No less important than land and mail routes were water routes – natural and convenient roads, seasonal in nature as they could be used until the water froze. Some years the Lielupe was navigable most of the year. There was one winter when the river ice was so thin that a boat with a robust body broke the ice and was able to carry on without difficulty. Kurzeme Province had two great navigable rivers - the Daugava and the Lielupe, while many tributaries of the Lielupe and other smaller rivers in Kurzeme were used for timber floating .
Agricultural produce was brought to Jelgava by local farmers, then went from Jelgava to Riga by river road, and vital goods were shipped from Riga to Jelgava via the same system. A natural water path was less likely to damage cargo in transit, and river road systems could accomodate more cargo than a farmer’s cart or sled.
Under Gubernatorial rule, Jelgava served as a transit centre where goods were handled and stored for further transport to or from Riga. In 1854, 104 boats with cargo worth 253 thousand rubles had gone from Jelgava to Riga. In 1855, 217 vessels with cargo worth 917 thousand rubles. By 1857, 559 vessels with cargo valued at 1 million 202 thousand rubles had travelled between Jelgava and Riga. This detailed information has survived because inbound ships had to pay customs duty, and the Customs House, at the end of the Lielupe bridge, was also where vessels were registered. By contrast, in 1854, 203 ships with cargo valued at 1 million 844 thousand rubles went from Riga to Jelgava, and in 1857 - 295 vessels with 1 million 161 thousand rubles worth of goods.
Raft bridge over Lielupe and Customs House, early 20th century. Drawing by A.Strekāvina .
Timber rafting along the Lielupe tributaries – the Mēmele, Mūsu and others – was initiated by the Hercogs. In 1783 the then Duke decreed that Jelgava would pay a yearly fee for timber rafting in the form of a one year supply of firewood. Most of the lumber in the Province remained in Jelgava, except oak, which was floated on to Riga. During Gubernatorial rule, trees were floated along the Mūsa River from Kaunas Province. Most timber was floated during spring flooding. In 1859, improvements were undertaken on the most dangerous places in timber floating routes – sharp river bends were straightened, rapids were levelled and measures taken to avoid rockier sites. Tree rafting was a hazardous occupation which required great skill and ability. Growing shipping demands were met with the establishment of more berths. In 1821, parts of the Jelgava Palace fortifications were demolished, and in 1824 a small harbour was created along the Lielupe River in the newly available space. A bridge watchman's hut and a horse barn were built next to it. In 1824, architect Friedrich August Schulz designed a market space specifically for fishmongers, and the fish market that evolved by the Driksas River operated into the 1920’s and 30’s. Not far from the Jelgava market along the Driksas shore, another boat berth was created, and water transport was made available to passengers from both the Lielupe and Driksas wharves.
Fish Market Driksas Embankment, early 20th century.
While barges and sailing boats accounted for most river traffic, small single-mast cargo vessels could also stop at the Lielupe port. Jelgava had an active boat-building industry. Prices ranged from 1.5 to 2 thousand rubles. This type of vessel could accommodate up to 4 thousand puds (1 pud = 16.3805 kg /65,522 kg) payload, with a draft of 6 - 7 feet. Ships of this type took two days to travel from Jelgava to Riga. A set fee for the transportation of goods was 1 ½ - 2 rubles per gross ton (1 gross ton of board volume = 120 puds grain = 60 puds flax = 80 cubic metres timber; 1 gross ton = 122 Russian Pudi or 2.26 tonnes). The first steamboat arrived in Jelgava from Riga in 1844, and by 1847 was a permanent feature of river traffic. By 1851 Lielupe River traffic statistics showed 1,215 boats and ships, and 45 rafts. Navigation on the Lielupe River was deemed not always entirely successful or convenient in comparison with land transport – during hot summers the water levels at Kalnciems dropped to below 5 feet (1 foot = 30,48 cm), or 152.4 cm, and boats had to reduce their loads to avoid hitting the river bottom. Another popular river transport vehicle was the purpose-built flat-bottomed barge, used for one trip only, then disassembled for firewood. These barges carried a variety of agricultural products. Familiary with the river roads was essential, so anchormen were frequently employed as deckhands on the barges as they were knowledgeable about all maritime conditions. Because barge work was seasonal, they had to find other work during the winter. It was considered a difficult and poorly paid job. River roads and floating transport were used not only for business purposes but also for entertainment and recreation, and for sport as sailing became popular. In the late 19th century it became fashionable to go to Riga’s seaside villages during the summer – Kauguri, Sloka and Dubulti. Since the land route to Jurmala was in very bad shape and costly, river traffic on the Lielupe developed rapidly. In 1837 a vessel owned by Riga businessman Jānis Vērmanes was run to Dubulti (by the sea) from Jelgava, and the journey lasted four hours. In later years, a total of three boats travelled to and from Jelgava. In time, steamships replaced sailing vessels. At the Lielupe bridge, passengers waited for the steamers "Mitau" and "Kommikation". For a short time the "Metevr" also ran but was moved to another location as it was too powerful for the Lielupe, and caused too large a wake. The steamer "Mitau" was built in Sweden and served Jelgava up to World War I. "Mitau” belonged to a fish trader named Sēli from Riga. Two of the main attractions of travelling on the "Mitau" were its excellent buffet, and Abramke, a popular waiter. The ship’s dining specialty was a savory meat and onion stew. Abramke also performed the duties of a courier – delivering parcels to from Jelgava to Jurmala families and vice versa. And, Abramke was usually the one who organized summer cottages in Jurmala for Jelgava residents. Abramke also knew how to deploy travellers on board – seating sociable types together, and less sociable passengers separately. On Sundays, the "Mitau" often featured a brass band, and the ship was decorated with the colourful flags and leafy boughs and branches. Abramke was also exceptionally discreet, and never talked about the passengers’ less than perfect demeanor, not the flirting nor the drinking nor the other inappropriate behaviours. From Jelgava to Sloka travelled two smaller steamships, the "Pāvel" and the "Keckau" (Ķekava). Both made their money mainly from the transport of fish, but also carried farmers living near the river and their produce.
Around, 1901 Sēli began to compete with the German firm Augsburg, which had built their own terminal by the Lielupe bridge. Augsburg soon displaced previous shipowners and their vessels became Augsburg property. The new company expanded traffic to Riga. The steamer "Kondor" was part of the new fleet, and differed greatly from other vessels, because it had its own electric lighting, which was still an unaccustomed luxury in Jelgava. The opulent "Fortuna" started sailing the Jelgava-Jurmala route. The ship's route to Riga went through Jūrmala and stopped at the seaside village of Sloka and its beaches.
The Steamer "Fortuna", early 20th century.
Three small vessels - "Zarya", "Bojarišņa", and "Olga" – ran to Annenburg (Emburg), all belonging to Riga merchant Rodionov, who was not in competition with Augsburg. During World War I ship traffic between Riga and Jelgava was not stopped. As overland travel by individuals was severely curtailed or even suspended in the first year of World War I, people used the marine services provided by Augsburg ships - the "Adolf Aghte", "Condor", and "Agate", and Kurzeme public transit steamboat "Rīdzinieks". Not all vessels carried passengers, but mainly transported goods. Therefore, the passenger ships were overcrowded, as people eager to travel outweighted capacity. On one particular day, a thousand passengers were transported. Not in anyone’s memory had that many passengers ever been carried along the Lielupe in one day. The huge influx of people was due to the return of refugees from Kurzeme. At the beginning of the war, evacuees were ordered to return. They came back to Jelgava and its vicinity – farmers brought their carts, cattle, and horses - and tried to reclaim their farms. Those who had no opportunity to sail undertook the long journey overland.
The Augsburg company had to endure the scandal that occurred when two of their vessels collided. On 23 May 1907, on the Lielupe not far from Jelgava, the "Vilma" rammed the "Adler", punched a hole in her hull, and she sank. The ”Adler’s” captain managed to run the front end aground, giving the passengers a chance to escape. Trouble with the "Vilma" did not end there. That same year, on the point of departure from the Daugava River, the ”Vilma” capsized and sank. The cause of the accident was overcrowding and incorrectly stacked cargo. The deck was crammed with goods - barrels, sacks, bags, boxes, - and passengers were in their cabins. The ”Vilma’s” body was not suitable for the transport of goods, because the ship was narrow and long. Horrified eyewitnesses watched from both sides of the river. Both passengers and witnesses screamed. The ship sank immediately, and only a few passengers managed to escape. When the police arrived, only the tip of the ship’s chimney could be seen. The ship was pulled into the middle of the Daugava to make it easier to tow her out. The company suffered heavy losses: their share price fell by 50%, the lost goods had to be compensated. Augsburg payed out 400 and 500 rubles to two firms for lost beer, vodka and kerosene, not to mention other products which also had to be compensated. When the ship was towed to dry land, 11 drowned passengers were found in their cabins. Witnesses reported seeing 7-10 people escape. How many tickets were actually sold was never clarified. The company said 70, but eyewitnesses estimated 150, and so the actual number of victims was never established. The "Vilma" was dubbed in the press as an ill-starred vessel.
There were plans to not only use natural waterways, but to build new ones. This idea was made attractive by the convenience and low cost of operating waterways transport. In 1825, Bauska Town Council sent a proposal to the Kurzeme provincial administration to extend river travel on the Lielupe from Jelgava to Bauska. Project plans were developed, but did not move forward until the 1860s, when Kurzeme Governor Johann von Brevern took it on. It was recognized that a Jelgava-Bauska waterway improvement would have a positive economic impact not only on Kurzeme, but also on Kaunas Province. Technical details were redrafted, financing for the project was expected to come from a special tax levy. But the project idea went no further. At the end of the 1900’s, the Kurzeme Economic Society, which united progressive farmers, mainly the elite, expressed interest in a trade exchange between Jelgava and Riga. Also interested in economic benefits was Mežotnes’ landlord Prince Anatol von Lieven, who commissioned at his own expense a new project to improve the waterway between Jelgava and Bauska. Prince Lieven had developed a lively micro-economy at his estate and was interested in the the production of lime kilns and clayworks (pipes, roof tiles, bricks, etc.), to be delivered to Jelgava and Riga by economically advantageous waterways. This was usually done with wagons and small boats that restricted large volume output. His project provided for the erection of three dams to raise the water level and generate a five-foot depth even when the natural water level in the river was low. The project goal was to make the Lielupe navigable from Jelgava to Dube Manor on the outskirts of Bauska. The use of load-intensive transport was determined by the depth of the river. The project was to cost 900 thousand rubles. In 1903 the Kurzeme Economic Society founded a special commission to assess the plan. Work was completed in 1908 and the envisioned project was considered an economic success, beneficial and convenient. In Jelgava in 1910 a separate brochure was issued, publicizing the project. However, the project was again not implemented, even though at that time water routes were considered to be more advanced and more profitable than land routes.
Today the old terminology that was used in navigation and rafting have acquired a different meaning. In its time, "šmiga" meant a good rafting pace, and "šmigā" as a verb meant that the raftsmen could relax, did not have to work as hard to guide the raft. Rafting was a trade, and raftsmen guided rafts large and small along the rivers, interlocking logs or other types of timber and placing them strategically on the river. Raft size was dependent on the depth and breadth of the river and navigational difficulty. Nowadays some of these terms are used in a completely different sense - šmiga means alcohol.
Intensive water transport in Gubernatorial times is now history, but the anchorman’s/deckhand’s trade and raft building were still active in the 1920’s and 30’s. Old Jelgava inhabitants still remember the boat trips to Kalnciem, Majori, and Emburga. In time, rail and road transport time outrivalled river roads. Currently the Lielupe and Driksa rivers are used for entertainment and sport, recreation and tourism, however, Jelgava was and remains the city by the river.
Inese Deksne ,Head of History and Education department