Tar-boat canal in Kajaani


The castle in Kajaani is the world’s northernmost stone castle and likely the only ancient castle that serves as the foundation for a highway bridge. Well, not a highway exactly, but a main thoroughfare between the two banks of the Kajaani river. And not a castle any longer, just the ruins left behind when city dwellers harvested stones to build foundations for their timber houses. Moreover, talking about a city is overstatement: although Kajaani was established as a city in 1651, it took a couple of hundred years for the population to exceed 1000 people. In 2018, Kajaani had a population of 37 000, so it is still a small town rather than a city.


Kajaani castle was built in the beginning of the 17th century on an island in the middle of the Kajaani river. Since ancient times, the river was the route from Carelia by the Russian border towards lake Oulujärvi and then on to the Bothnian Bay. The castle and city were established to secure the waterway and to mark Swedish military and administrative presence. The region had been mainly exploited by hunting, fishing and reindeer herding Sámi people who called the river Vuohenkijoki. The Swedish kings favoured permanent settlements, however, and encouraged farmers from Savolax to move up North.

The castle was destroyed in 1716 during the Great Northern War. It was sieged and bombarded by Russian troops for five weeks until the Swedes run out of food and were forced to surrender. The Russians, who had lost a couple of thousand men during the siege, blew up the castle to make sure it wouldn’t cause trouble again.


In 1845, the first bridge across the Kajaani river was built on top of the castle ruins. The wooden bridge was replaced by a concrete construction in 1937. Today the castle ruins mainly serve as a spot for picnicking and angling.


Fishing is allowed on both banks and there is even a pier to ease accessibility. The riverbanks are also nice for hiking or biking. In the summer refreshments are served in the former lock-keeper’s cottage Lussitupa built in 1880.


A canal with locks was built in in the 1840s to help transport tar barrels by boat downstream towards the sea. Till then the rapids of the Kajaani river were a challenge for oarsmen rowing tar-boats from the forest region in the East all the way to the Oulu harbour to be exported to shipyards in Europe and America. The largest rapids called Ämmäkoski were so fierce that the tar barrels had to be unloaded and transported by horse and carriage past them. “Ämmä”, meaning both “grandmother” and “very large”, had an elevation of just 4,5 metres but it was narrow and 225 metres long and so impressive the whole river was sometimes called Ämmäjoki.



Production and export of pine tree tar became a major contributor in the economy of Finland in the 17th century. In the 19th century, the region of Kuhmo by the Eastern border was the main production area and the waterway via Kajaani was the main transport route. Around 1900, up to 24 000 barrels were shipped through Kajaani. After a railway was built from Kajaani to Oulu the tar-boat canal was no longer needed so it was closed down in 1915. In the 1980s, one lock was reconstructed next to the castle ruins where the Ämmäkoski rapids used to rumble.


In 1917, Ämmäkoski rapids were tamed when a power plant was constructed to serve a saw and paper mill. The power plant still produces electricity for the city.


Vivid descriptions of the tar production process and of the hard and perilous journey of the tar-boats are provided by an English lady, Mrs. Alec-Tweedie, who travelled in Finland in the late 19th century. One of the most fascinating stories in her book “Through Finland in Carts” (available online in the Project Gutenberg collection) describes a bath taken in a wooden chamber built in Ämmäkoski. The water entered through a slit at the top of one wall and rushed out through a slit at the bottom of the opposite wall, while the bathers “bobbed up and down” in the cold water swirling round them. The brave lady also descended the Kajaani rapids in a tar boat and crossed the vast Oulujärvi lake in a steamboat.

One can follow her example by taking a scenic cruise on Oulujärvi in the steamship Kouta that sails in the summer from a pier close to the castle. Some tours stop in the island Ärjä where pirates used to prowl for tar boats returning from Oulu loaded with salt and other goods purchased with the tar earnings. Some tours take you to the historical lakeside village Paltaniemi.


The lock-keeper’s cottage was used as a waypoint by the Jäger, the clandestine volunteer soldiers who trained in the German army during World War I with the view to come back and fight to free Finland from Russian dominance. The sculpture set up in 1983 commemorates the men who joined in from the Kainuu region.


Up till the 1930s Kajaani was a small town of timber and frame houses. The tiny town hall built in 1831 is the oldest building still standing. Czar Alexander I, when visiting Kajaani in 1819, found the then existing town hall in such a pitiful state that he promised funding for a new one. The new Empire style town hall was designed by the office of Carl Ludvig Engel, the German architect who designed many public buildings for Helsinki, designated by the Czar as the new capital for Finland in 1812.



The wooden church designed by Jacob Ahrenberg in 1896 is an example of the Neo-Gothic style popular in the late 19th century.



Most of the town centre was destroyed by bombing during the Winter War in 1939-1940. The rebuilt city is a bit devoid of charm. There are, however, nice examples of functionalist architecture, such as the former police station that now houses the Kajaani Art Museum.



The lumberjack sculpture stands in front of a former club house (today a restaurant) built for the management of the Kajaani paper mill that was operative from 1919 to 2008. The mill used to be city’s largest private employer.


During the Great Depression in the 1930s relief work was provided in particular for the unskilled unemployed. The “Wailing Wall”, consisting of a stone support structure in a hillside and stone stairs connecting two streets, was built by relief workers in 1932-33. Instead of money they received salted herrings and flour as payment.