One of the most remarkable sites in the south of Iceland is the Gullfoss waterfall in Hvítá, the White River. On the lower level of the visiting site, you will see this statue of a sharp-eyed woman. There is a noteworthy story behind this monument. Let’s hear it.
A plan to make a dam
It is hard to imagine when you watch Gullfoss now that more than a hundred years ago there were plans to build a hydroelectric dam in the river, that would have “drowned” the waterfall itself. This was in 1907. At that time a woman by the name Sigríður Tómasdóttir lived on the nearby sheep farm, Brattholt, with her family. She was the second oldest of 13 siblings. The ruins of the old farm can still be seen and today Brattholt is a popular guesthouse. At the time the farm owned half of the land where the waterfall is. Sigríður and her sisters guided visitors on occasion to the waterfall. Tomas her father, had agreed with the investors to build the dam, but later developments made him regret the arrangement. They went into a legal battle that lasted for years. They lost the court case but eventually, the investors gave up and stopped paying the lease for the area. This development took the better of 20 years!
All through this time, Sigríður fought with all her strength to preserve the waterfall. At the beginning of the 19th century, the roadworks in Iceland were very limited and many of the rivers we now cross on our journey from Reykjavík to Gullfoss were a major hurdle. That didn’t stop Sigríður in her pursuit. She made numerous trips by foot to Reykjavik (120 km – 75 miles) to meet with government officials and fight her case, a trip that took the better of a week. She became well known for her battle for the preservation of Gullfoss. Later in her life, her neighbors decided to honor her for the effort by giving her a painting of the waterfall on her 70th birthday. Sigríður never liked the painting and ended up throwing it into the river. When she and her father lost the court case, she threatened to throw herself into the waterfall if they would start the work on the dam.
The first activist in Iceland?
Sigríður was a remarkable woman in many respects. She did the outside jobs on the farm same as the male workers – which was uncommon a hundred years ago in Iceland. Strong-willed and resilient are the words some of her contemporaries used to describe her. She was artistic; it is known that visitors traveling to see Gullfoss bought drawings from her. Good to know that somewhere in the world there is painting on a wall by Sigríður! She knew the nature around her by heart, every flower, and pasture. Sigridur was a lonely person, she avoided all interactions with people. An environmentalist and activist if she would be alive today? Yes, for sure.
The memorial of Sigríður Tómasdóttir was uncovered in 1978, initiated by the Ministry of Education and local authorities in the region. It is made by Ríkharður Jónsson, Iceland’s most famous sculptor. Ríkharður had visited Brattholt to paint her picture. When he was finished, he went outside for a moment. When he got back the picture was no longer there. He asked Sigríður what had become of the painting. You can’t collect what the fire keeps – was her answer. She disliked the painting. Later Ríkharður drew another painting and used that one as the model of the portrait. Sigríður died in an elderly home in the Reykjavik area on the 17th of November 1957. She is buried next to her parents and siblings in the graveyard in the Haukadalur forest.