Saturday, September 21, 2013

A railroad builder in the family

This article was originally written for a Swedish railroad history publication.

Sometimes my interests in railroad history and genealogy coincide. When Gustaf Elg and Maria Sofia Bork take their family to Minnesota, Maria leaves behind a brother, Olaus Bork, who turns out to be a very interesting person: He played an important role both in developing an iron works at Skyllberg, and in construction of a narrow gauge railroad, which linked Skyllberg to the outside world.

Olaus was born into the blacksmith profession at Liljendal, but he did not have an easy start in life. Only four out of nine children reach adulthood: Olaus (b 1836), Maria Sophia (b 1838), Christina (b. 1842) and Per Gustaf (b. 1844). Their father dies of smallpox, only 39 years old. When Olaus moves to Tyfors in 1852, to start his apprenticeship for the blacksmith profession, the parish record decribes him as “able and willing, but undernourished”. Olaus serves as an apprentice blacksmith at several different mills, marries Eva Helena Österberg and starts a family, and in 1863 he is hired as a blacksmith at Rönneshytta, in the province of Närke.

A year later, he is asked to take up a position at the nearby Skyllberg Works (a smelter at Rönneshytta produced pig iron which was then processed in rolling mills at Skyllberg). A history of the Skyllberg works notes that “Bork, who was likeable man, rose through the ranks to become master mechanic and master builder at Skyllberg. He was a gifted practical man, with no formal training, who nevertheless carried out several more or less (sic!) successful engineering projects.”

The mill area in the 1880´s. In the foreground, the new rolling mill is being constructed. “Kårberg” poses with proud driver, and in the background Olaus Bork and family keep a watchful eye. Todd Lindahl collection.

In an interview with at local newspaper, on his 80th birthday in 1917, Olaus Bork recalls how the engineering workshop and foundry at Skyllberg were constructed under his leadership. After spying at several other mills, he designed several of the machines himself, or they bought one machine and made copies as needed. At Kårberg, Olaus built a nail factory, including wire and galvanizing mills. Many of the machines were made at Skyllberg, under Bork´s guidance.

The nail factory at Kårberg. Olaus Bork at the Engine.

In 1873, a standard gauge railroad arrived, passing only two miles from Skyllberg. Olaus was tasked with building a connecting narrow gauge railroad and reload station at Lerbäck. He also oversaw the construction of a number of railroad cars at Skyllberg. Initially the trains were pulled by oxen or horses. In 1881, a four-wheel steam locomotive was ordered, named “Kårberg”. Build by Nydquist & Holm (Sweden´s premiere steam loco builders) it became Sweden´s smallest steam loco used in common carrier traffic on narrow gauge, with a weight of only 5 ½ tons, on 26” drivers.

“Kårberg”, mfg. photo, 1881, Nydquist &Holm  # 150
Swedish Railroad Museum

In 1883, work was begun to extend the railroad nine miles in the other direction, from Skyllberg to Askersund. This gave Skyllberg access to a deep water port on Sweden´s largest lake, and gave the town a rail connection to the standard gauge network. The original contractor (no doubt the lowest bidder..) lacked all experience of railroad construction, and abandoned the project before it was completed. Again, Bork was called to the rescue, and completed construction, which included almost all trackwork, one bridge and another 50 flatcars built at Skyllberg. In the 1917 interview, Bork tells how he came close to disappearing with a construction train, when they came to a spot where the whole roadbed had disappeared. The lost earth masses were later discovered in a nearby lake.

The Bork home overlooked the mill area.
Today, the Skyllberg head office is located in the same spot.
Todd Lindahl collection.

The railroad company was a joint project between the town of Askersund and the Skyllberg Works, but the project was not without friction. No Skyllberg representative participated in the opening ceremony. In 1888, the railroad company decided to lease the railroad to Skyllberg, as the prospects for profit remained dim. After this, Skyllberg studiously avoided naming any of its locomotives after the town of Askersund.

When the railroad was opened in December 1884, Oalus Bork was engineer on the inaugural train. Despite its small size, Kårberg could handle for almost 50 years, until this traffic ceased in 1931 (maximum speed was 12 mph..).  In the early years, Olaus Bork personally drove most scheduled trains. On one occasion, he attempted to run the train from the highest point on the line to either end without using any steam. He succeeded, but in his own judgement it was “a foolish and risky stunt, as I had to maintain too high speed through some curves”.

The Skyllberg owners expanded the rail net in several stages for the mill´s own needs. In 1883, two miles were built from Skyllberg to the new nail factory at Kårberg, and in the early 20th century, about 10 miles of logging and peat harvest track was extended east from Lerbäck. This meant that the narrow gauge had to cross the Swedish State Railway´s mainline at grade. A spur was also laid from Lerbäck to a sawmill at Rönneshytta.

 Olaus´family were not spared tragedy either. Two of Olaus´sons emigrate to Minnesota, to join their aunt Maria Sofia, uncle Gustaf Elg and a number of cousins who worked for the railroads. In April 1889, Karl Gustaf Bork and his cousin Adolph Elg were sent to Glasgow, Montana to work in a railroad machine shop being built there. When Adolph and Karl arrived in the new town, they found that were no rooms available for the night. That night they slept under a wagon parked in the street. Sometime during the night it began to rain hard and both men became soaked. Kurt came down with pneumonia and died there in Glasgow, 25 years old. The two youngest children died Before age ten.

Olaus Bork with his eldest son, Karl Gustaf Bork
Olaus Bork is a superintendent at the Skyllberg Works for 33 years. From his house he can keep a constant watch over the mill area. He leaves his post in 1897, age 61, dies in 1926 and is buried in Lerbäck.


The Skyllberg Works are still in business. It is a family owned company and has been in the same family since Olaus Bork´s time. All production is now located at Kårberg, but the head office stands on the same spot where Olaus´home was located, and some of the old mill buildings are still there.

The mill area in November 2012. The closest building is the workshop and foundry built by Bork.
In the distance we see the engine house, and the carpentry/pattern shop.
Photo Lennart Elg
I have posted more photos from the mill area in 2012  at .



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