Old Raahe is one of the best preserved wooden towns of the 19th century in Finland. The northern part of the grid plan area, is preserved as an urban area for one-family houses, gives historical depth to today's steel town.
Count Pehr Brahe, governor general, gave a charter to the town of Salo in 1649 with a purpose to build a town at Satamakangas, near the old harbour site. However, the harbour area had become so low that the future town was decided to be transfered. A new and better place was found further north, at the present bay of Raahe. Having acquired the possession of the parish of Salo in 1652, Pehr Brahe renamed the town. It became Brahestad, or Raahe in Finnish.
The planning of the town plan for the purpose of building Raahe was given to the surveyor Claes Claesson. His town plan followed the ideals of the regular grid plan of the Renaissance. All streets were of equal width of 20—21 cubits or 10—11 meters. The market square stood by Rantakatu and the Town Hall behind the square. At the northeast corner of the town stood the church and the schoolhouse. Six blocks were realized of the first town plan, ie. the area surrounded by the present-day Koulukatu, Kirkkokatu, Saaristokatu and Rantakatu. The later expansion and changes of the town have held the ambitions of Claesson's town plan in respect until the beginning of this century.
The oldest picture still remaining of the town of Raahe, a drawing, dates from 1659. It shows that the town was surrounded by a so-called customs fence with two customs gates, the eastern one outside the crossroads of the present-day Brahenkatu and Reiponkatu and the southern one at the end of the Pitkakatu (present-day Kauppakatu) approximately by the present-day Koulukatu. The busy harbour of the town was located on the shore by the customs warehouse, the present museum.
There were two public buildings: a handsome, two-storey town hall with a tower, and a wooden church, whose building had already been started in 1651. The church was given a weatherboading already in 1684—1685. This is one of the earliest examples of boarding known in Finland.
The dwelling houses were made of logs. As a rule, they were built close to the street facing plot boundary, the long side and the ridge of the roof parallel to the street. The unbuilt part of the plot against the street was fitted up with a high, solid plank fence and a drive-in gate. The plots inside a block were not separated by fences. The houses usually had one or two rooms, most were of the two-room cabin type. Almost every house in the drawing of Raahe has the most remarkable novelty of the 17th century, the chimney. At the same time it was still quite common to have whole towns and villages with chimneyless houses, especially in Eastern Finland. Considering from the point of view of architectural history, at the time of its foundation Raahe was quite a modern town. As far as is known, no buildings exist from the 17th century.
During the last decades of the 17th century the whole Finland was tried by the great years of crop failure. A large number of people, if not several hundreds, starved to death within Raahe. After the maelstrom of the years of famine the Great Northern War started. The Russian troops burned Raahe almost entirely in 1714. The handsome baroque town hall was destroyed, among other things. The whole town was deserted, those who could speak Swedish left for Stockholm or elsewhere Sweden. Others fled either to Northern Finland or to the woods for refuge. Those that stayed in town and those that were captured when fleeing had to suffer the horrors and the absurdity of the war. After the peace of 1721 the rebuilding of the town was begun. The houses were built on their former corner stakes, the town arose to its former place. The church was restored and a new town hall was built replacing the one burnt.
The town began to grow and prosper. At last, in 1791, Raahe obtained the staple town right and the right to sail freely to foreign countries. The most important export goods were pitch and tar, but also timber, pelts and butter. Besides merchant shipping, the townspeople of Raahe traded with the rural areas of inland, Savo and Karelia. The most important item imported was salt.
At the end of the 18th century, there were about 650 inhabitants in Raahe. The increasing prosperity of the town and the growing diversification of the means of livelyhood is shown by the rapid increase in the number of craftsmen. There were dyers, gold- and silversmiths, turners, tanners, ropemakers, shoemakers, coopers, carpenters, glass cutters etc. Journeymen and apprentices were increasing in number and skill.
A school had already been founded in Raahe in 1653. The schoolhouse stood on the north side of the church hill. The curate of the parish usually served as the teacher. The instruction took place in Swedish up till the beginning of the 19th century, although the Swedish speaking population did not begin to grow until at the end of the 18th century. The school was given a new two-storey house in 1758.
Prosperity was also evident in the streetscape: houses were enlarged and even raised. The new dwelling houses were usually built two-storey, dwelling rooms were placed in the gables of the high attic. The exterior of the houses was of log surface with no boarding. The roofing was usually of board or birch bark. Very few houses of the 18th century have survived in Raahe:
The Sovelius house, owned by the family foundation, built in the 1780s (nowadays serving as the premises for the museum of Raahe)
The old house of the I Chemist’s opposite the church, the part facing Cortenkatu
Some of the oldest parts of certain houses in Saaristokatu, e.g. in the house of Suomela at the corner of Rantakatu and Saaristokatu
The western part of the Leufstadius’ tobacco factory (perhaps partly even from the 17th century)
In the 18th century, a social classification was becoming evident in the structure of the town: the wealthy burghers, merchants, shipowners and the mayor settled down in the centre and in Rantakatu near the town hall. In the northern and eastern parts, i.e. somewhere around Saaristokatu and Reiponkatu, and in the new southern blocks, in the south side of the present-day Koulukatu, had settled craftsmen, seamen’s families and workers and the poorer people in general. This social classification was evident in the silhuet of the town not only in the sizes of the houses but also of the plots. In the centre of the town the houses and plots were big, and in the outskirts, on the narrow and small plots, there were log cabins with one or two rooms.
At the end of the century the town extended as far as the present-day Laivurinkatu in the south, Saaristokatu in the north and Tulliportinkatu or present-day Reiponkatu in the east. Due to the denouement of the War of Finland, Finland was separated from its centuries old mother country Sweden in 1809 and joined with the great Russia as a Grand Duchy.
On the night of October 6, 1810 the growing town was faced with a disaster, a fire broke out. Three quarters of the town was destroyed, ie. about 60 houses, including the town hall with its records. The church, the schoolhouse, a few houses in Rantakatu and some small dwellings on the north side of the church hill were saved.
The commission surveyor Gustaf Odenwall was assigned to draw up a new town plan and a plotting-out plan for rebuilding the town. The burghers and the town administration had agreed upon certain principals concerning the rebuilding of the town and the new plan, such as:
A new, larger market square would be opened at the corner of Isokatu and Kirkkokatu.
The streets would maintain their previous width, the idea of widening the streets for purposes of fire safety was given no support.
A space of three cubits or about 1.5 - 2 meters would be left unbuilt on the boundaries of the plots for tire safety purposes.
Due to the enlargement of the plots, also the town needed to be extended.
Two-storey wooden houses could not be built anymore, the stone base could not be too high, the buildings and their stone bases facing the street were to be of a uniform height.
Designs of the town hall, planned for the Pekkatori square. On the left, a design made by the county architect Johan Oldenburg from 1851. On the right, a design made by the architect of the intendant office Nils Johan Osterman from 1853.
After the fire the town was quickly rebuilt. Houses were brought from the countryside, and some were even transported across the Gulf of Bothnia, from Sweden.
The largest and the most impressive building complex was naturally the new marketplace, Pekkatori, with its buildings. As a square composition, Pekkatori represents the closed corner square type conforming to the ideals of Italian Renaissance, and is one of the best preserved examples of its kind in Europe.
Due to the recovering shipping, Raahe began to prosper and grow in the 19th century The town was extended several times. During the Crimean War, the Englishmen that landed in May 1854 burnt down the town’s shipyards, and tar and pitch burning yards, among other things. The devastation of the war was 3 million euros in today’s money. The latter part of the century was a time of prosperity for Raahe. The sailing ship era brought the town a merchant fleet, which at its best consisted of 58 vessels. Almost all of these were built on town’s own shipyards. During 1867—1875 Raahe was the biggest shipowner town in Finland.
As the 1880s drew closer, the sailing ship era came to an end. Steamships began to take care of the foreign trade. At first the shipowners of Raahe did not believe in the triumphal march of the steamships, and therefore did not invest in them. Raahe, the busy shipping town turned back to a leisurely country town.
However, new schools were founded during the quiet period. The Raahe Burgher and Commercial School was founded in 1882 by the funds left by Johan and Baltzar Fellman. The Teachers’ College for Women was founded in 1896.
A private railway from Raahe to Lappi station was a great show of effort. The track was opened in 1899. Attempts were made by the track to recover the vast inland trading areas that were lost after the railway of Ostrobothnia was built.
For the first decades of the 20th century, Raahe lived on agriculture, education, the harbour, sawmill industry and the incipient metal industry.
The arrival of the Rautaruukki steelworks changed the entire life of the town beginning from the 1960s. The population began to grow rapidly with the building of the factory. Today the factory provides employment for over 3000 men and the multiplier impact on the economy is great.
The rapid increase in population created in fact a demolition threat for the old wooden town. The new town plan drawn up in the 1960s was for a strong new cnstruction. Special instructions were given concerning the most valuable entities, such as Pekkatori square, part of Rantakatu, and the church square. In accordance with the spirit of the times, the town plan presented long building complexes that would cover several plots. The proposal of these large complexes slowed down new construction. The active planning and land policy pursued by the town in new areas also relieved the pressure to construct. The town plan of the 1960s has, however, clearly left its mark on the wooden town of Raahe: one- and two-storey houses of bricks are found especially in Kauppakatu. Moreover, the old town is surrounded by a wall of block of flats in the north and east. The town plan of the 1960s required the transfer of almost all services to the new centre, which is the area under new construction to the south side of Koulukatu.
The preservation of the old town of Raahe was decided in 1977. The area consists of 150 old houses and about 200 outbuildings. After the preservation decision, about a hundred main buildings have been renovated in the area. 30 new buildings and enlargements have been made fitting in with the environment.
The new town plan makes it possible to maintain services in the old town. An attempt is being made to preserve most of the buildings by means of renovation and enlargement measures. Replacing the old by constructing new is permitted in some cases. Complementary new construction will be allocated to several plots. What is important in all the building activity, both in renovating and in constructing new, is to respect the old and adjust the new to the milieu as its natural part.
Old Raahe is not an open air museum, but a living part of the town. It tells about the history of construction and living in the town from across the centuries up to present.