Stand above the rushing currents of Gullfoss, or “Golden Falls,” and you’ll come to understand why Sigríður Tómasdóttir fought so hard to protect one of Iceland’s most iconic views. The churning wonder drops about 105 feet at a couple of levels within a rocky, otherworldly canyon before it unleashes a mesmerizing cloud of mist. But some speculators once saw something else here: a golden opportunity to tap the power of Gullfoss for energy.
It was the early 1900s, and this Nordic island country featured “abundant resources for producing inexpensive and environmentally friendly electricity by harnessing waterfalls and geothermal energy,” an exhibit at the National Museum of Iceland notes. Back then Tómasdóttir’s father — a sheep farmer named Tómas Tómasson from the nearby village of Brattholt — owned Gullfoss. While Tómasson declined to sell the rugged area to an Englishman who wanted to build a hydroelectric plant, he did agree to lease his land to generate power.
It was a decision that deeply troubled his daughter, Tómasdóttir. She fretted over what might happen to her beloved falls, which continues to be fed by the Hvítá River and Langjökull, the second-largest ice cap in Iceland. Though not formally educated herself, the artistic woman dug into her savings and sought a lawyer for help: Sveinn Björnsson, who years later would become Iceland’s first president. In court they argued that the rental agreement should be canceled, but the case dragged on for years, according to the official site for Gullfoss. At least once, Tómasdóttir was said to have set off on foot over tough terrain to Reykjavik to follow up on the case with her lawyer. Her trek, one way, would have totaled nearly 75 miles.
Tómasdóttir is widely seen as Iceland’s first environmentalist and memorialized on a sculpture that sits near Gullfoss.
Tómasdóttir’s efforts ultimately failed within Iceland’s legal system. At one point, according to travel guides of the site, she threatened to jump into Gullfoss if construction on a hydro project began. Yet her father’s contract was later canceled, after rental fee payments for Gullfoss failed to trickle in. “There was no prospect of any power-intensive industrial development at the time,” so speculators let the contract lapse, says Helgi Skúli Kjartansson, a history professor at the University of Iceland who’s written about Tómasdóttir. Before Tómasdóttir’s death in 1957, a family member eventually sold Gullfoss and the surrounding area to the Icelandic government, which now protects the publicly accessible land.
Most Icelanders are familiar with Tómasdóttir’s struggle, “although there are debates about how dramatic the story is,” cautions Aron Hinriksson, a pastor and occasional tour guide who lives in Selfoss. Indeed, Tómasdóttir is often credited with having “saved” Gullfoss — “an interpretation avidly exploited by the tourist industry,” says Kjartansson. It’s only natural, he says. “You expect tourists to be receptive to simple and memorable items rather than the ifs and buts of critical history.” Tómasdóttir’s trips to Reykjavik took place by horse (not foot), he adds, noting how she fought unsuccessfully at other points to preserve Gullfoss. (An official from the organization that oversees the waterfall told OZY they don’t know more about Tómasdóttir’s story than what can be found online.)
Still, Tómasdóttir is widely seen as Iceland’s first environmentalist and memorialized on a sculpture that sits near Gullfoss. “At the time, people didn’t think about nature in the same way — such as preserving it — so she was a pioneer there,” says Hinriksson. Her story has also been invoked in more recent times. In 2002, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir — the mom of pop star Björk, who is likely the only Icelander you’ve heard of — drew some comparisons to Tómasdóttir after she starved herself for weeks to protest the construction of an aluminum smelter and hydroelectric plant in her homeland’s highlands. (The companies carried on with their plans, and Hauksdóttir ended her hunger strike, noting that she had raised global concern for her cause.)
In 2010, Tómasdóttir’s tale was adapted into a children’s book, The Gullfoss Legends, where her fictional alter ego took on scalding pools of mud, a wolf man and an evil assassin while trying to thwart a British plan to build a dam on her waterfall. “This is a story,” the author notes, “for anybody who has battled but refused to give up.”