It is one of the most interesting towns in Europe. In spite of its rapid growth, it is still, comparatively, a small town. Nevertheless, its note is metropolitan rather than provincial. Its civilization and culture are thoroughly national. It is a center of commerce, of art, of learning, and of the political ambitions of a nation in which a long dormant vigor has suddenly awakened. It has developed by itself, during the past century, out of the main current of European progress, and it has a strenuous and intense individuality of its own. The pulse of life and action beats as strongly in it as it does across the Atlantic. Helsingfors is, in fact, in many ways more American than European.
Helsingfors is situated at the end of a peninsula, not unlike the Greek peninsula in shape, on a small scale, and jutting out like it into the midst of an archipelago of islands. Five miles north of the present town, at the mouth of the river Vanda, is a hamlet which bears the name of Gammalstaden, “the old town.” This is the site of the original Helsingfors. In the year 1550 the Swedish king, the great Gustavus Vasa, having driven the Danes out of his country and inaugurated a brief epoch of peace and prosperity, resolved to establish a trading station on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, opposite Reval. The island of Sandhamn, near Sveaborg, was the first site thought of, but finally, thinking the island too exposed, he chose the site at the mouth of the Vanda. Some colonists from the Swedish province of Helsingland, who had settled in the neighborhood, gave their name to the “town,” and the rights and liberties of a town were conferred upon it in order to induce the inhabitants of the surrounding country to come and live there. The site, however, was ill-suited for commerce, and 89 years later, in 1639, the “town” was removed to its present site, right at the end of the peninsula.
Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century the history of Helsingfors is the record of a constant succession of disasters from plague, fire, and war. Its insignificance from the point of view of size may be gathered from the fact that the plague of 1710 reduced its population from 1,800 to 615 souls. It fell a prey to Russian arms under Peter the Great, and again in 1742. The fortress of Sveaborg was then built to protect it, but a feeble defense it proved. In 1808 Helsingsfors was once more, and for the last time, captured by the Russians, and the fortress was surrendered without a single shot being fired. Thenceforward Finland was a part of the Russian Empire. It was again destroyed by fire, and from its ashes arose the new capital of Finland. In 1812 Helsingfors, being nearer to St. Petersburg and less susceptible to Swedish influences, was declared the capital in place of Abo. Karl Ludvig Engel, a German architect who had settled in St. Petersburg, was brought over to superintend the rebuilding of the town. A man of large and noble ideals, he proved himself worthy of the occasion, and he played in Helsingfors the same part that Sir Christopher Wren played in London. In 1819 the Senate and chief Government offices were removed to Helsingfors, and in 1828, after the great fire in Abo, the University was removed also.
The annexation to Russia, under terms that secured a large measure of self-government, ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity in Finland. From the time when it was declared the capital, Helsingfors has never ceased to grow in population, commerce, and wealth. In 1805 there were only two towns in all Finland which had a population of more than 5,000, and these were Abo with 11,300, and Helsingfors with 8,943. For the next few years the population of Helsingfors was reduced by about half by war and fire, but by 1850 it amounted to 20,745, as against 17,178 in Abo. By 1880 Helsingfors had doubled that figure, and within the next twenty years had again doubled its population. In 1907 the population of Helsingfors was 125,000, while that of Abo was only 46,000, and the rate of growth is increasing rather than diminishing.
Helsingfors is almost completely surrounded by water. On the west, the south, and the east it is washed by the waters of the Gulf of Finland, and on the north it is almost cut off from the main-land by the Tolo Creek. About the middle of its eastern side a peninsula, the narrow neck of which is cut by a canal, juts out into thc sea. This is the Skatudden, one of the most modern quarters of the town, covered with large blocks of flats of the most bizarre architecture, and containing also the Russian church, the customs house, the mint, the prison, and the barracks. It divides the harbor into two parts, the north and south harbors. To the south stretch the green wooded slopes of the Brunnspark. Overlooking the south harbor, on a considerable height, are the classic pillared domes of the observatory, and behind them the tall Gothic spires of the new Lutheran church. Northward stretches a long silhouet of the buildings on the Skatudden and Norra Esplanadgatan with, towering over them, the fantastic Oriental cupolas of the Russian church, and the severer massive domes of the Lutheran Church of St. Nicholas.
On the edge of the market-place, whence a fine prospect of the harbor, with Sveaborg in the distance, and of the Esplanade, may be obtained, stands the Czarita’s Stone, an obelisk of red granite, commemorating the visit of the Empress of Nicholas I. in 1833. Nearly opposite this monument is an inconspicuous building, formerly a private house, but now the royal palace. The ceremony of opening and dissolving the Diet takes place here. Its chief interest is a collection of pictures by Finnish artists.
The fortress of Sveaborg, the Gibraltar of the Baltic, which guards the entrance to the harbor, covers seven islands about two miles from the quay. There is an hourly service of steamers to Sveaborg, and, by making the journey, one gets a very good view of the general situation of the islands. The fortress was founded by Count Auguste Ehrensvard, High Admiral of Sweden, in 1749, in order to serve the double purpose of protecting the town and of providing a safe harbor for the Swedish fleet. Count Ehrensvard’s portrait may still bc seen in the Radhus (town hall) with a small, hardly distinguishable Swedish flag floating over Sveaborg in the background. A simple monument designed by the king, Gustavus III. himself, marks his tomb on Vargo Island, and bears this inscription: “Here lies Count Auguste Ehrensvard, surrounded by his work, the Fortress of Sveaborg and the Fleet.”