Remnants of 19th century Industrial Revolution found around Latvia


The Kč-4-332 steam engine was restored in 2005 and runs on the Alūksne-Gulbene narrow gauge railway line. (Photo courtesy of the Industrial Heritage Trust of Latvia)

The Industrial Revolution was born in 18th century Britain with the cotton mill, advances in metallurgy and the harnessing of steam to mechanize production and transportation. Society was transformed as labourers abandoned the countryside and small workshops to work in factories that in turn spurred the rise of modern industrial cities.

Although steel manufacturers and shipyards can be traced back to the Duchy of Courland and Swedish Vidzeme in the 17th century, Latvia had to wait until the 19th century before it was hit by large-scale mechanization. The first modern factory in Latvia was the cast iron foundry and machine shop Wörman & Sohn, founded in Rīga in 1832. Textile and paper mills and tobacco factories soon followed.

The 1870s and 1880s saw the explosion of large-scale industry as Rīga became a major industrial centre in Czarist Russia. Liepāja also followed. Industrial enterprises that became known throughout Russia included the Russo-Baltique carriage factory, which later produced tanks and airplanes; the Leutner & Co. bicycle factory; the Phoenix carriage factory, which went on to build automobiles; the electronic concern Union, which later became the renowned VEF (Valsts Elektrotehniskā Fabrika, the State Electrotechnical Factory); rubber manufacturer Provodnik; the Waldschlöschen Brewery, which is still in existence as today’s Aldaris; Wolfschmidt’s distillery; A. Kriegsman cork factory; the naval workshops in Liepāja; the Līgatne paper mill, and many others. The names of these enterprises attest to almost exclusive ownership by Baltic Germans.

On the eve of World War I, there were 1,032 industrial enterprises in Latvia and the 753 biggest ones employed 108,565 labourers. During the war, the machinery from many factories was evacuated to the Russian hinterland, severely setting back industry in independent Latvia.

The Industrial Revolution also saw the mechanization of transportation and the introduction of railways, which stimulated manufacturing by providing a cost effective method to distribute manufactured goods. The railroad arrived in Latvia in 1860 when the Warsaw–St. Petersburg line crossed eastern Latvia through Daugavpils and Rēzekne. A year later the Rīga–Daugavpils line was completed and was then connected to the rail network in Russia. It stimulated the growth of Rīga’s harbour. Liepāja and Jelgava were connected soon afterwards. By 1877 there were 799 kilometres of railways in Latvia. At the turn of the 20th century, the construction of narrow-gauge railways began as branch lines to connect rural towns. They fell into disuse in the 1950s and 1960s as the automobile and trucks took over. The last of the narrow-gauge lines survives on the 33-kilometre run from Alūksne to Gulbene and is now a popular tourist attraction.

Industrialization required labour and 19th century Latvian factories were fuelled by newly enfranchised but landless peasants and labourers who flocked from the countryside to the towns and cities. The population of Rīga ballooned. Between 1881 and 1900, for example, it jumped from 169,000 to almost 300,000. Factories were concentrated in newly founded industrial districts such as Sarkandaugava, a few kilometres downstream from Rīga on a branch of the Daugava River. One of its main arteries is still named Tvaiku iela (Steam Street) and attests to the area’s industrial roots. Workers were housed in two- and three-storey rooming houses that sprang up around the factories. These neighbourhoods helped spawn Jaunā strāva (the New Current social democratic workers movement) and were the breeding grounds for the violent 1905 Revolution that exploded in Rīga and spread to the rest of Latvia as workers rose up against their German and Russian overlords demanding better working conditions including shorter hours and higher wages.

Other technology and communication milestones in Latvia include: the first postal station established in Rīga under Swedish rule in 1632 and linked with Jelgava, Liepāja and Konigsberg; building of a pontoon bridge across the Daugava by Swedish army engineers in 1702; the first hot air balloon flight over Jelgava in 1785; an optical telegraph or semaphore telegraph line that crossed Latvia on its way from St. Petersburg to Warsaw; the first telegraph line strung between Riga and Boderāja in 1860; the opening of the Rīga Polytechnic Institute in 1862; the establishment of a water utility system in Rīga driven by steam powered pumps in 1863; laying of an international underwater telegraph cable between Liepāja and Denmark in 1868; the 1874 introduction of the omnibus or horse drawn carriages as a means of public transport in Rīga; horse drawn streetcars and a telephone exchange that could handle up to 3000 subscribers in 1882; the introduction of electric lighting in factories in 1884; showing of the first movie film and introduction of imported automobiles from France in 1896; the first electric street cars in Rīga as well as the opening of the Smiltene hydroelectric plant, both in 1901; electric power transmission with the 1905 opening of the thermal power plant at Andrejsala; the roll-out of automobile taxis in Rīga in 1907 followed a year later by intercity bus transportation; and the first powered aircraft flight in Latvia that lasted 56 seconds in 1910. One would be remiss not to mention the 1937 start of the mass production of Minox, the world’s smallest camera, by VEF.

Latvia is also home to two survey points of the Struve Geodesic Arc, a chain of survey triangulations stretching from Norway to the Black Sea established between 1816 and 1855 by Tartu-based Russian scientist Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve (1793-1864)  in order to measure the Earth. Both points are in the UNESCO World Heritage List. One is in Strūve Park in Jēkabpils and the other is at Sestu Hill or Ziestu Hill south of Ērģļi.

Fast forward to 2001 when the Industrial Heritage Trust of Latvia was founded to survey, research, preserve and promote Latvia’s industrial, scientific and technical legacy. It was the successor to the Latvian Technical Monument Trust established earlier in 1992. The trust is a non-profit volunteer organization that unites researchers, academics, engineers, architects and enthusiasts.

The trust has published a number of books including No Leitnera līdz Ērenpreisam. Velosipēdu rūpniecība Latvijā 100 gados, which is a history of bicycle manufacturing in Latvia between 1886 and 1963; Vidzemes bānītis, a history of the narrow gauge railroad between Alūksne and Gulbene; the multi-lingual publication Latvijas industriālā mantojuma ceļvedis or Guide to Industrial Heritage of Latvia; and Dzelsceļi Latvijā or Railroads in Latvia, published separately but one of whose authors is a board member of the trust. Some publications can be found in Rīga bookstores, while others like the guide are hard to find and are best sourced by directly contacting the trust.

The trust has also initiated a number of projects including the restoration of the Kalnienas railway station and the 2005 restoration of a Kč-4-332 steam engine, both on the Gulbene–Alūksne line as part of the international SteamRail.Net program; the restoration of the Gr-319 steam engine; the assessment of heritage railroad stations across Latvia; participation at various international conferences; and the creation of a comprehensive database of industrial heritage sites.

Defining objects of interest for the trust was not quite as easy as it sounds. According to the trust’s Chairman Andris Biedriņš (no relation to the NBA basketball star), one could argue that castle ruins and hill fort sites that date back to the ancient Letts and the Teutonic Knights could be included along with later military fortifications such as the Daugavgrīva fortress at the mouth of the Daugava River re-built during Swedish rule. Likewise in other countries, remnants of Roman smithies might be objects of interest along with 19th century foundries. The trust had to draw the line somewhere and it focuses on industrial objects enabled through modern manufacturing, construction and communication technologies that took root in Latvia primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries in what is commonly called the Industrial Revolution.

The Guide to Industrial Heritage of Latvia lists 230 objects of interest divided into the following categories: factories and manufacturing plants; water and wind mills; thermal and hydro electric power plants as well as sub-stations; roads and bridges including viaducts, postal relays stations and mileposts; railways and railroad stations; lighthouses, harbour pilot towers, dams, dikes, canals and dry docks; public utilities such as transit, water supply systems and fire halls; as well as fortresses, fortifications and cannons. Although objects are scattered throughout Latvia, the largest concentration is in Rīga, followed by Liepāja.

Objects of interest to the trust also include those from the modern era. For example, a 2,000-square-metre bunker 9 metres underground near Līgatne and fully equipped with electric generators, air conditioners, water supply and waste disposal and telecommunications equipment was meant to house Soviet Latvia’s leadership in case of nuclear war. The 32-metre radio telescope near Ventspils was taken over from departing Soviet forces and is now run by the Latvian Academy of Sciences. A number of former Soviet rocket bases like the one at Zeltiņu township in north east Latvia are also in relatively good shape.

The state of Latvia’s industrial heritage sites varies, according to Biedriņš. In good shape are facilities like the fire station on Hanza Street in Rīga that now houses the Firefighting Museum of Latvia or the gas reservoir on Matīsa Street that converted into a sports hall. Most facilities are not and suffer from neglect and lack of interest by officialdom and public alike who see little aesthetic or economic value in them. Many are in danger of being torn down, but there are signs that Latvia may yet be re-evaluating seemingly derelict industrial sites as is the case in many western cities.

Brewer Aldaris, owned by Danish brewing conglomerate Carlsberg, took Latvia’s Office for the Protection of Cultural Monuments to court to contest additional demands by the office regarding preservation of 19th century structures on its site. Aldaris lost the case.

The chalk factory at Ķīpsala, an island on the left bank of the Daugava, has been converted to residential dwellings by architect Zaiga Gaile. She has been one of few architects in Latvia to see the potential of industrial structures. Another is the particularly ambitious urban renewal project on Andrejsala, an industrial port area of Rīga that is slated to be transformed into a mixed use neighbourhood with offices, dwellings, open spaces, stores, entertainment, galleries and museums. Although most existing structures will be demolished, a number of industrial heritage buildings such as the decommissioned thermal power plant and a grain silo will be refurbished as cultural hubs highlighting the area’s historic links. Latvia’s economic crisis has stalled development, but in the meantime Rīga’s avant-garde has seen Andrejsala’s potential and galleries, nightclubs and concert venues have moved in.

Those interested in visiting industrial heritage sites should note that many owners are reluctant to host visitors. Given that many sites are derelict, safety is also a concern. The best approach is to contact the Industrial Heritage Trust of Latvia. It offers a number of tours including the Lighthouses of Northern Kurzeme, the Gulbene–Alūksne narrow gauge railroad, and a trip from Ventspils to Liepāja with various stops. Small groups can set their own itinerary in Rīga. Some sites do accept visitors and the trust’s guide provides contact information. The guide also lists 23 technical and engineering museums in Latvia.

For further information about the Industrial Heritage Trust of Latvia including contacts, visit the trust’s website at

Provodnik factory

The imposing pre-World War One Provodnik rubber factory in Sarkandaugava. In its time, it manufactured tires, galoshes, linoleum and rubberized fabrics. It is now owned by the Rīgas Electro Machinery factory. (Photo courtesy of the Industrial Heritage Trust of Latvia)


The Ūziņu windmill in Zaļenieku township southwest of Jelgava dates back to the 1880s. (Photo by Viesturs Zariņš)

4 thoughts on “Remnants of 19th century Industrial Revolution found around Latvia

  1. Very impressive. Thanks! I didn’t know that Waldschlöschen was the precursor to Aldaris. My great grandfather was a young man when he moved to Riga from the countryside, joining a lot of others looking to make a living off the industrial revolution. He worked his way up from delivery boy and proved himself to be a competent manager ar Waldschlöschen and soon was able to put up his whole family in Riga. A black obelisk in Lielie kapi cemetery, marked Schagarin’, was erected by him for the family.

  2. I am trying to find a Brick Factory in or near Riga which the Taylor family in Jelgava started. Any ideas please? I would love to see photo or see Taylors Castle a Mansion Home in Jelgava they lived there for many years. Thanks.

  3. I checked with a friend who is a historian and has studied and written about Jelgava’s history. He does not know of a Taylor Castle in Jelgava (i.e. muiza-manor/maja-house). As for brick factories, the problem according to him is that there were many in the Riga/Jelgava area. Unfortunately more information is needed. You could try to contact the Industrial Heritage Trust of Latvia to see if they have anything in their archives.

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