canal from the lake that same evening or no later than the next morning. Sven and others were told they needed to immediately retrieve any fishing gear they wanted to save from the area that was going to be directly in the water’s path.
At nine o’clock that night, the water broke uncontrollably through Remmen and a 24 meter high tsunami-like wave flowed past Väterede, continuing on down the river valley. It took only four hours for Lake Ragunda to empty completely and when it was all over life as it had been known was over. Gone was Lake Ragunda, the Great Waterfall and all the great salmon fishing. All that remained were a shocked people and total devastation of the life they had known, along with a continued and prolonged litigation which for the village of Västerede continued up until and as late as 1975.