Steamboat Tarjanne – a Short History

Steamboat Tarjanne in an old black and white picture at Romppaansalmi
Steamboat Tarjanne on her route at Romppaansalmi Virrat. Aarne Pietinen, 1938, National Heritage Agency. CC BY 4.0

Steamboat Tarjanne is the last steamboat operating in a scheduled long-haul traffic on the Finnish lake area. The steamer is still cruising between Tampere, Ruovesi and Virrat just as it was 115 years ago. The video below provides a glimpse into the steamboat’s long history. Although the video was made in 2020, the history of the steamboat remains unchanged.

The Importance of Water Transport in the Early 20th Century

The story of steamboat Tarjanne is closely connected to the state of communications. In the early 20th century, water transport was an important part of Finnish communications network: roads were poor, the number of cars was still minimal and railway network reached only a part of Finland. In the interior of Finland, the nature had created many possible waterways for transport. Lakes and rivers connected people instead of separating them. This is easily forgotten in the present day society that relies mainly on land transport. People, cargo and ideas were moving on water. Of course, the waterways were also improved by humans: canals were built and channels were dredged. On lake Näsijärvi, Murole canal with its lockgate (1850–54), Kauttu and Visuvesi canals (without locks) were built and many sounds in the northern part of the route were dredged.

A steamboat approaching Murole canal in 1908. People at the canal waiting for the steamboat.
A steamboat approaching Murole canal in 1908. M.L Carstens, 1908, Collections of M.L. Carstens and History at the Finnish Heritage Agency. CC BY 4.0.

There had already been large sail boats and barges on lake Näsijärvi after the city of Tampere was founded in 1779. These schooners and yawls had been used to transport firewood (for fuel), agricultural products and iron ore to the needs of industries and people of Tampere. A new era started in 1859, when the first steampowered boat, Ahti, made its first cruise. After a slow start, the steamboat traffic boomed in the late 19th century. The society that was in the process of industrialisation needed new means of tranport.

 A map of lake Näsijärvi from 1931.
The major destinations of steamboat traffic around lake Näsijärvi. Edited from the map of Manka 2008, 205. The base map: Finnish roadmap 7 from 1931.

In the turn of the 20th century, the ports of Tampere (Mustalahti for passenger and Naistenlahti for cargo traffic) were bustling places. The white passenger steamboats carried people and farm products to the city, industrial products back to the countryside and upper class people to their villas on the eastern shore of lake Näsijärvi. Occasionally, there was someone aboard who could have been defined as a “tourist”. Of course, the tourist traffic was still minimal even if the Finnish Society for Travellers had been established in 1887. Most of the people did not have time nor money for leisure travel activities.

In addition to white passenger steamboats, the ports of Tampere were also busy with other types of vessels. Black steamtugs with their barges and slow cargo steamboats and barges brought huge quantities of firewood, stone (granite from Kuru, mainly) and other goods to Tampere. The steamtugs also towed large timber rafts from the northern areas to the needs of the forest industry located at Tampere and even further away at Pori, next to the Baltic Sea.

An old postcard presenting the port of Mustalahti at Tampere. Lots of firewood, steamboats and barges in the picture.
The port of Mustalahti in the early 20th century before the renovations were finished in 1909 and it had gotten its present form. A postcard by Knackstedt & Näther. The History Collection at the Finnish Heritage Agency. CC BY 4.0.

The Early Years of Steamboat Tarjanne: Competition with s/s Pohjola

In the northern parts of Näsijärvi area, the company called Tampereen–Wirtain Höyrylaiva Osakeyhtiö (Tampere–Wirrat Steamboat Ltd.) had a monopoly on passenger traffic. The company owned a new steamboat Pohjola (1905) but also an older wooden steamboat called Tampere. Due to the monopoly, the passenger and cargo tariffs were kept high. As a result of the high tariffs imposed by Tampereen–Wirtain Höyrylaiva Osakeyhtiö, local residents began to seek out cheaper and more convenient means of transporting themselves and their products to the markets in Tampere.

The locals in Ruovesi and Virrat thought that the best way to fight the monopoly of Tampere–Wirrat Steamboat company was to find a company of their own. The idea of cooperatives was spreading fast in the Finnish countryside in the early 20th century. Therefore, it is quite natural the new shipping company was found as a cooperative one. The constitutive meeting of Höyrylaiva Osuuskunta Tarjanne (Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne) was held at Ruovesi on 3rd of August 1907. A lot of people became members of the cooperative: with almost thousand members, this local shipping company became the largest cooperative in Finland (for a while). The name of the cooperative, Tarjanne, came from the local lake, Tarjannevesi. Things proceeded quickly and company ordered its steamboat, not-so-surprisingly called Tarjanne, from Lehtoniemi shipyard that was situated in Joroinen, eastern part of Finland. A shipyard from Tampere made its bid as well but it was much higher than that of Lehtoniemi.

The blueprint of s/s Tarjanne
The blueprint of s/s Tarjanne. Source: Lehtoniemen konepaja, Passenger steamboat Tarjanne. Suomen Elinkeinoelämän Keskusarkisto: referred in 7.3.2023.

In the winter of 1907–8 the project became tangible. The parts of the ship were transported from the eastern Finland by railway to the local dockyard at Vilppula where the actual construction work took place. In May of 1908, the ship was ready for her maiden voyage to Ruovesi and further on to Tampere. The measurements of the hull were as follows: length 29.5m, breadth a little over 6m and draught 1,7m (originally). The maximum passenger capacity was first set to 225 but later on changed to 240 – a huge number in modern standards. Tarjanne became the biggest and fastest steamboat of the lake as it reached almost 12 knots.

The first voyage to Ruovesi did not go without a mishap. As Tarjanne was approaching the quay of Ruovesi, the engine order of full astern was never obeyd as the shining new parts of the steam engine were still too stiff. Thus, Tarjanne bumped into the quay, and some members of the welcoming band (it was a ceremonial occasion) found themselves swimming in the lake. Some engine adjustments were still needed. After the brief visit at Ruovesi, Tarjanne continued towards Tampere where the official test cruise was made before the start of the scheduled traffic. The schedule in 1908 was as follows: Tarjanne departed from Tampere to Virrat on Tuesdays (as far as Enokoski), on Thursdays (as far as Tulijoki) and on Saturdays (to the main port of Virrat) at 10.15 am. The return voyages were made on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The departure times from Virrat were early: 3 am from Enokoski and Tulijoki and 4.45 am from the main port of Virrat. The arrival to Tampere was just after noon (12.45) which allowed the rural people to take care of their businesses in the town and sell agricultural products at the markets of Tampere.

A newspaper clip of the first schedule of steamboat Tarjanne.
The schedule of steamboat Tarjanne announced in Tampereen Sanomat on 21st of May 1908. The Digital Materials of the National library of Finland

The arrival of Tarjanne to the long-haul traffic between Tampere and Virrat was a starting point to a fierce competion between the newcomer and the steamboats Pohjola and Tampere of Tampere–Wirrat Steamboat Ltd. In addition to the competion on lake, the competition also took place in newspapers. The competing parties positioned themselves in different sides in the language debate, too. As Tampere–Wirrat Steamboat Ltd. used Swedish as their command language, Tarjanne was very Finnish speaking in every aspect. The cabins of the ship were called “kammio” (~chamber) as the ordinary word for cabin, “hytti”, was derived from Swedish “hytt”, and the saloons were called “pirtti” instead of “salonki” (Swedish: “salong”) for the same reason. The battle of languages that had been going on since 1900th century took some peculiar forms here! The rural background of the steamboat Tarjanne was also emphasised in many aspects: the rural folk had the right to walk on the upper deck from the beginning even if the compartments of the steamboat were divided into passenger classes, a normal procedure of the time.

Tarjanne arriving to Ruovesi in the early 1910s. Passengers aboard the steamboat and a deckhand with the rope.
Tarjanne arriving to the quay of Ruovesi in the early 1910s. J.H.Aho, 1910–13, the History Collection of the Finnish Heritage Agency. CC BY 4.0.

There was also a comical aspect to the competition between the two shipping companies. For example, in 1911, the departure time of Pohjola was moved to take place 30 minutes before Tarjanne’s in order to attract more passengers. Additionally, the quays on which the steamboats stopped were privately owned, and the owners could forbid the competing steamboat from calling at their port. When this became public knowledge, quay owners who supported the other steamboat forbade the other from calling at their port in revenge. Similar competition was seen twenty years later on the Tampere–Kuru route, so it seems that steamboat matters got the sulky Finns emotional. However, this silliness only lasted a couple of years, after which Tarjanne and Pohjola started cooperating and the fiercest competition stopped. The steamboats departed for Virrat on alternate days. The cooperative of Tarjanne also had a smaller steamboat, Into, which fed passengers to Ruovesi from Vilppula. At Ruovesi, they could take Tarjanne or Pohjola and travel to Tampere.

Tarjanne at Ruovesi full of passengers in the early 1910s. A lot of people on the quay.
Steamboat Tarjanne at Ruovesi. J.H.Aho, 1910–13, the History Collection of the Finnish Heritage Agency. CC BY 4.0.

Steamboat Tarjanne was a mixed passenger and cargo steamboat from the very beginning. The share of cargo of the all income was significant. The shopkeepers in Ruovesi and Virrat relied heavily on the steamboats from Tampere to transport their merchandise. The heaviest goods were first brought by train to the cargo port of Naistenlahti at Tampere. Then, Tarjanne sailed from Mustalahti to pick them up before taking the passengers aboard from Mustalahti. Even today, one can spot the cargo doors at the cafeteria of steamboat Tarjanne. The cargo holds were on the lower deck. The foredeck of the steamer, nowadays used for bike transport, was reserved for animals (sheep, cows, horses etc.). The cooperative had even a special rain shelter for the animals. Tarjanne underwent some small improvements over the years: the restaurant of the steamboat and its furnishings were reconstructed under the management and plans of Finnish artist, Akseli Gallén-Kallela in the spring 1916. Sadly, these improvements were mostly in vain as the turmoil of the First World War caught Tarjanne as well.

The Fleet of Satakunta – Tarjanne Becomes a Warship

The steamboat traffic in the lake Näsijärvi had continued fairly normally despite the First World War breaking out in the summer of 1914. The ostensible peace in the region lasted only a while. The Grand Duchy of Finland was still part of the Russian Empire which was waging war on Empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary (with UK and France as Russia’s allies). The Russians were afraid of Germans making a landing in Finland through which they could have threatened Petrograd (St. Petersburg). Therefore, they decided to set up a fleet on the lakes Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi. The Fleet of Satakunta (Satakundskaya Flotilla), a strange byway in the history of Tarjanne, was born. All the bigger passengers steamers of lake Näsijärvi (Tarjanne, Pohjola and Kuru), tugboats Murole and Näsijärvi and some barges and motor boats were requisitioned for this “Armada”. The Finnish crews had to stay aboard but otherwise the fleet was manned by Russian military. The steamboats were stripped off all “unnecessary”, for example Tarjanne lost most of its upper deck cabins (see picture). In addition, steamers got a military painting and 75 mm cannons were installed. Luckily, not a single shot was fired as the structures of the steamboats would have been under serious test.

Tarjanne as a warship at the port of Mustalahti
Steamboat Tarjanne is being converted to a warship. Photographer not known, the Photo Archives of Vapriikki

The fleet conducted some drills transporting troops in the summer of 1916. In October, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich reviewed the fleet as it steamed to Virrat and back to Tampere. During the winter of 1916-17, the fleet was placed on standby mode, with steam being kept up all winter even when the lake was frozen with 50 cm thick ice. A lot of firewood was used, but otherwise, events were rare. Gradually, most Finnish crews left the steamboats and went home.

After the Russian February Revolution of 1917, it became quite clear that there was no use for this fleet anymore. Even the Russians themselves decided to put an end to this lake fleet. The ships were returned to their owners in October 1917. The state of the steamboats was miserable. According to the newspaper reports, all movable property that could be easily taken was gone. Sometimes even property that was not so easy to take: the lifeboat of Tarjanne was found only after the Finnish Civil War from Lappeenranta in the eastern Finland!

The Roaring Twenties of Tarjanne

After the “loan” in the Russian fleet, there was lot to be done with steamboat Tarjanne before it could be put back in to the scheduled traffic. Large scale repairs were conducted in the dockyards at Tampere – the Finnish Civil War pausing the work for a while. Finally, Tarjanne was back in its scheduled traffic in June 1918. During the 1920s, the Finnish economy was growing and there was a need for transportation of people and cargo. The passenger capacity of Tarjanne was set to 240 and the steamboat was full of people on many occasions. At this period, the crew consisted of 16 people: shipmaster, chief engineer, two mates (one responsible of cargo, other for navigation), two stokers, three deckhands, a housekeeper, a kitchen maid, a potato peeler, a dishwasher and two waitresses. During that period, labour costs were much lower than they are today.

The shipmasters and chief engineers of Tarjanne and other bigger lake steamboats were men who were well aware of their worth. The shipmaster was better paid than other crew members and also received a commission of the freight, which meant a fixed share of the cargo revenues of the steamboat. The work on board was hard for all members of the crew, as the days were long and one had to work in the dark and even in snowstorms without any modern equipment. Nevertheless, the work on board was attractive as it offered a chance to do something different from the “normal” work in rural areas. Additionally, working aboard a moving steamboat provided an opportunity to work as a middleman between the countryside and the town, sometimes even illegally. For example, a large-scale moonshine business run by the crews of Tarjanne and Pohjola was discovered in 1924 during the era of Finnish prohibition (1919–32). All participants in this surely profitable but sadly illegal business were fired.

The gender roles aboard Tarjanne – as in the society of the time – were quite strict (the first female shipmaster was working on Tarjanne only in 1990). This becomes visible from the call for housekeeper in local newspaper, Virtain Sanomat, in 1924:

The housekeeper is required to provide a first-class food and coffee service on the upper deck, in addition to the more basic service on the middle deck. She must serve food to the shipmaster and eight men using her own set of dishes, cutlery, and table napkins, which must be of a first-class standard for the upper deck restaurant. Furthermore, she is responsible for all cleaning tasks typically assigned to women on board.

The call for housekeeper by Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne. Virtain Sanomat 15.2.1924.

Normally, the scheduled traffic started when the ice cover was about to break and continued until the ice was so thick that operating was not possible – Tarjanne also had some capability of breaking the ice. This meant that lot of traffic happened in the darkness of Finnish autumn – the searchlight of the steamboat was much needed. Between the main ports, one could get aboard from over 40 quays as every major farm and village had their own quay. One could step aboard from a boat if one gave a signal to a steamboat to pick them up. Due to lack of mobile communications, one had to use the wooden signalling device called “vinkkari” or raise a flag on the quay to signal the steamboat to make a call at that quay. The dense network of quays made the traffic slower. However, the practice of the steamboats was to make the calls at quays with high speeds. If one saw that there were people on the quay, steamboat turned there proceeding with full steam ahead until taking full astern very near the quay making the call at the quay resemble a Formula 1 pit stop.

An idyllic picture of the port of Virrat. A woman is getting up the hill and there are two steamboats in the background.
A photo of the port of Virrat in the 1920s if not even earlier. The photo collections of Werstas. Rights obtained.

One can easily use the epithet Roaring Twenties of the 1920s of the steamboat Tarjanne. The members of the Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne received regular income (interest payments) from the company as the traffic was profitable. However, some incidents occurred also during this period: Tarjanne ran aground when the first mate fell asleep as the steamboat was returning to Tampere from Virrat in October 1926. The people remained uninjured but the bow of Tarjanne was badly damaged. Every cloud has a silver lining, though: the ice breaking capabilities of Tarjanne were improved during the repairs. The cause of the accident led to police making enquiries about the state of the first mate in question. He denied having been drinking – admitting he had done it the previous day – and claiming that the cause of the accident was “waking up early” which had led him falling asleep while steering. The investigation did not result in any charges being filed.

Despite the profitable traffic, the signs of a new era were already in the wind: the number of buses and lorries was steadily increasing, the road network was improved and as it was stated in the editorial of the newspaper Aamulehti in 1923: “the value of time is in the process of becoming clear not only to city dwellers but to country folk as well. One has to be able to get their business done faster.” In addition to these changes in the society, the steamboat traffic on lake Näsijärvi suffered a heavy and surprising setback in September 1929.

The Sinking of Steamboat Kuru and the Decline of Steamboat Traffic

Due to the events of Saturday, 7 September 1929, the steamboat traffic of lake Näsijärvi got to headlines all over the world. There was a heavy storm on the lake. After some negotiations among the crew members, steamboat Kuru decided to leave the port of Mustalahti from Tampere to head to Kuru on its scheduled route. Just a few minutes after the departure, Kuru was struck by three big waves (there were also faults in the construction of Kuru) and steamboat sank quickly to the bottom of the lake. Tarjanne had departed just a couple of minutes after Kuru and started the rescue operation. The crew of Tarjanne managed to salvage 13 persons from the stormy lake and 9 others were saved, too (with other boats and a couple of persons made it to the shore, too). But the number of casualties was huge, 136, and the accident was followed by public mourning. For example, the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Tampere were canceled. The investigation that followed concluded that the main cause of the accident was “natural forces” but the faults in construction could have assisted the sinking of Kuru. After a lengthy process in several courts, no one was found guilty. And the need for traffic was such high, that the steamboat Kuru was lifted, repaired (the construction failures addressed) and put back to its route in 14 November the same year.

The diver getting ready to dive to the hull of steamboat Kuru when victims are being sought.
The divers are looking for the victims of steamboat Kuru from the hull. JOKA Journalistic Photo Archive at the National Heritage Agency. CC BY 4.0.

Even if the accident of Kuru did not affect directly to the traffic of Tarjanne, it can be thought as a symbolic beginning of an era that almost ended the steamboat traffic on lake Näsijärvi. Finland sank into global recession in the late 1920s which heavily decreased the income of Tarjanne. After a couple of years, Finnish economy started to recover but the steamboat traffic did not follow this trend. The cause was clear: roads had been improved, and technology had advanced to make buses and lorries more reliable and fast. Travelling to Virrat by bus took four and half in the early 1930s but only a little over three hours by the end of decade. The same trip with a steamboat took at least 9 to 10 hours depending on number of quays that the boat stopped at. The number of bus connections around lake Näsijärvi had also increased significantly. The Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne tried to match the demand by cooperating with some of the bus companies making it possible to travel part of the trip by bus and the other part by steamboat. A funny detail here is that the bus company operating the tours from and to Tarjanne today is the same one that Tarjanne cooperated with already in the 1930s.

Despite all the efforts, the steamboat traffic declined in the thirties. The competing steamboat, Pohjola, was sold to the Tarjanne Cooperative already in 1932 reducing the competition on the lake. But it was not enough. “Something needs to be done”, thought the management of the Cooperative.

A photo of the port of Mustalahti in 1932. Many steamboats in the picture.
Steamboats and folk at the port of Mustalahti in 1932. Tarjanne is the steamboat in the middle on the second row (background). The Collections of History and Finnish Agency for Tourism at the National Heritage Agency. CC BY 4.0.

Poet’s Way is Born

As the number of local passenger was getting scarce all over the Finnish lakes, the steamboat companies had to find new sources of income. Tourism was thought to be such as source even if the number of tourists in Finland was still quite small. The available options began to run out. The Tarjanne Cooperative participated in negotiations of opening up a new tourist route between Tampere, Virrat and Vaasa (on the Finnish west coast) in the autumn of 1933. The steamboat route along the lake Näsijärvi was the attraction of this new route. Decisions were quickly made and the advertising of this route began already in the next year (1934). The “Poet’s Way” received its name or title later in the decade after the national poet of Finland, J.L. Runeberg, who had spent his summers in Ruovesi in the 1820s. The Finnish poet and author Z. Topelius had also traveled on the same water routes, which was taken into account when advertising the new route.

Journalist Waldemar Rantoja wrote in his article about the newly established route in Aamulehti in 1934 as follows:

The boat glides through the brilliant scenery of lake Vaskivesi to the waters of Virrat with the rays of afternoon sunshine reflected from the water. On these waters, a soft and pure, almost melancholic smile appears on the face of our fatherland: beautiful bays, groves, trails and hills appear all around the steamboat. There would be a lot to see at Virrat: the gorges of Toriseva and the Pilvilinna villa [of the artist Armin Sandberg] and the altar of love, lake Toisvesi and the canal of Herraskoski. On this occasion, there’s no time for all this as a magnificent bus is already waiting for us at the port and we will get in it.

Waldemar Rantoja: Tampere–Virrat–Vaasa, Aamulehti 12.8.1934

The new tourist route got quite much national publicity: the Finnish Broadcasting Company, Yleisradio, made a story of the Poet’s Way in 1938 (in Finnish). The tone was quite national romantic and nationalist which was typical for descriptions of the time. One purpose of tourism was to get people to “know their country” besides spending their leisure time.

Tarjanne on the open water. Picture taken from ashore in the middle of birches.
Tarjanne on lake Näsijärvi. Aarne Pietinen, 1938, National Heritage Agency. CC BY 4.0.

The development of the tourist route continued with the inclusion of the Tampere-Virrat route in the offerings of the Finnish State Railways. In 1934, the railway company launched its “Round Tour” (Rengasmatka) ticket offer, which allowed travelers to buy tickets at railway stations and embark on predefined tours lasting from one to several days. These tours could include several modes of transportation, such as trains, steamboats, and buses. The construction of the railway between Haapamäki and Pori in the late 1930s connected Virrat to the national railway network, making it possible for the Poet’s Way to be part of this national travel ticket.

The advances in tourism demanded more from local accommodation facilities as well. The completion of the Toriseva hostel in Virrat in the late 1930s was a long-awaited improvement. However, not everyone was happy with the steamboat’s emphasis on tourist traffic. Local peasants complained that Tarjanne arrived in Tampere later than in the “good old days” due to schedule changes to meet the needs of tourists, leaving less time to sell their products at the market squares in Tampere. On the other hand, the request of travelers to delay the morning departure time from Virrat was turned down by the Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne due to the needs of “local traffic.” The operator was caught in a difficult situation between different needs.

A lot of people receiving the first train at the Virrat station.
The special train to celebrate the official opening of Pori–Haapamäki railway line at the station of Virrat. Photographer Henrik Seppänen, 1938. The Photo Collections of Satakunta Museum. CC BY 4.0.

Despite the expectations, Finnish tourism was no money spinner as many companies have found out later as well. Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne was making losses every year in the later half of the 1930s. The operating costs of Tarjanne and Pohjola were substantial and company was forced to think of ways to cut expenditure as numbers of passengers were decreasing. One such a way was to start using coal as fuel in 1937. The Finnish lake steamers had traditionally used firewood as it was easily available. In the 1930s, the better supply of coal made it possible to have some experiments with coal. In 1938, the cooperative also sold its smaller steamboat, Into, which had been feeding passenger from Vilppula to bigger Tarjanne and Pohjola stopping at Ruovesi. Despite all the efforts, the end of steamboat traffic was looming in the near future.

The Second World War Saves Steamboats

The “White Queens of Näsijärvi,” as Tarjanne and Pohjola were called in the advertisements of the late 1930s, were unexpectedly “saved” by the beginning of World War II, a dire matter in all other ways. During and especially after the Winter War (1939–40), a rationing system was introduced that affected many aspects of the Finnish economy. In addition, a large portion of buses and lorries were requisitioned by the Finnish army. Suddenly, the competition was almost non-existent, and the Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne was very profitable once again.

During the war, the cooperative faced various problems. Coal was no longer available, but fortunately firewood was still an option (and coal was never reintroduced after the war). There were shortages of men, ropes, and other equipment, which led the cooperative to operate the route with only one steamboat. Tarjanne remained in port in 1940 and 1942, while Pohjola was out of service in 1943-44. In the summer of 1941, both steamboats were operating, but the dry weather caused water levels on the route to reach a record low. The canal of Murole became so shallow that the large passenger steamers could not pass through it. As a result, Tarjanne cruised in the southern part between Tampere and Murole, while Pohjola operated in the northern part between Murole and Virrat. Passengers had to walk from one steamboat to the other over the canal area.

Even after the war, the golden extra time continued for a couple of years as the rationing system was still in effect. Despite the difficulties of rationing, the Steamboat Cooperative published its first advertising film in cooperation with the Suomen Filmiteollisuus (Finland’s Film Industry) in 1945. The film described the route of the Poet’s Way, as shown in the video below (I am not sure whether the content is restricted to be viewed only in Finland)

The dismantling of rationing system (e.g. rationing of petrol/gas ended in 1949) quickly turned the tide once again in the late 1940s. The extra time caused by the war had ended, and buses and lorries took the local passengers and cargo away from the steamboats. This meant that Tarjanne “had” to serve mainly tourists once again. Of course, there were still places along the Poet’s Way where the road network was poor or where the local people preferred steamboats over buses but the number of these passengers was quite small and diminishing.

The Last Years of Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne

In the turn of the 1950s, the story was becoming all too familiar. The local traffic was minimal and the number of tourists did not grow as expected by the shipping company. However, there were still 24 000 passengers using the services of Tarjanne and Pohjola in 1951. The Olympic Games of 1952 in Helsinki were eagerly anticipated: tourist services all around Finland were expecting huge numbers of tourists visiting the country. However, the results were meagre and the summer was very cold and rainy. Thus, the number of passengers decreased with several thousands on the Poet’s Way. Yes, there had been some foreign tourists who – according to Finnish newspapers – had been amazed by the “beautiful Finnish nature”. (By the way, this is quite a typical story to appear in the Finnish newspapers even these days.) But these few, nature-loving tourists did not fill the empty coffers of steamboat companies all over Finland.

Lake cruises have traditionally been considered a cornerstone of lake tourism. However, operating a shipping company solely based on tourism has always been challenging, even today. Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne was no exception, but they refused to give up. The cooperative produced brochures for Finnish and foreign markets, including versions in Finnish, Swedish, German, and English. In one of the English brochures, the “o” in the Poet’s Way was accidentally omitted, slightly altering its meaning. This error may have been appreciated by pet owners, but it illustrates the challenges of international marketing. Additionally, the cooperative released another advertising film, Poet’s Way, in 1953, which can be viewed on Elonet.

Steamboat Tarjanne visiting a quay in 1952. Lot of people both on the quay and aboart the steamboat.
Tarjanne visiting a quay in 1952. Poutvaara Matti, 1952, the Collection of Ethnography, the National Heritage Agency. CC BY 4.0.

In order to better cater to the needs of tourists, the Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne realized that passenger classes had to be abolished in 1956. This meant that all compartments on the steamboats Tarjanne and Pohjola were now available to all passengers. Additionally, steamboat Pohjola was renovated in 1956 to resemble more modern sightseeing boats, with the introduction of larger windows. Tarjanne underwent a similar renovation in 1962, which was more successful than Pohjola’s, where the large bus windows did not fit well. Despite these changes, the Poet’s Way remained popular, with the number of passengers reaching around 20,000 in the mid-1950s, depending largely on the weather. The route of the Poet’s Way was still connected to almost 20 “Route trips” (Rengasmatka) of the Finnish State Railways, which brought steady income to the shipping company.

A poster of Rengasmatkat in which a woman waves from the stairs of a train coach.
An advertisement of the Route trips of the Finnish State Railways (Rengasmatkat) from 1950s. Laakapaino. The Finnish Railway Museum, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

In the turn of the 1960s, the economic outlook for the steamboat businesses all over Finland was gloomy and uncertain. The passenger shipping companies had even established their own association in 1963 but it did not bring any more passengers. The newspaper Uusi Suomi made a very pessimistic prognosis of inland passenger traffic:

The old white passenger steamboats are doing their last journeys one after another, and the fate of those veteran steamboats that still exist is sealed before long. A big question is waiting for answer, how to secure the future of our traditional and always popular (sic!) lake tourism, which is one of our best biggest tourism assets.

From lake traffic to lake tourism, Uusi Suomi, 24.7.1963
A view on lake Näsijärvi from Näsikallio hill. Two steamboats have just left the port in the summer.
Passenger steamboats on the local traffic leaving the port of Mustalahti in the 1960s. The Photo Collections of Werstas. Rights obtained.

Faced with a troubling future and declining passenger numbers, Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne sought to reduce its expenditures. One option was to convert the boilers to run on oil instead of wood, a move that was being made on other steamboats in Finland at the time. In 1964, Tarjanne and Pohjola were both converted to oil, as it was cheaper and the effects of greenhouse gases were not yet understood. The conversion also allowed the company to eliminate one stoker position. (Interestingly, in 2023, Tarjanne was converted back to using firewood!) In addition to cost-cutting measures, the company sought out new sources of income. Tarjanne and Pohjola began making a short stop at Kalela (1895), the studio of Finnish painter Akseli Gallén-Kallela (1865–1931). During this stop, passengers were given just 15 minutes (!) to visit the stunning villa while the steamboat waited at the quay. Another improvement was the “car pilotage” service. This allowed people arriving with private cars to leave their car at the port of departure, and a driver from the shipping company would drive the car to the port of destination. As the number of private cars was rapidly increasing in Finland, this service allowed the company to respond to the needs of new customers.

The decision-makers of Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne must have been feeling quite frustrated by the decreasing number of passengers, despite all their efforts. In the summer of 1966, there were only 12,721 passengers traveling on the two steamers. The cooperative was facing a difficult decision: whether to give up operations altogether. Originally formed by peasants, merchants, and educated people from rural areas to fulfill their own transportation needs, transporting tourists had never been essential to the cooperative’s core mission. While the route operation was barely profitable, the cooperative was also burdened by significant debts incurred during the steamboats’ repairs in 1956 and 1962. This was a common challenge faced by many operators in Finnish lake tourism.

Steamboat Pohjola leaves port at Tampere in the end of 1950s. Lots of smoke coming from the chimney. There are also some motorboats in the picture.
Steamboat Pohjola leaving the port of Mustalahti (Tampere). Notice the very large windows of the steamboat. 1957–61, Teuvo Kanerva. The Collection of History at the National Heritage Agency. CC BY 4.0.

Poet’s Way Ltd. Takes Over the Operation of the Steamboat Tarjanne

In 1967, the Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne made the difficult decision to discontinue its operations due to decreasing passenger numbers and financial struggles. However, some improvements were made to cater to modern tourists during the last operating season. For instance, visitors could now see all of the Poet’s Way in a single day by taking a bus back to the port of departure after or even before the day aboard. After the season ended, Poet’s Way Ltd., a new company, purchased both steamboats (Tarjanne and Pohjola) from Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne at the same amount as the cooperative’s debts. With this purchase, a new era began for the Poet’s Way.

The new shipping company was formed by the municipalities of the area. The city of Tampere was the biggest shareholder (2/3) and the rest of shares were mainly in the possession of the municipalities of Ruovesi and Virrat. In addition, there were some companies, associations and private persons among the shareholders. The administration was combined with the other shipping company, Laiva Oy Matkailu (Finnish Silverline) operating on lake Pyhäjärvi, south of Tampere. Now, there was one CEO and office for these two companies. The Finnish state also started to offer small subsidies for inland shipping companies in the late 1960s. The justification for this was that the passenger traffic on lakes was seen as essential part of Finnish tourism offering and had it stopped, it would have damaged the Finnish tourist image. Speaking of Finnish tourist image, the rigidity of alcohol policy has been one of the challenges for most tourist businesses. In the turn of the 1970s, it was still impossible to have spirits aboard Tarjanne (beer was available though). The lack of liquor licences was criticised by tourists and shipping companies alike.

During 1970s, the costs kept rising. Particularly the first oil crisis (1973) affected the fuel prices and the story of Tarjanne was almost finished. The board of the Poet’s Way decided, that they would stop the traffic for the summer of 1974, if the city of Tampere would not come to help. Well they did and the traffic continued. Already in 1975, however, only Tarjanne kept operating along the Poet’s Way as Pohjola was relegated to short cruises near Tampere, her once-grand voyages now a distant memory. This did not help the economic burden and after this season, Pohjola was left to wait for the better times at Tampere. These better times never came. After having sunk once and being towed to Ruovesi shipyard, Pohjola was completely dismantled in 2017. The fate of Pohjola was unfortunate, as the Poet’s Way had already created their own renovation plan in the 1980s, and the local steam enthusiasts had even offered to buy and restore the steamer at their own expense. However, the deal was never made.

The cover of the renovation plan of Pohjola from the 1980s.
The cover of the renovation plan of Pohjola from the 1980s.
Tarjanne arriving in Ruovesi. Photo taken from the quay. People having 1970s clothes. A wooden motorboat in the background.
Steamboat Tarjanne arrives in Ruovesi . Volker von Bonin, 1975–79, National Heritage Agency. CC BY 4.0.

One has to admit, that the decision of taking Pohjola out of scheduled traffic was a rational one as it guaranteed enough passengers for Tarjanne. In the late 1970s, the number of passengers travelling along Poet’s Way was about 7 500, even if the number includes some local passengers aboard the small m/s Pyynikki, too. There were about 5 to 10 per cent of foreign tourists, but the domestic tourism has always been the most important source of income for Tarjanne.

Steamboat Tarjanne arriving to the port of Mustalahti in the 1980s.
Steamboat Tarjanne arriving to the port of Mustalahti in the 1980s. There has always been keen children helping Tarjanne at its ports. The Photo Collection of Werstas. Rights obtained.

The changing regulations in society have always affected the operations of Tarjanne. In 1978, the Finnish Parliament surprised Finnish passenger shipping companies with a change in alcohol law that granted the possibility of giving liquor licenses for passenger boats. However, Alko, the national alcoholic beverage retailing monopoly, only considered one passenger boat “good enough” to receive these rights. Tarjanne only received her own liquor license in the late 1980s. Furthermore, changing safety regulations have impacted the passenger capacity of Tarjanne. The maximum capacity had been 225 in 1908, and 240 for many decades, but by the early 1980s, it had decreased to only 130. This number changed frequently as directives and interpretations changed. By the late 1990s, the maximum number of passengers was 170. Additionally, changes in economic regulations in the predecessor of Visit Finland stopped state subsidies for passenger boats in 1994. Since then, Tarjanne has not received direct subsidies from the state.

The 2000s: Tarjanne Goes Through Major Changs

I got the chance to work on the steamboat Tarjanne first as the first mate and then as the shipmaster in the early 2000s. Back then, we did three back-and-forth trips to Virrat – just as Tarjanne had done in the early 20th century. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays we sailed to Virrat, and came back on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. There were plenty of passengers on our scheduled route traffic even if other steamboats in Finland had already given up their long-haul traffic. In the new millennium, the maximum number of passengers was transported in 2001, when we had almost 8 500 passengers and almost same numbers were reached in 2005. Especially the departures from Tampere on Saturdays were often sold out and we sailed with our 150 passengers towards Virrat.

Through the history, there have been a lot of regulars among passengers. This was also the case in the early 2000s. One lady was taken to the quay of Rantala when summer began, one family was alway coming to Murole Canal, the proprietor of the quay of Kivistö was taken from his own quay to Ruovesi, and Aarne Olavi, a local of Virrat, was taken from Ruovesi to Virrat every single Saturday throughout the summer (on Tuesdays and Thursdays he could not come aboard as he had to be welcoming the steamboat at Virrat). My own memories of that time, of the people I met aboard and in ports, and of other crew members are very warm. The time aboard Tarjanne has affected a lot on my career choices as well. Of course, it was not always sunshine: working long hours six days a week could be felt in one’s body even if one was still young.

Tarjanne travelling on lake Näsijärvi.
Tarjanne and its passengers along the Poet’s Way in 2004.

The renovation of Tarjanne’s hull was necessary due to the wear and tear of almost a century of steaming along the Poet’s Way. The extensive repairs were carried out during the winter of 2006-2007, ensuring that the hull could last for another hundred years. Following the renovation, the passenger capacity was initially reduced to 100 but later increased to 115 for various reasons. However, the renovation also brought about changes to Tarjanne’s schedules, which included dropping one back-and-forth trip and changing traditional days. These changes were made to celebrate Tarjanne’s 100th anniversary but continued to be in effect after that year. Especially the lack of Sunday departures is regrettable. Currently, Tarjanne operates from Tampere to Virrat on Wednesdays and Fridays, while the return trip from Virrat to Tampere takes place on Thursdays and Saturdays.

The steamboat on a shipyard with tarpaulin over it.
Repairs in process in November 2006.
Steamboat Tarjanne in front of the dockyard.
The new hull is ready and Tarjanne is waiting for finalizations in May 2007.

On an old steamboat, there’s never an idle year considering the maintenance. Small things are done every season. The biggest task since the hull repairs in 2006–7 was taking off the oil burners and oil tanks from Tarjanne during the winter of 2022–23. An era came to its end, and the steamboat celebrates its 115th anniversary season by returning to use domestic birchwood for heating up the boiler. Of course, it is already 60 years since Tarjanne used firewood which means that the coming season is not going to be easy and many things will be learned during the season. During the previous “firewood era” there were two stokers helping the chief engineer but now there’s only one. Luckily, some help will be available in loading the firewood, taking off the ashes and sweeping the boiler tubes clean. But lot of hard work still remains. An entire blog post could have been written about the role of skilled labour aboard Tarjanne. In this context, I will only say that without committed and skillful crew members, there would not be an operational steamboat anymore. Of course, the resources are needed, too, to allow crew members to do their work.

Steamboat Tarjanne – 115 Years of Adaptation

The history of steamboat Tarjanne and its operators shows how interconnected everything is in the world. The changes in the surrounding society and world require a lot of adaptation skills. The First World War stopped a profitable transportation business and made Tarjanne a warship for a while. The post war reconstruction and economic growth benefited the steamboat business until the advances in road transportation took away passengers and cargo. General economic growth and increased leisure time of people allowed the development of tourism which was – only just – enough to save Tarjanne from the verge of bankruptcy. The increased labor costs and cheap oil made the shipping company change the boiler heating from firewood to oil in the 1960s until we have come full circle and the boiler of Tarjanne converted back to firewood use due to high oil prices and environmental issues. There have been – and will be – plenty of changes in the world.

This high “incidence” of changes in the society makes it even more magnificent that Tarjanne has been able to operate 115 years on her original route on which the Steamboat Cooperative Tarjanne set her in 1908. Tarjanne has become a symbol of resilience and stability. The key ingredient of that symbol is the scheduled route which makes Tarjanne what she is. Should Tarjanne make some sort of short lunch cruises in Tampere, for instance, the main part of the symbolic value would just disappear. That is why one hopes that Tarjanne continues her traffic between Tampere, Ruovesi and Virrat for a long time. It seems that many decision-makers have acknowledged this value as well. On many occasions, the value of tradition is underestimated. In the case of Tarjanne it is better understood each year. Yet, the company itself could also restore the value of the name “Poet’s Way” for this anniversary.

The only number that guarantees the survival of the scheduled route is the number of passengers aboard. Therefore, also you could visit the steamboat Tarjanne in the coming season. The departures are on Wednesdays and Fridays from Tampere to Virrat via Ruovesi at 10 am, and on Thursdays and Saturdays from Virrat to Tampere via Ruovesi at 11 am. You can take the bus for the other direction or take your own bike with you. There are also some cabins aboard if you prefer taking the steamboat on both directions.

For the season of 2024 , the timetable has changed slightly. Departure times are unchanged: Tarjanne departs from Tampere via Ruovesi to Virrat at 10.00 on Wednesdays and Fridays, but the arrival time in Virrat is now 18.30. From Virrat, the steamboat departs on Thursdays and Saturdays at 11 am and arrives in Tampere at 19.30 pm. For more information about the ferry and the route, please visit the company’s website.

Tarjanne at Virrat
Tarjanne waiting for new day and new passengers to visit the Poet’s Way in 2020.


Newspapers: Aamulehti, Etelä-Suomen Sanomat, Helsingin Sanomat, Hufvudstadsbladet, Ilta-Sanomat, Jakobstads Tidning, Kansan Uutiset, Länsi-Savo, Maaseudun Tulevaisuus, Suomen Sosialidemokraatti, Uusi Suomi, Virtain Sanomat

Magazines: Apu, Suomen Kuvalehti, Tekniikan Maailma

Articles and bibliography:

Laukala, Pekka. Mekin rooli sisävesiliikenteen tukijana. Teoksessa Tunne maasi. Suomen matkailun kehitys ja kehittäjiä. Suomen Matkailun Seniorit, Suomen Matkailijayhdistys SMY ry ja Hipputeos. 57–59. Manka, Mikko (2008). Näsijärven matkustajalaivaliikenteen kehitys ja laivayhtiöiden toiminta kansallisen liikennejärjestelmän murroksessa vuosina 1918–1939. Suomen historian pro gradu -tutkielma. Tampereen yliopisto. Manka, Mikko (2008). Näsijärven laivayhtiöt ja linja-autoliikenteen nousu 1918-1939. Tekniikan Waiheita26(3), 5–12. Mustonen, Jouko (2009). Hopealinjalla ja Runoilijan tiellä. Teoksessa Tunne maasi. Suomen matkailun kehitys ja kehittäjiä. Suomen Matkailun Seniorit, Suomen Matkailijayhdistys SMY ry ja Hipputeos. 54–56. Valanto, Juhani (2008). Matka entisyyteen. S/S Tarjanne 100 vuotta. Runoilijan tie Oy: Tampere. Valanto, Juhani (2018). Näsijärven laivaliikenteen historia. Kustantaja Laaksonen: Helsinki.

Photo sources named in photos.

Article cover photo: Steamboat Tarjanne on her route at Romppaansalmi sound. Aarne Pietinen, 1938. National Heritage Agency. CC BY 4.0.


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