Railway comes to Vaala, Muhos and Utajärvi

The eastern train service from Oulu changed the way people travelled to the towns and villages in what is today the Rokua Geopark area. When it was finally completed after decades of waiting, the railway reduced travel time from days to hours. Slow travel by water and on sandy roads was no longer the only option.

Railway bridge over the Oulu River in Vaala. Photograph: Pietinen 1936. Collections of the Pietinen Photographic Studio. The Finnish Heritage Agency.

The railway between Oulu and Helsinki was officially opened in October 1886. This highlighted the need for a railway link from Oulu to the east. Many petitions were submitted to the parliament to push the project forward. The idea was not entirely new. An eastern railway line around Lake Oulujärvi to Oulu had been proposed as early as 1856 by the philosopher and statesman J. V. Snellman, who vigorously defended the idea of a nationwide railway network.

Although the railway project was very expensive, the slowness of the waterways and sand roads used until then made the investment worthwhile. Building canals to make the River Oulujoki part of a larger water system would have been even more expensive. Meetings were held and many calculations and measurements were made. Finally, more than 50 years after Snellman’s proposal, the eastern railway project was officially launched.

Delays and revised plans

The original plan was to build the railway on the north side of the River Oulujoki. In July 1875, forest was cleared for the tracks about a kilometre north of the river. The project was exceptional as there was no road on the north side of the river at the time. The reason for building the railway north of the river was the suitability of the terrain and the advantage of having the line end at Toppila, some distance north of the city, where Oulu’s main port was located. The railway would also have provided the Kurimo ironworks with its own storage area. The line would have ended in Vaala at the Vaassila timber port, which was considered the best option on the western shore of the lake.

The project was delayed, however, and Parliament failed to grant the 4.2 million marks of funding it needed. In the meantime, the railway from Iisalmi to Kajaani had already been completed.

The official decision to build the line came only after Finland became independent and the Parliament approved the Oulu-Kajaani-Nurmes line in 1918. The construction of the line was now strongly motivated by post-war military and political reasons. The line was to be built on the south side of the river, which was more densely populated than the north side.

Construction began in June 1918 at three sites. The following year, Utajärvi’s municipal council petitioned the government for the state to carry out emergency assistance work on the Oulu-Vaala railway due to a lack of public funds. Construction of the railway began in earnest in 1926.

Railway station. Photograph: Oulujoki Osakeyhtiö.

Travel time changed from days to hours

The Oulu-Muhos railway was opened to temporary traffic on 1 November 1927, and a railway station was completed at Utajärvi in 1927. The Muhos-Utajärvi section was opened to temporary traffic on 1 December 1928, and the Oulu-Utajärvi section was opened a few days later.

In 1929, a steel railway bridge was completed at Vaalankurkku, where the river flows into Lake Oulujärvi, and train service to Vaala began on 16 October 1929. Finally, in December 1930, the entire line from Oulu to Kontiomäki and Nurmes was opened.

The train dramatically shortened the time it took to travel from the countryside to the cities. It was easy to board the train at the local station, as the trains stopped at every station and flag stop. Looking back at the lives of people in the past, it is useful to understand how dramatic this change was. As described in the history of Oulujoki Osakeyhtiö: “Our journey from Oulu to Vaala took the same number of hours as the boatmen would spend in days going up the river, and the whole time is spent resting and saving one’s strength.”

Construction brings life to villages

The construction of the railway gave a boost to the villages along the route in the form of employment, as local people were employed to work on the line. At the same time, the railway brought new residents and tenants to the villages. It appears that some of the construction work was contracted out, while some was carried out by workers hired by the state railway company. Among the first to go to work were sawyers and lumberjacks, who made the opening into the forest. Then came the horsemen who were needed to move logs and haul gravel.

Most of the stations were built of wood. The work was carried out with great care. For example, the vibrations caused by the trains were taken into account during construction. Several old wooden station buildings of national importance have survived along the Oulu-Nurmes railway line.

Historic station areas are protected sites of national importance

The stations at Muhos, Utajärvi and Vaala are based on type drawings from the 1920s by architect Thure Hellström of the railway administration’s construction office. The stations in Muhos and Utajärvi have gabled roofs, while the station in Vaala is a classic hipped-roof building. Due to their relatively low traffic, the stations were classified as category V, the category assigned to small stations. There was only one waiting room for passengers, and office space was limited.

In addition to the station buildings, the station grounds included staff housing, storehouses, water towers, outbuildings, parks and courtyards. Some of the stations had underground brick cellars, which have since been demolished. A locomotive shed from 1929 still stands in Vaala. The former water towers, with red-brick bases and wooden tops, have been out of use since the end of steam traffic in the early 1970s.
The ticket offices were closed in 1998, and the stations were no longer manned after the introduction of remote control in 1999. The buildings were transferred to the state property company and then to private ownership in the early 2000s. Since then, many of the buildings have been converted, renovated and reused. The railway lines are still in regular operation and the historic station areas are protected sites of national importance.

Utajärvi railway station in the 1950s. Photograph: Finnish Railway Museum photo collection. Finnish Railway Museum.


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