Sigridur Tómasdóttir, the Woman Who Saved Gullfoss
I’ve long been fascinated by people who willingly submit themselves to extreme measures for a cause in which they believe.
Regardless of whether I personally agree with their cause or not, their devotion to the cause, often at the risk of serious and permanent harm to themselves, is remarkable.
Sigridur Tómasdóttir’s efforts to save Iceland’s Gullfoss Waterfall is one of those stories. The falls exist today thanks to her and, in return, we all can be thankful for it.
Gullfoss (Golden Falls) was easily the highlight of my Iceland trip. It’s simultaneously beautiful and amazing.
Unlike many waterfalls, it is much more than a river reaching a cliff and falling over the side, most often viewed from below.
Looking down upon Gullfoss from above, it’s much more like a raging rapids, water bursting out, crashing over rocks and through a cavern, forming a number of smaller waterfalls along the way before climaxing to a roaring finale.
If you’re there in January you’ll even witness large ice formations formed near the edges and see the river rapidly flowing out from frozen ice above.
Fans of the television show, Vikings, might remember seeing it. Gullfoss played a prominent role in the fifth season death of the character Aud. (Note: This video depicts the character committing suicide.)
Tómasdóttir’s was one of 13 children. Her father, Tómas Tómasson, was a farmer whose land just happened to include Gullfoss. (If you’re wondering why they’re last names are different, I explain this Icelandic tradition in a previous post. Scroll down to the Triumphant Return heading.)
Around 1900, foreigners began buying waterfalls throughout Iceland for construction of hydroelectric plants. At first Tómasson declined offers to sell Gullfoss but eventually conceded to long term rental of the waterfall to the foreigners.
This is when Tómasdóttir, who was in her mid-thirties by the time, began her fight, working around the clock to invalidate the deal. Her father refused to do so, so she began contacting government officials, attempting to enlist their support.
In doing so, she walked the 70 miles from Gullfoss to Reykjavik and back, barefoot. She trekked along unpaved, rugged, hilly roads and waded large rivers, arriving at the nation’s capital with severely blistered and bloody feet.
Unbelievably, it was a journey she took not once, but several different times.
She was eventually able to gain the support of one especially prominent individual, the lawyer Sveinn Björnsson, who later became Iceland’s first president.
With Björnsson’s help, Tómasdóttir filed a lawsuit to stop the rental. The case drug through Icelandic courts for a number of years and, even with Björnsson’s assistance, she unfortunately lost her battle. The courts ruled against her.
But wait, you might ask, if she lost, why is Gullfoss still standing?
Whether they lost interest or funding, or both, due to the delays caused by the court actions, the foreigners renting the land defaulted on their payments and the power plant never came to fruition. So, in the end, Tómasdóttir did win.
Thanks in large part to the attention she brought to Gullfoss, the Icelandic government eventually purchased it. Additional surrounding land was later donated and now it is forever a protected area.
+ Tómasdóttir is remembered in Iceland today as one of the country’s first, if not the first, enviornmentalist.
An annual award, the Sigríður Tómasdóttir in Brattholt nature conservation recognition, was begun in 2010 to honor a person who has done significant work in the field of nature.
+ The name, Gullfoss, translated from Icelandic as Golden Falls has a number of origin stories.
One says it comes from the golden evening hue around the water, borrrring. Another attributes it to the rainbows forming in the spray above the waterfall on sunny days. The one I choose to believe is that an old Viking placed his fortune of gold in a coffer and threw it into the falls so no one else could ever enjoy it.
+ Gullfoss is 105-feet high and considered a two-step waterfall, meaning it falls from a higher plateau first and then down into a second. The Hvita River that flows to the falls originates from Iceland’s second largest glacier, Langjökull
+ In the years prior to her fight to save the waterfall, Tómasdóttir and her sisters led visitors to the waterfall and built the first path to it. There is still a trail leading down closely to the falls but it is closed during the winter due to the ice.
A second trail, just under two miles, leads from the falls to Brattholt, the area where Tómasdóttir’s father’s farm was located. There is also a hotel there now. If I ever return to Iceland I’d check out renting a car and staying there so that I might spend a little more time at the falls.
+ For what it’s worth, some will say Tómasdóttir did not actually walk those miles to Reykjavik and back, that rather, she did them on horseback. Whatever you choose to believe, you gotta give her credit.
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