by Liuba Timonina, JŪRMALA
Jūrmala is without any doubt one of the most popular tourist destinations in Latvia, and the top one outside Riga. Several hundred thousand people come to Jūrmala all the year round to enjoy its cosy atmosphere and nice restaurants and take a walk along its famous 33 km long white sandy beach. It usually takes about twenty minutes to reach the seaside by train, and this makes Jūrmala especially attractive among backpackers coming to Latvia for a short stay: it takes little time or money. However, going there has not always been as easy as it is nowadays.
As you might know, “Jūrmala” means “seashore” in Latvian, so going to Jūrmala is basically going to the seaside. Tourists who do not know much about this place may get confused while trying to buy tickets at Central Station in Riga, because there is actually no station called Jūrmala. There are fourteen districts, or residential areas – Priedaine, Lielupe, Bulduri, Dzintari, Majori, Dubulti, Jaundubulti, Pumpuri, Melluži, Asari, Vaivari, Sloka, Jaunķemeri and Ķemeri – and the same number of railway stations to choose from. They were long just lonely fishing villages far from seething Riga – that is until one summer day in the late 1870s which changed the way they looked forever.
On the remarkable day of 25th June a railway line between Riga and Majori – the fourth to be built in what is now Latvia – was opened. It was a truly significant event in the history of Latvia which triggered its economic and cultural development. It took just some years for the remote spots to become crowded health resorts and several decades for the whole area to become a city. First in 1920 Rīgas Jūrmala was created, comprising all fourteen districts mentioned above except Sloka and Ķemeri, which – in their turn – were added to the city in 1959, completing the present-day city of Jūrmala. And the construction of the railway played a key role in this process from the very beginning. So let us go back a hundred and fifty years and make a trip to Jūrmala. A trip that many of us make, unconscious of what is actually concealed behind the things flickering past the window…
Every Single Rail Has Its History
I have always been fascinated by railways. The changes railways bring with them to the places they reach are stunning. Nowadays we are used to taking planes, trains, cars and other means of transport whenever we like, but before the 19th century there was nothing like that. As the Industrial Revolution spread all over the world during the second half of the 19th century, railways became an essential part of communication between countries and people. Whooshing trains were the true embodiments of the positivistic spirit of the time. And Latvia was no exception.
Due to its geographical position, which made it a sort of a bridge connecting the Russian Empire with European countries, Latvia (at that time split between the Governorates of Livonia, Courland and Vitebsk) got its first railroad in 1860. It stretched from Rītupe to Daugavpils and was a section of the St. Petersburg–Warsaw railway.
From the 21st of September 1861 one could take a train from Riga to Daugavpils (then Dünaburg). For this purpose there was a new railway station built in Riga – the Dünaburg Railway station. The name “Dünaburg” was used officially from the second half of the 17th century until 1893, when it was changed to Dvinsk. The city of Daugavpils was officially given its modern name only in 1920.
Some years later, in 1868 the railway rush reached Jelgava – then called Mitau, and a busy and vibrant city at that time. Interestingly enough, the railroads were not built by the government. Instead, every time a railroad was needed – a new private company responsible for its construction was set up. The Riga – Daugavpils line became state-owned only in 1894. A railroad to Jūrmala took several years to built and went through several stages: Riga-Bolderāja, Riga-Majori, and Majori-Tukums.
Building Bridges: Bolderāja
The first railway line to the sea stretched from Riga to Bolderāja. It was initiated due to economic reasons: using trains to deliver cargo and goods directly from the Port of Riga in the Baltic Sea was much easier and faster than shipping them along the shallow River Daugava. It took almost five years (1869-1873) to build the railroad. The biggest challenge was the construction of a railway bridge over the Daugava. Until the emergence of the Riga – Bolderāja line it was only possible to reach the other side of Riga – Pārdaugava – by crossing the so-called Raft Bridge (which was replaced by the Pontoon Bridge in 1896).
The railway bridge was built in 1872 and was named “the Iron Bridge”. It had only one track in the middle and a pedestrian path on either side. Thus, it was possible to cross the bridge by foot or – for an extra fee – in a carriage.
In 1914, on the eve of World War I, a new railway bridge (“The New Iron Bridge”) was built beside the old one, according to the project of a well-known Russian engineer, Pyotr Voznesensky. After World War I, the New Iron Bridge was used for road traffic only and until 1938 bore the name the Zemgales Bridge (in honour of Zemgale, one of the five historical regions of Latvia – historically known as Semigallia in English).
Unfortunately, both bridges were completely destroyed during World War II. Railway traffic on the Iron Bridge as we see it today was relaunched in 1950. The remains of pillars beside it on the right hand side when going to Jūrmala by train are those from the original bridge.
After the connection between the two sides of Riga was set up, it took just one year to finish the whole line. Bolderāja station was officially opened on the 1st of January 1873 becoming the second largest railway station in what is now Latvia after Riga. The Riga – Bolderāja line had its one terminal – Riga II – and was not directly connected with the Riga Station (it was located on 13. Janvāra Street). During the first few years the line was operated by British tank engines. They were steam locomotives without tenders – special wagons which were usually filled with the necessary amount of water.
Auf, an den Strand!
The year of 1877 was truly significant. As mentioned above, on the 25th of June 1877 a new railway line was opened between Riga and Majori and marked the beginning of health tourism in the Baltics. The emergence of the railway connection with central Riga transformed fishing villages to popular “kurorts” (a German word for resort) in just a few years. Instead of spending hours on a steamboat (launched in 1844) it was now possible to get to the sea in two and a half hours.
The original stations built in 1877 for the purposes of tourism were the following: Pupe, Bilderlingshof, Edinburg, Majorenhof, Dubbeln, Karlsbad, Asari, Sloka, Ķemeri, and Smārde. Ten in total. Do you recognise some of these names on the blue line?
The modern railway map looks richer than the original one. Imanta station (Solitjud) came in 1894, Avoti in 1907, Priedaine (Sosnovij) in 1909. Lielupe (Bullen Halt) was built in 1913. Jaundubulti was built at the request of local residents in 1925. Vaivari (Asari II) was opened in 1927. Kudra was built in 1951, due to the needs of a peat factory and its workers. Zolitūde station, serving the now-notorious district of the same name, appeared only in 1989.
The first stop for passengers travelling to the seashore was Thorensberg (Torņakalns). In fact, Torņakalns became a regular station only in 1877, after the railroad to Majori was finished.
Nowadays the Torņakalns station is mostly associated with the mass deportations of 1941 and 1949, commemorated by a stock-car on the left side. But before the dramatic events of the 20th century, Torņakalns was actually one of the most romantic places in Riga, due to beautiful Arkādijas Park and Māras Pond.
The second stop – Zassenhof (Zasulauks) – was mostly known for its chemical and woodworking factories. For example, in the 18th century there was a paper manufacturing industry which was operated by both wind and water. It was built by Johann Steinhauer, a famous Latvian entrepreneur, who first worked with the Swedes and after the year of 1720 with the Russians and owned several manors in Zassenhof. But one of the most well-known factories was probably an engineering factory, Motor, where the first airplane in the Russian Empire was made.
Here is what is left of the famous factory today.
Unfortunately, it is pretty hard to see this building while going to Jūrmala by train because it is partially hidden from the view by trees and a concrete wall. But in case you are interested in going there by foot, it is situated at the beginning of Šampētera street.
Wondering why the train passes by the Depo in the middle of the way to Jūrmala? That is because of the Zasulauks locomotive depot that was placed there in 1960 due to increasing railway traffic, and which is still running.
The next station on the way to Jūrmala was Pupe station (Babīte) which, curiously enough, provided access to some popular taverns located in the towns of Piņķi and Pupe.
Bilderlingshof (Bulduri) was and still is the first railway station on the Riga – Tukums line situated by the sea. Its name comes from a person called Valter von Bildring who was granted this area by the Master of the Livonian order Valters von Plettenberg in the distant 1566. In the second half of the 19th century Bulduri became a favorite summer destination of the German-speaking population of Riga and therefore was nicknamed “The German Fortress”.
Edinburg, which is now the famous Dzintari station, was named so in honour of Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, who married one of Alexander II’s daughters, Maria.
In 1907, a new station was added between Bilderlingshof and Edinburg, so the Edinburg station was transformed into Edinburg II, while the new one got the name Edinburg I. In 1929 both stations changed their names to Avoti (which comes from the Latvian word for “springs”) and Dzintari (the amber which the coast is famous for) respectively. Avoti was, to use a modern expression, a short-term project and was closed in 1963.
Majorenhof, or Majori as we now know it, has been the main stop for visitors to Jūrmala since 1877. Even today when going to Jūrmala, most people end up in Majori.
Already in the 19th century Majorenhof, together with Bilderlingshof and Edinburg, was an area for summer residences with lots of outdoor activities and holiday celebrations. The first restaurant one could see arriving in Majori was the one at the station itself. Before the World War I the Majori station was also the main place for exporting strawberries to St. Petersburg.
Going a little bit off the railway track, I would like to show you two of the most popular places in Majori in the past. One of them was the so-called Jūras Paviljons (“the Sea Pavilion”).
Today it looks abandoned and forgotten, almost hidden in the shadow of the Titanic-like Baltic Beach Hotel beetling over the beach. But at the end of the 19th century the Jūras Paviljon attracted hundreds of people; it was definitely the place to be during the summertime.
Unlike other sea resorts in Jūrmala, Majori got its first bathing place only in the 20th century. I am sure you have seen the house below as well while walking along the seaside. This is the famous Emīlija Rācene swimming centre. It was one of the most famous resort destinations in Jūrmala in the beginning of the 20th century.
A Train Straight to the Spa
While nowadays most tourists go to Majori, that does not mean that there is nothing else to see in Jūrmala. As mentioned above, Jūrmala consists of fourteen districts, and it is absolutely worth going further than Majori. Whatever happens, there is always a simple and nice way to get back – along the seaside.
The third stage of constructing the railroad to the sea, the line Majori – Tukums, was successfully finished on the 21st of September 1877 making it possible to quickly reach the three biggest health resorts in the Baltics at the end of the 19th century – Dubbeln, Karlsbad and Kemeri.
Dubbeln (Dubulti) is one of the oldest bathing spots in Jūrmala. The original railway station built in 1877 was heavily damaged during the first half of the 20th century. It took quite a while for the Soviet state to do the reconstruction – the new station building was only built in 1977.
The first guesthouse for visitors was built here in 1834. At the end of the 19th century, Dubbeln was mostly known for its gorgeous sanatorium, Marienbad, the first and best in the Baltics. Founded in 1870, it can still be seen today:
Dubbeln was also the first place to have warm seawater baths installed in the dunes (in 1858). This sounds quite unusual but it is actually reminiscent of modern jacuzzis. The water for such baths would be pumped through pipes directly connected to the sea. From 1881 onwards men and women were allowed to bathe together – as long as they wore bathing suits, of course.
Karlsbad station (Pumpuri) speaks for itself – there was another “bathing place” there. Do not mix it up with the other one of the same name in Bohemia (nowadays Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic). “Karlsbad” comes from the name of Karl Fircks, who simply bought the whole residential area in 1827. Until 1920 almost the whole territory of the present-day Jūrmala belonged to the Fircks family, not to the state as one might think.
In the interwar period Pumpuri was called by its old name, Melluži. An amazing fact about this particular railway station is that the station building you see today is the original one from 1877. Just imagine – it survived two world wars!
Off to Ķemeri
Those who have the time and desire to see more of Jūrmala can take the train a bit farther and see other charming stations and places, away from hackneyed tourist attractions.
Pumpuri is followed by the Assern station (Asari). Unfortunately, like most of the railway stations, it was burnt down during the First World War. However, the new building, designed in 1926 by the well-known Latvian architect Pēteris Feders, still stands today.
When the railway reached Sloka (Schlock) in the second half of the year in 1877, Sloka was a separate town. The emergence of the railway really helped Sloka’s population to keep up with the entrepreneurial spirit of the time.
At the beginning of the 20th century a paper-mill and a cement factory was built, which actively used the railway connection with Riga to deliver and sell their products.
Ķemeri became widely known at the end of the 18th century when the first chemical analysis of sulfur waters was made here. In 1838 Ķemeri resort was founded. In 1911, a direct connection between Ķemeri and Moscow was established, allowing visitors from remote parts of the Russian Empire to come directly to the Baltic health resorts. The station building you see nowadays dates from 1922 and was designed by Arthur Moedlinger.
In 1912-1914 there was an electric tram line going from Kemmern to a small area called Neu-Kemmern which after the war changed its name to Jaunķemeri and became part of the big Ķemeri in 1959.
It was a long trip from Riga to Jūrmala in 1877. It took almost seven years to make, starting with the building of the Iron Bridge across the Daugava river and continuing northwards past the small, cosy town of Smārde towards the beautiful city of Tukums. Like Torņakalns, Tukums is also known for having been a departure point for the mass deportations of 1949. But that is another story and another journey.
Liuba Timonina is a freelance writer and translator living in Riga
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