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Longread: The Norwegian Carpenter who Chose a New Homeland

zita kisgergely

By Krisztián Nyári

It was by coincidence that a poor Norwegian young man, Guilbrand Gregersen, ended up in Hungary shortly before the revolution of 1848. Soon after that he offered not only his heart but also his workforce to Hungary. Although he withstood several strokes of fate, he was able to stand back on his feet in all circumstances.

If Austrian railway workers had not stolen the baggage of a young Norwegian, the Parliament, Keleti and Nyugati Railway Stations, Mathias Church, the city centre of Szeged, as well as a number of bridges and public buildings in Hungary would look totally different today. Twenty-three-year-old Guilbrand (Gudbrand) Gregersen arrived in Central Europe in the hope of finding well-paid construction jobs and in spring 1847 he left Prague on foot for Vienna, from where he intended to move on to Munich by train. He had no money for a train ticket but he did send his luggage forward by train. His modest trunk was hiding clothes and a few personal items brought from home. Arriving in Vienna, he immediately went to the customs office for his luggage. When he opened the trunk, all he saw was a couple of bricks, rags and straw in it. Gregersen was embittered by the fact that he had been robbed. His friends were just about to have some entertainment in the imperial city but he would not join them wearing the worn-out working clothes. He heard about the construction works in Pest-Buda and he decided to try his luck in the unknown city by the Danube bend and earn enough money to buy new clothes. Parting with his friends, he said he would meet them in Munich within half a year.

Keleti railway station and Baross Square in the early 1930s.

Photo: Ted Grauthoff

In the end he spent 63 years in Hungary, where he became an officer in the national army in the War of Independence and later one of the most significant entrepreneurs in the country, who participated in almost all major construction projects during the age of dualism. In the meantime he went bankrupt and once he lost all his wealth in a fire but he always stood up and started it all from scratch. He died as a Hungarian nobleman and the biggest taxpayer in Budapest; there were legends about his honesty at a time when construction works were accompanied by corruption scandals.

It was not at the construction sites in Pest that he found work as he had planned but at the prolongation of the railway line between Pest and Vác, also recorded by the poet Petőfi. In autumn 1847 he was working in Upper Hungary, now part of Slovakia, and he soon received his first independent task to build a smaller wooden bridge. In the following more than half a century there were hardly any railway development works he did not participate in personally.

We do not know what made the Norwegian businessman, who could not say a word in Hungarian at the beginning and was much more at ease in the company of Austrians and Germans, side with the rebellious Hungarians in 1848. Whatever the case, he joined the national army as a volunteer and served as a sapper officer in an engineering corps. His expertise and commitment are both proved by the fact that he built the pontoon bridge near Pask, indispensable for the military operations in Western Hungary, in a record one-and-a-half days. After the War of Independence was crushed, he also thought it better to flee the country. He headed for Italy, where he worked on the construction of a bridge over the Piave. He could have stayed longer or traveled further on but he intended to settle down in Hungary. After his return he took part in the construction works of the Esztergom-Párkány railway line and it was as a result of this commission that he found himself in Szob, where he bought a plot and built a house from his saved earnings. In 1852 he met the local butcher’s daughter, Alojzia Sümeg, whom he married in the same year.

The couple spoke German at home and knowing this language was sufficient for work, too. However, Gregersen found it important to learn Hungarian and he wrote the Hungarian words to be learnt during the day on a black slate board so that he could glance at it as he walked about. He would not prove successful in this one thing: he spoke the language of his chosen homeland with mistakes and a strong accent even at the end of his life. Not so his children, who learnt Hungarian in addition to German and Norwegian at a young age. Thus Hungarian words were more and more often uttered in the Gregersen house: from 1854 a total of 19 children were born to the couple and 12 of them reached adulthood.

 

 

When he felt he had taken root in Hungary for good, he attracted his brothers to his new homeland, too. The first major independent work of the family business was building the railway bridge by Szolnok, ensuring connection between Pest and Debrecen. Built in 1857, the 500-metre-long structure spanning over several riverbeds and flood basins qualified as the largest wooden railway bridge in the country at the time. The Norwegian master builder and his brothers, known for their fast, accurate and cheap work, were then employed to build dozens of railway lines, more than thirty railway bridges, a number of tunnels and several railway stations. The caisson foundation, first applied in Central Europe by the Gregersens while constructing the bridge in Szeged, making it possible to build foundations in wet riverbeds, was considered a technical miracle. The way he solved the design of the railway tunnel starting at Déli railway station in Buda, which withstood the load until these days, was also an outstanding feat.

Help in trouble

Gregersen was not yet considered a particularly rich man when he felt he had to thank Hungary in some way for accepting him. In 1860 his name was among those aristocrats and bankers who donated some of their wealth for the construction of the Hungarian Academy of Science. Later, he coninued offering significant amounts for charity purposes. When he had accumulated enough capital, he purchased a plot in Lónyay Street in Ferencváros, where he first established a wood depot and joinery factory and later a windmill. His business was so prosperous that when the first Transylvanian railway was constructed, he participated in the works not only as a contractor but also as a shareholder of the investment company.

And then he went bankrupt within a matter of days. As a result of a stock market crash, construction projects came to a halt so Gregersen also became insolvent. Not wanting to be in debt with his subcontractors, he paid and almost all his wealth went up in smoke. It seemed he had to give up his dreams of founding a company. However, he contacted his previous business partners and he took up minor loans from them instead of the banks. As there were legends going around about his honesty, they were happy to lend him and he duly repaid the loans within a few years. His situation had just normalised when in 1870 his entire wood depot burnt down in a huge fire. He rebuilt everything and then all of it burnt down yet again in 1875. Others would have given up long before but he managed to stand up even after this.

The railway construction fever was followed by the decades of developing the new capital, Budapest, when he participated in the construction of Mathias Church, the Museum of Fine Art and the Opera House. When a new avenue was built in the capital, the residents of the palaces along the way did not wish to hear the rattle of horse carts on the cobblestones. As a solution, the Gregersen factory produced tens of thousands of wooden bricks, which were used to cover the main road now called Andrássy Road. The company then cooperated in building Nyugati railway station, designed by the Eiffel Office from Paris, and participated in the construction of the National Theatre. In 1875 he built the family’s palace in Lónyay Street not far from his factory. The equipment of the two-storey, Neo-Renaissance building, decorated with frescoes by Károly Lotz, was 20-30 years ahead of its time: bathrooms, water closet toilets and food lifts served the comfort of its residents.

The building of the National Theatre

Gregersen did not deplete his business revenues nor would he take it to the stock market due to his bad experiences: he used to profit from his companies to purchase plots in the outskirts of Budapest. Within a few decades he owned a substantial part of Ferencváros and Angyalföld quarters and as the city grew the value of his plots also soared. It is to prove both his enormously increased wealth and his honesty that he was the biggest taxpayer in the capital as early as in 1873. At the construction sites he controlled, he sometimes employed tens of thousands of people simultaneously. His approach to business is well demonstrated by the fact that he most probably did not earn a penny on the work that brought him national fame. When the flooding Tisza ruined the city centre of Szeged in 1879, Gregersen did not hesitate to offer his services for the rescue operations. First he had temporary wooden houses built for the thousands of families who suffered flood damage and then he removed the water from the inundated city centre using his special pumps. He employed 3,000 people, who loaded 160 horse carts and 84 railway carriages daily with earth, with which they filled up the low-lying areas and erected circular dykes around the city. The works lasted for three years and Gregersen’s expenses exceeded the previously estimated budget so the operations were concluded with a loss. The writer Kálmán Mikszáth, who at the time worked as a journalist in Szeged, set the Norwegian from a faraway land as an example in one of his articles as opposed to the local entrepreneurs wishing to make a profit even on the disaster. But appraisal arrived from elsewhere, too: King Franz Joseph granted noble rank to the Norwegian peasant boy.

Son of two countries

If anyone wished to boast with the achievements of the Hungarian construction industry before the beginning of the 20th century, they mostly listed works completed by Gregersen’s company: they were involved in building the Opera House just as in constructing the Elizabeth Bridge. In Fiume, they built the largest harbour of wooden structure in the world at the time but they also received orders in Prague and Bosnia. This required the establishment of subsidiaries but Gregersen kept managing the company in the traditional way as a kind of patriarch. On special occasions he would listen to the concert given by the brass band formed by the factory workers and the employees received presents from him at Christmas. In his elder years he returned to his native land on several occasions and he bought an estate and a farm house there. He is regarded as one of the founding fathers of Norwegian technical higher education, for which purpose he donated huge amounts of money. Several times he was received by the king and the prime minister of Norway, which seceded from Sweden in 1905, and he conversed with them in the rural dialect he had brought from his village. He could always reconcile his Norwegian and Hungarian identities; he was a major multinational entrepreneur, a Hungarian nobleman and a Norwegian peasant at the same time. He never retired from work: even over the age of 80 he regularly traveled to sites in the countryside to check the progress of the work in person.

 

Border crossing at the Elizabeth Bridge in Komárom

On Christmas Eve in 1910 Guilbrand Gregersen of 86 years presented his family members and employees in his house in Szob as usual and he even told them a Christmas poem in Norwegian. He arranged some milk loaf and wine to be sent to the policeman stationed at the corner and then retired to his room for the night. He could be righteously proud to have transformed the image of his chosen homeland with his two hands and his talent in six decades. Fresh in mind and healthy in body, he went to sleep forever.

For a short time after his death it seemed that the company inherited by his family kept developing vigorously: they received a request from the Turkish government to modernise the sea port in Constantinople. There was no way to implement the work though; the world war broke out and peaceful construction investments were soon halted everywhere. The construction industry withered during the recession after the war; moreover, the Transylvanian, Upper Hungarian and Bosnian wood depots of the company were suddenly in foreign land. And as there was no one to start anew despite all difficulties, in 1921 the owners of Gregersen G. and Sons Construction Company decided to wind up the company. The winding-up process lasted for decades while the family lived from utilising and gradually selling the vast real estate holdings. They had properties left to be expropriated even in 1951, from where the last living daughter and grandchild of the emigrant Norwegian were evicted by the Rákosi regime.

The whole article can be read in the March 2017 edition of BBC History.

Photos via Fortepan