Tallinn’s Seaplane Hangar Museum

On our last day in Tallinn, we visited the Seaplane Hangar Museum, the primary repository of Estonia’s maritime history.


I was, frankly, not too interested in the modern warfare parts of the displays (mines, gunboats, guns, submarines), and of course, it was the history that attracted most of my attention. But the building itself was interesting, and they allowed visitors to carry around a card with which we could automatically email to ourselves, links to the info we were interested in. Of course, I did so, and here is a bit of what I found. If you aren’t interested in history, you are welcome to skip this rather long post.

Before you go, however, check out these photos below. Behind the modern warfare displays was a long wall of murals depicting extremely creepy anti-war images, that I honestly have not quite figured out. They were profoundly disturbing, at least to me. I don’t think most visitors paid much attention to them, but I was captivated. It was also nearly impossible to render them properly in pixels, but here are a couple of the better examples:




Now the history.

The Maasilinnia Ship

The Maasilinnia ship was the first historic wreck to be recovered in the Baltic Sea and used for scientific purposes. The ship has a distinct keel unknown to be a part of the design of any other Baltic Sea countries’ ships. The distance between the keel and the ribs, about 20 centimeters, formed a water collection well or bilge.


Although Estonians have always been sea-dwelling peoples, there is not much about ancient and medieval boatbuilding and shipbuilding remaining available to modern scholars. Centuries of “toil under foreign administrations” interrupted the boatbuilding traditions handed down from father to son, therefore the Maasilinna ship is the only available example of Estonian medieval shipbuilding found to date.

The ship is of Saaremaa Island origin, and was built in about 1550.


It has been impossible to fully restore the Maasilinna ship to 100% of its original appearance as no one knows precisely what the vessel looked like. At least three-fourths of the ship has been completely lost.

Credit for finding and conserving the Maasilinna ship goes to the underwater archeology club ‘Viikar’ of the Estonian Maritime Museum. In 1985, they were exploring the anchorage of the medieval Maasilinn (Soneburg) Order Castle when they found logs extending from the sea bed in 3 meters of water. The wreckage site is in the Väike Väin Straight, separating Saaremaa and Muhu Islands. In 1987 the wreckage was floated to the surface, and a temporary building was erected on Illiku Islet to protect the find and allow conservation to take place. The timbers were freeze-dried, and treated with a solution of polyethylene glycol over a year, to preserve them. The solution presses remaining water out of the wood and fills empty pores. Next, the wreck was frozen to allow for thorough drying over a longer period.

Historians assume the ship was a single-masted vessel without a deck, approx. 16 meters long and 5.5 meters wide. While its design could probably have navigated the entire Baltic Sea area, it is thought to be a local transport vessel, used for moving construction materials along the island coasts. The vessel is similar in design to the Swedish haxe and the Finnish haaksi type of transport vessels.

The Maasilinna Order Castle was built in the 14th century. In 1554, Maasilinna and the premises owned by the Castle were sold to Denmark. In 1556, the Castle was demolished by order of King Frederick II of Denmark, so it would not be captured by Sweden and become a defensive stronghold. Historians presume that the Maasilinna ship was sunk by an enemy attack. The above-water frame of the ship likely burnt to the waterline, the ship filled with water, and finally sunk.

The Seaplane Hangar

In 1527, the region called Kalamaja, that would become Estonia/Tallinn, had 78 residential plots and at least 17 taverns. In the 1700s, the Swedes built several strongholds: Skoone bastion and the Stuart redoubt, in what is now North Tallinn. They also expanded the port/harbor.

Having conquered Estonian territories in the Great Northern War (1700-1710), Russian Tsar Peter the Great began building a great military harbor in Tallinn. In 1716, a fierce storm destroyed the construction and sank two of the Tsar’s ships – the Fortune and the Antoniy, forcing the Tsar to forgo Tallinn as an option. He then chose Paldiski as the new location of his port.

The Tsar next demanded that two batteries be built to defend the port of Tallinn. In 1833 the two log-built structures were joined as one. The structure, known even then as Topeltpatarei (Peter the Great’s Port), was improved, starting the following year, with granite walls. It was equipped with 43 cannon and manned by between 150 and 215 soldiers.

During the Crimean War of 1855, it was feared by Emperor Nicolas I, that the imposing fortifications would be taken by the English and French, so the fortification was scuttled. (He had renovated much of the structure by about 1840, including the Kaitsekasarm or defensive barracks, built next to today’s Seaplane Hangar port). The renovations included coastal defense batteries and mine barriers, intended to close off the Gulf of Finland, and protect the Russian capital of St. Petersburg from potential attack from the sea.

In 1868, the ruined naval fortification was sold to private ownership, and the remains were used as construction material. Legend says that much of the material was used to build many of the foundations under the structures in Kalamaja. The extant parts of the structure are called the “old battery.”

After Tallinn lost its status as a fortification town in 1864, the name Kaitsekasarm was replaced with Patareikasarm, or briefly, “Patari” (Battery) by which the complex is known today. The buildings were used as a prison during the Soviet era.

Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

The entire naval fortress, if plans had been completed, included a southern sector (Estonia); a northern sector (Finland); and the sea between them. Tallinn was the center of the naval fortress and the operational base for Russia’s Baltic Fleet.

The Peter the Great Naval Fortress was considered so important that Tsar/Emperor Nicolas II came to lay the corner stone. His words, recorded by the daily Päevaleht of July 15, 1912: “Be the bridgehead of our forces on the Baltic coast as skillfully constructed as we like, its strength and invincibility will rest chiefly on the mental fortitude of the naval officers …”

As the First Word War loomed on the horizon, Nicolas II, like other world leaders, realized that aviation would play a new and important role in warfare. In 1914, the commander of the Naval General staff introduce a plan for an aviation port, which mentioned the need to build a mechanism to lower seaplanes into the water, and for hangars to house them. During the reign of Nicolas II, nearly his entire Baltic Fleet was annihilated at the Battle of Tsushima, in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5).

By 1916, the Russian Empire had over 100 aircraft in the Air Force division of their Baltic Fleet. That naval air squadron that was part of the Peter the Great fortress was made up of 15 reconnaissance craft, but they were housed elsewhere. A search for a suitable location for the stage 1 seaplane base resulted in the purchase of land from a private businessman on Tallin’s coast.

Tsar Nicolas II abdicated his throne in Feb. of 1917, and his entire family and household were executed in Feb. of 1918.

Estonia began taking control of its harbors as the Russian Empire experienced chaos. As of March, 1918, the Estonian air squadron had two conventional planes and two seaplanes. Only one was airworthy. In April that year, used aircraft from England arrived. In the autumn of that year, Estonia’s Air Force naval squadron was formed, and based in the Seaplane Harbor.

By 1923, with the move of the Air Force training school to the seaplane squadron barracks (construction completed in 1922), the Seaplane Hangar area became the training ground of the future Estonian Air Force pilots.

On June 19, 1940, the Seaplane Harbor, its equipment, personnel and facilities, were transferred to the Baltic Red Fleet’s controls and ownership. After German forces conquered Tallinn in the autumn of 1941, the port was used, especially when Lake Ülemiste was frozen, to launch patrol seaplanes to search for enemy activity above the Gulf of Finland. Tallinn was recaptured by the Red Army in 1944, and the Lennusadam port was used by the Baltic fleet for shipyard administration. The hangars themselves were used as storage areas for the military units that made up the Soviet Union’s naval fleet.

Today, the primary hangar is the Lennusadam Museum, detailing Estonia’s maritime history with three concentrations per floor: above water; on the water; and below the water. There are areas for children to play and climb, battle ship gun ports to sit in (popular with boys of all ages), a flight simulator, a gun/target simulator, and a submarine to explore inside and out. Outside at dock are more ships of each era to be explored.

While we were there, a cute play of some sort, about which we had no clue because it was performed in Estonian, was undertaken for the children. The human-animated “puppets” were colorful, primitive and delightful. I managed one photo in the dim light.


As we walked back to the hotel, we passed a wax museum with a welcome party outside:



I’m afraid I’m a sucker for stories; including those about history. Here are a couple of stops we made yesterday, while cycling to the east of our lodging in Kvarnbo (Saltvick) in Åland. By the way, if you are wondering how to pronounce the place we are cycling around, think of the word AWL and add “land.” It is as if you are forming the letter O with your mouth but actually vocalizing the letter A. Say it with that initial vowel sounding like, if you’d never seen it written, the hearer would not know if it was spelled with an initial A or an initial O.

Anyway. Here was our first stop – ancient, Viking history.


First stop: Borgboda Iron Age Complex
A high concentration of pre-historic structures can be found on Borgboda Farm as well as remains from Medieval times. The oldest finds date back to the Bronze Age but the area is dominated by remains from the late Iron Age (400 – 1000 AD). These include four cemeteries, a hill fort and extensive layers of refuse. Excavations have also revealed the foundation of a building as well as traces of pre-historic farming. The hill fort, enclosing an area of 6 acres, was situated at the center of Åland’s then most densely populated area. Excavations have indicated that the fort was not permanently manned but rather served as a refuge for the population in times of unrest.

Grave mounds from the late Iron Age.
The Ängisbacken cemetery comprising 65 grave mounds, is typical of the late Iron Age. In the pre-Christian tradition, the dead were cremated with a few of their belongings. The ashes were then buried and covered with stone and earth, forming a mound. A cemetery, which could be used for several centuries, usually represents the population of one farm. Two of the graves in this cemetery, which were excavated in 1985, were dated to the late Viking age, around 1000 AD.

The Hill Fort
Enclosing an area of six acres, the hill fort is the largest of Åland’s six hill forts. Placed in a rock with steep northern and eastern sides serving as natural defenses, it only required defensive walls to be built on the southern and western sides. The low stone walls, which are double at the main entrance, ought to have served as foundations for further woden constructions. Inside the fort can be seen the remains of several building foundations.

For more photos of the historic site as well as pix of our ride, see:

Second stop, Bomarsund, where a rare military alliance among British, French, and Turkish armies defeated the Russian Empire.


Åland became part of the Russian Empire in 1809. Prior to this, the islands, together with mainland Finland, belonged to Sweden. The Russian period lasted until 1918.

The Russian fortifications at Bomarsund included some of the largest buildings ever constructed on Åland, and were the center for the most significant military occupation in the islands’ history. The fortress represented not only Russia’s military authority, it was intended to change the very nature of Åland: from an island group populated by fishermen, farmers, and coastal traders, to a fortified outpost of the Russian Empire.

The planning and building of Bomarsund continued for 45 years. The Main Fort would lie in the center of a great circle of defensive towers and other buildings. But when Bomarsund was attacked in 1854, only 25% of the planned work had been completed. The enormous size of the proposed facilities was the fortress’s greatest weakness.


A small but significant society grew around the fortifications. The population comprised merchants, craftsmen, and civil servants, together with their families. They came from every part of the Russian Empire, including Åland. They lived in planned residential areas, where the cosmopolitan lifestyle was quite unlike the traditional Åland lifestyle. This society was dominated by the military and its fate was closely tied to that of the fortress.

In 1854 Åland was caught up in a war fought between Russia and the allied forces of France, Britain, and Turkey. A powerful fleet, together with troops, attacked Bomarsund. Following a short battle, it was captured. A few weeks later the fort and other buildings were demolished. During this battle the residential areas around Bomarsund were also destroyed. When the war ended, in 1856, Russia was forced to sign a treaty that led, amongst other things, to the demilitarization of the Åland Islands.

Where the walls of Bomarsund once represented Russia’s military authority, today they symbolize the autonomous Åland Islands.

During the attack of 1854, the Main Fort was attacked from both land and sea. The defenders did everything they could to hinder their attackers, but it was simply a matter of time before the Main Fort lay in ruins. On the 16th of August, following a 24-hour bombardment, the fortress’s commander, Major-General Bodisco, surrendered and he and his troops were led away to prison in France and England.


The Orthodox Church was the most beautiful part of the fortifications. Religion was an important part of the military’s day-to-day life, but not everyone at Bomarsund was Orthodox. Bomarsund was a multi-cultural society with Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims, as well as the Orthodox Christians.

The main fort was like a boundary town, with offices, bakeries, churches, a prison, wells for drinking water, and toilets. It is the largest building ever to have been built on Åland, with a total of 246 rooms (over 18,000 sq. meters of floor space), accommodation for 2500 people and places for 115 cannon. The main fort was built between 1832 and 1843, and was the heart of the fortress of Bomarsund.

(The last structure we visited was Brännklint Tower)
During the attack of 1854, Brännklint Tower was the only part of the landward defenses to have been completed. Thousands of French soldiers armed with cannon and rifles assaulted the tower. For 24 hours, the 140 occupants struggled to hold the enemy at bay. The number of casualties mounted. Finally, the decision was made to abandon the tower and blow it up. While the charges were being laid a French force managed to enter the tower and capture the few soldiers that remained.


Again, for additional pix from our travels east of Kvarnbo, see:

Midsummer celebration poles


We’ve seen many of these structures, and wondered about them. Discovered the answer on our second day of travels among the Åland islands.

Midsummer is a serious holiday and celebration time here. Our host at the Stellhagen Brewery said they only close for Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Midsummer.

Here’s the story about the midsummer poles, from the open air museum near Kastelholm:

The spar, which is usually made of spruce, should be felled in winter. The poles used to be unpainted, but nowadays they are often whitewashed and in some cases adorned with painted-on garlands, or wrapped garland or ribbon of different colors. Leafy bunches of vegetation adorn the spar in the form of wreaths or other decorative gatherings attached to or around the spar. The height of the spar varies between 10 and 25 meters.

The pole has a number of crossbars, which are attached horizontally. The ends of the crossbars are adorned with the tops of young spruces, small flags or tassel pins. Sometimes there are also wreaths or leafy branches tied to the ends of the crossbars. Modern midsummer poles are secured in a flag pole base. The archipelago poles that usually are raised on a rocky surface are additionally secured with steel cables.

The crown has been interpreted as a symbol for virginity and symbolizes hope for youth, health, and a joyful future. The crown framework was originally made of reeds decorated with colorful tufts of rags, dyed wool, ruffled newspaper, and other showy and colorful materials, today, the frame is usually made of steel pipes, wire, or wooden pins, these are decorated with cut and crinkled crepe or tissue paper,masses, bows, and ribbons in different colors. Some non-woven fabrics are also sometimes used.


The sun
Most midsummer poles are decorated with a sun, the rear of which has a weathercock formed as a rooster, a fish, an oar blade, or something similar. The sun symbolizes the life-giving heat that causes everything to grow, the rooster or fish behind the sun is said to represent agriculture or fishing, respectively. The suns are most common on midsummer poles on the m win island, but can also be seen in the archipelago.


The Fäktargubbe Figure
On top of the midsummer pole stands the Fäktargubbe, with his long flat arms waving in the wind. Some of the men wear a cap, others a hat, and sometimes they are smoking a pipe.

The Fäktargubbe has many different names: fäktmästare, viftargrubbe, sprattelgrubbe, etc. It has been said that “he fences for a good crop,” and that he symbolizes the diligence of Åland.