Döda Fallet: The Dramatic Story of Sweden’s Dead Falls

Once upon a time there was a waterfall known as Storforsen (the Great Rapids), which tumbled 35 meters (115 feet) out of Lake Ragunda along the Indalsälven river in Jämtland, Sweden. Yet in 1796, this mighty waterfall was silenced forever due to a combination of human interference and the power of nature. The site of one of Sweden’s most devastating natural disasters is now one of the region’s most popular tourist destinations.


The Problem of Storforsen

During the 1700s, the primary sources of income in the Ragunda Valley were farming, logging, and fishing. The timber industry was becoming increasingly important in Jämtland, a province with vast forests that represented tremendous economic potential. But there was a problem: Storforsen was an impassable obstacle for floating timber downstream to the coast. Any logs that entered its powerful current simply broke into splinters.

The waterfall also created a barrier for salmon migrating upstream — a source of frustration for fishermen further inland who were denied access to this rich resource. After much negotiation and research, King Gustav III granted permission in 1779 for a bypass canal to be constructed in order to allow logs to be floated past the falls. However, various attempts to dig a canal failed, and the project was abandoned. Although there was much support for a canal from people upstream of the falls, many of those living downstream were opposed, since they feared it would negatively affect their farmland and salmon fishing.


Enter Magnus Huss

In 1793, a group of farmers living above the falls took charge of the situation and hired Magnus Huss from Sundsvall to take charge of the canal project. Huss — known as Vildhussen (the Wild Huss) — was a merchant, not an engineer, but he offered to do the job cheaply and had the energy and decisiveness to see the project through to completion.

Huss’s idea was to make use of the power of the water itself, by channeling it from a small stream through wooden gutters to a sandy ridge and then letting the water find its own route through the sand until a channel of suitable size for timber could be dug. This worked quite well, and the project continued to advance despite disputes, threats, and several sabotage attempts.

What no one realized was that the route the water was carving out was not new. In prehistoric times, Indalsälven had flowed in the exact place where Huss was digging his canal. Some 9,000 years earlier, at the end of the last Ice Age, a glacier had deposited a mix of sand and gravel on the spot. When the ice melted and the land rebounded, the debris became a dam, forcing the river to take a new route and creating Lake Ragunda and Storforsen.

This natural dam was extremely porous and easily eroded, and all that was needed to wash it away completely was a powerful water flow. As it turned out, the spring floods of 1796 were unusually heavy, and water levels in Lake Ragunda rose quickly. On 6 June, they reached a critical point.

Around 9:00 that evening, water began to overflow out of the lake into the new canal. The initial stream soon became a wave of tsunami-like proportions as the sandy ridge collapsed. A wall of water some 25 meters (82 feet) in height thundered down the valley, wiping out everything in its path, from fields and forests to houses, barns, boats, and sawmills. Within four hours, the sandy ridge was gone and Lake Ragunda completely emptied. Dead salmon were strewn everywhere, but miraculously, not a single person died.

The Aftermath

The impacts of the catastrophe were sweeping, and lasting. Huge amounts of property were destroyed, and the legal proceedings regarding damages were not fully concluded until 1975, nearly two centuries later. Blame fell on the farmers from above the falls who had joined together to make the project happen. Though it was Magnus Huss who came up with the ill-considered plan to build the canal through the sandy ridge, he was merely an employee. He himself was proud of the outcome of his project and showed no regret for its negative effects.

A year after the disaster Huss was found drowned in Indalsälven. According to local legend he was put in a boat with no oars by angry farmers whose property had been destroyed by the flood. Whether this is true, or whether Huss had simply misjudged the strength of the current while exploring on his own, it was perhaps a fitting end for one who had tried to tame the river’s mighty waters.

The landscape of the Ragunda Valley was changed forever, as Indalsälven returned to its prehistoric channel. Despite the immediate destruction, the emptying of Lake Ragunda and rerouting of the river brought long-term positive impacts along with the negative ones. The goal of being able to float timber all the way to the coast became a reality with the elimination of the Storforsen obstacle. Salmon began to migrate further upstream, opening up fishing further from the coast. New and fertile farmland was created where Lake Ragunda once lay. In the former lakebed, near Hammarstrand, a new, smaller waterfall was created and is now a power generating station.

The ridge where the river used to flow is now known as Döda Fallet (the Dead Falls). Visitors can follow a wooden walkway with staircases and ramps through the rocky landscape that was once the waterfall. There are also longer hiking trails the surrounding area, as well as opportunities to explore Indalsälven by canoe or kayak. Efforts are underway to have Döda Fallet declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For more information, visit the Döda Fallet website.

Published 13 December 2018.

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