Mariehamn was founded in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II when Åland and Finland were a part of the Russian empire. The name comes from Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna.
Mariehamn took over as the financial and cultural centre from Åland’s former centre of administration, Skarpans, next to the fortress at Bomarsund, which the Russians built between 1832 and 1854 but which was then destroyed at the end of the war.
The new town developed around the village of Övernäs in the middle of an isthmus. The Övernässtugan at the eastern end of Skillnadsgatan is the only building from Övernäs village that has been preserved.
Mariehamn is strategically situated near the main channel between Sweden and Finland. Its location combined with its excellent harbours have played a large part in its growth as a town.
Tourism took off towards the end of the 19th century when Mariehamn was flourishing as a seaside resort. In 1914 the First World War set a stop to the tourism business and the epoch came to a definite end when the seaside hotel burned down in 1916. Now, a hundred-odd years later, Mariehamn can once again take pride in having its own public baths again – Mariebad.
Shipping has been a characteristic feature of Åland and the Ålander people. New research findings indicate that the Ålanders were probably involved in trade and commerce as early as the Viking Age. In the Middle Ages people went first and foremost to Turku and Reval in the east and Stockholm in the west.
Trade by sailing ships
Ålander freight shipping took off in earnest after 1850. Several large shipping companies chose to settle in the new town. One example was Nikolai Sittkoff, who gave his name to the shopping precinct in the town centre. Shipping partnerships, where tens of owners shared both the risks and the profits from a ship, became common.
Initially shipping traffic was restricted to the Baltic Sea but the shipowners with farming interests built increasingly large cargo ships and the commercial routes extended to the North Sea and the Mediterranean. In 1865 the barque Preciosa sailed from Eckerö as the first Ålander ship to cross the Atlantic.
After the First World War shipping experienced a global boom. Steam ships were strongly gaining ground but the Ålander shipowners also bought up a number of deep sea sailing ships at very favourable prices.
In 1935 Gustaf Erikson’s fleet consisted of fifteen square riggers of steel, eight North Sea clippers and six motorised sailing ships. The sailing fleet to which the s/v Pommern belonged created a sensation and the big wheat regattas between Australia and England have featured in a number of different books.
The Second World War was hard on the merchant fleet, which in addition was old and decrepit. Cautious new investments were made in the 1950s and from the 1960s the fleet was expanded and the ships rejuvenated.
Car ferry services were introduced in 1959 with the SS Viking that travelled between Galtby in Finland, Mariehamn in Åland and Gräddö in Sweden. The Viking was 99 metres long and could accommodate 88 cars.
The development of ferry traffic was explosive. At the end of the 1970s and at the beginning of the 1980s, several large car ferries were built for Ålander shipowners. The ferry tonnage has successively been expanded and rejuvenated, and the ferries have become ever larger and more luxurious.