Jouko Vahtola, University of Oulu

Tornio gateway of the centuries to Lapland and the west

Both the historical and the modern image of Tornio are diverse and original. Over the 390 years of the city's history can only partly be squeezed into the general development phases of Finnish cities.The excellent location of the city at the mouth of a large river, that dominates a large part of Lapland, is a major cause for the originality of the city's history.Also a major factor is that for the most part of its history Tornio has been the northernmost city and a gateway to Lapland, first as a part of the Swedish kingdom and then from 1809 as a part of Finland. In the last couple of centuries the central factor in the development of the city has been that it has become a gateway to the west as the only Finnish city on the border and as a meeting place for Finnish and Swedish language and culture.

 

A Bustling Marketplace Even in the Middle Ages

 

A condition for the birth of Tornio, as well as its source of life and wealth, was the surrounding vibrant river valley and, in part, all of Lapland. Even before the city was founded in 1621, the mouth of Torne River had for centuries been a bustling place for commerce, through which most of the northern produce, above all salmon, pike and fur, would travel into the world carried by merchants from distant lands. The marketplace was already called Tornio, or Tornio of the North, and the parish, which was formed early in the 14th century, was also named Tornio.

The Rise of Trade in the 17th Century

The merchants who moved into the city started actively conducting trade in the large commercial area. The Lappish goods they traded for were relayed to the bay in Tornio where merchants from the south, especially from Stockholm, had come to trade.

The Prosperous End of the 18th Century

A new leaf was turned in the commerce of Tornio after 1766. This is when cities of the Gulf of Bothnia were given permission to conduct their own foreign trade outside of Sweden. The direct foreign sea trade of the Tornio merchants did not become hugely prominent but under the new commercial atmosphere domestic sea trade also picked up and Tornio merchants took part in that. Around 1800 Tornio harbour was busier than ever before.Seperation from SwedenSoon after the year 1800, as the economic situation abroad weakened, the commerce in Tornio started to decline. Ship building decreased gradually. The start of the war with Russia in 1808 interfered with trade immensely even though Tornio was not destroyed in the Finnish War. From March 1809 Tornio became an important Russian garrison town for over a decade, which changed the cityscape.

World War I and IIDuring World War I in 1914-1916

Tornio saw an unprecedented period of bustling trade. As soon as the war started Russia's usual foreign trade routes, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, were closed off.As Russia's wartime economy was dependant on import, trade routes had to be changed to alternative and more troublesome paths.Goods started to be transported via Sweden and Norway to Finland and onwards to Russia. Russian exports were partly also transported via the same route. As a large part of these goods passed through Tornio, since there was already a railway in place, the traffic conditions of the city were completely revolutionized. Tornio was not only important to the upkeep of Russia but in the war years it was a major transit point for Finnish foreign trade.

Border Town of the 20th Century

Even though Tornio did not play a central role in Finland's international trade after World War I it was the busiest hub for traffic to and from the west. In the years between World War I and II new bridges were built. Among these was the Bridge of Hannula that connected Suensaari with mainland Finland. Since then land traffic routes have been constantly improved to meet the demands of the ever-expanding flow of cars.

Border Town of the 20th Century

After the wars the development of Tornio has been strongly heading forwards as evidenced by the tripled population. At the start of 1973 Tornio was still a small town of 8000 residents but at the beginning of that year the municipalities of Alatarnio (8700 residents) and Karunki (2200 residents) were merged with Tornio and the population neared 20 000. Population was also growing due to natural development and migration. Nowadays Tornio has around 23 000 residents.

From the 19th century onwards smuggling, or "joppaaminen", also made many rich and some even earned their fortunes. The rationing of the last wars meant a golden age for smugglers that lasted all the way to the start of the 1950s when the rationing of coffee finally ended. Tornio's position as the "Gateway to Lapland" was mainly founded on the fact that for centuries the trade from Lapland was directed there and passed through the city into the wide world.

Internationally, even through the 19th century, the renown as the "Gateway to Lapland" was based on Tornio's position as the northernmost city of Sweden and then later Finland.Travel wise, in addition to the romance of Lapland, Tornio had another ace up its sleeve that kept up its reputation in Europe: the Midnight Sun and the long bright days of summer. People came from far and wide to view the spectacle and it was vividly portrayed in travel logs from late 17th century onwards when king Charles XI had made the Midnight Sun famous after a trip of his own to the north.
Torne River is still a free running river in its natural state. It is the oldest and still usable passageway into Lapland.