It seems to be a point when I might have to explain a little about why I’m doing all this, and how I ended up going around Finland looking for memorials to the 1860s. This post is indeed going to focus on the railway workers’ memorial at Oitti, but that will be at the bottom part of the page as there is a bit of personal reflection first.
After visiting a few famine memorials while in different bits of the country at sports events, I decided to make a more concerted effort to find out how many sites there might actually be. With this in mind, I kept a photocopied map of Finland next to my desk (this was 2014, please remember – and we didn’t know back then how big the internet was going to be) – and when I found a new memorial in a newspaper or parish website, or geocaching site or travel blog, I’d add a yellow sticker to the map. When I’d visited it, I’d place a green sticker over the original one (which ran out so I switched to blue)…
I’ve always been keen on fieldwork, but sometimes being “mainly” a 19th C historian has meant much longer in archives than out in the field. When I was an undergraduate, I did mainly Classics and Ancient History, which meant much more digging about. Come to think of it, though, while my main comparative framework for all of my Finnish famine studies has come from Ireland (and especially relating to memorials from the work of my friend Emily Mark-Fitzgerald) – the fact that I studied in Scotland has probably had just as big an influence on my methods, particularly in regard to this famine memorial fieldwork. While in Scotland, I took a fantastic course in my final year on the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was this that inspired me to do comparative research between Ireland and our “Gaelic cousins” in the Highlands of Scotland (which is what I did for my PhD) but it also allowed me to combine two passions – namely tramping around mountains in the Highlands, and looking for signs of former settlements and “cleared” churches and villages.
Looking over these last three or four years, I have repeatedly thought back to two books I had as constant companions during those student days: the first is Rob Gibson‘s The Highland Clearances Trail (I have an early version but it has gone through several new editions). The concept is quite simple – the author has been through the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, finding sites of relevance to the history of the Clearances and subsequent Crofters War – and then provided locations (using Ordnance Survey Map numbers and grid references) and interesting details to facilitate and enhance visits. As I recall, the book deservedly won several awards linked to sustainable heritage, and promoted heritage tourism in the region. One of the book’s main goals is to make people understand that the Highlands is not the “wilderness” that Walter Scott and his ilk would have had you believe – there is almost no part of it that is untouched by humans. Understanding the ridges in the fields was just as important as the ruined churches, and this is is something I appreciated from the west of Ireland, and something that I’ve tried to take with me as I’ve travelled through Finland, trying to learn about life from the terrain, the lie of the land, as much as from newspapers and archives.
Now, I was quite explicit in my introduction to the Sesquicentennial Report that I was not trying to promote a similar initiative in Finland – “The Finnish Famine Trail” or something – not least because Finland is many, many times bigger than the Scottish Highlands. However, it is clear (and I was aware of this at the time) that I was greatly influenced by Rob Gibson’s approach in putting the report together, and if it helped one person find a memorial they’d otherwise been unaware of, or might have find it hard to locate, then I’d be happy.
The second indispensable book was Munro’s Fables, a small paperback which grew out of the mountaineering fanzine The Angry Corrie, which I used to sneak into Dundee to purchase from Black’s. Of course, mountaineering is not something that you’d not really associate with Finland. But there is one story that I think of very regularly when on the road… the long road north. In “The Book and the Walk”, the hapless hero of many of these stories, Lachlan, hits upon the idea of climbing all of Scotland’s “Munros” (mountains over 3,000 feet) in alphabetical order. This he more-or-less achieves, but there is a sting in the tail (I won’t spoil it). When I get home from a long journey and find a new memorial that I’d literally just driven past, and know that I have to go back 3 or 400 km to see it, I think of Lachlan and his odd mid-life-crisis existence. Maybe someday, though, I will visit the memorials in alphabetical order and see how long that takes… from Alahärmä to Viitasaari!
One famine memorial day-trip which is quite possible for those who live within the confines of “Ring 3” – Finland’s capital region’s outer ring-road – is along the Riihimäki to St. Petersburg railway line (and also including Mäntsälä). I included a map in the blog entry for Hikiä, giving approximate locations of all the memorials associated with the railway builders’ mass graves. I also suggested this itinerary in an interview and video I made with Joonas Aitonurmi in connection with the Academy of Finland in 2017.
Staying in Hausjärvi, the next stop eastwards from Hikiä is at Oitti. Oitti was one of the earliest memorials that I became aware of – Antti Häkkinen had mentioned it to me some time in 2013, according to my notes. Antti had himself visited many sites of memory associated with the Great Hunger Years – not alone memorials – in the 1980s, and was kind enough to share these with me. I also found a photo on the Hausjärvi municipality website and my notes read:
In Hausjärvi, at Syvänoja, in the vicinity of the Old Main Road. Grave memorial has been put there in connection with those who died building the railway as relief work in 1868. The area is under the care of Hausjärvi parish.
Indeed, the station building itself at Oitti (now in private ownership) was constructed between 1867 and 1869, and can itself be considered – as Agaton Meurman might have suggested – a memorial to the Great Hunger Years. The idea here was that the sacrifice of the Finnish people in 1867-8, particularly in the relief-works which helped to imprive Finland’s national infrastructure, made further memorials unnecessary:
Our people could not have had a more valuable memorial than the Riihimäki-St. Petersburg railway, erected on behalf of our nameless fallen.
Agaton Meurman, 1892.
It should also be noted that Oitti was also a site of one of the temporary hospitals established to deal with infectious diseases on the railway worksites, which would also account for especially high mortality. I think the first time I visited the Oitti Memorial, in late 2014, I drove past but but realised straight away and turned around fairly quickly. In truth, it’s easily found and it’s a poignant place. Like most of the other contemporary memorials, a lack of decoration is countered by the knowledge that this was put in place by the comrades, maybe relatives, of those who perished at the work-site. Nevertheless, the Oitti memorial is an actual engraved gravestone rather than a roughly hewn rock, and the sense of contemplation is enhanced by it being set in a fenced-off graveyard, indicated by a signpost from the roadside.
Location: Vanha Valtatie, Hausjärvi. Opposite the junction with Viinikaisentie.
Current Region: Tavastia Proper (Kanta-Häme)
Year of Memorial: (Contemporary?)
Inscription: 1867. The Railway-builders lie here.
“Rautatienrakentajien muistoa kunnioitettiin – Juhlahetki Lahdessa ja Oitissa”, Etelä-Suomen Sanomat, 16 Mar. 1962.
Arno Forsius, “Katovuosi 1867 ja sen seuraukset Lahden seudulla“, Tutkimuksia XVII (Lahti, 1980 – online version, accessed May 2016)
Rob Gibson, Highland Clearances Trail (Evanton, c. 1993)
Grant Hutchison & Chris Tyler, Munro’s Fables (Glasgow, 1993)
Agaton Meurman, Nälkäwuodet 1860-luwulla (Helsinki, 1892)
Andrew G. Newby, “Finland’s ‘Great Hunger Years’ Memorials: A Sesquicentennial Report”, in Andrew G. Newby (ed.) The Enormous Failure of Nature: Famine and Society in Nineteenth Century Europe (Helsinki, 2017), p. 174-5.