Sa, 4.02.2023

Military heritage and railway to be restored on Naissaar Island

Jaano Martin Ots
, toimetaja
Military heritage and railway to be restored on Naissaar Island
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Computer graphics of the Naissaare beach battery 10A reconstruction project.
Computer graphics of the Naissaare beach battery 10A reconstruction project. Photo: Meremuuseum
  • The tourism and resort island will receive a large visitor center.
  • No plans for expanding the port for the time being.
  • Maritime Museum has ambitious plans.

The council of the Viimsi rural municipality gave the Estonian Maritime Museum the right to start restoring the military heritage of Naissaar, especially in the areas of the Peter the Great naval fortress in the northern part of the island. According to Urmas Dresen, the director of the Maritime Museum, this creates preconditions for realizing the idea of the Nargen Nord visitor center created together with the island community.

«Thanks to the development of the Seaplane Harbor, the Maritime Museum has experience in restoring and adapting objects with military history as attractive tourist destinations. The railway infrastructure of Naissaar together with the seaplane hangar built by the order of the Russian emperor Nicholas II is part of Peter the Great's naval fortress, so that it would result in an integrated complex. I am glad that understanding with the local community has been reached regarding this project, that Nargen Nord will be valuable for both the community and the tourists who come here,» said Nikolai Bentsler, assistant municipality head of Viimsi.

«So far we have been presenting the increasingly dilapidating military heritage to our guests on account of our own enthusiasm, but the large investment by the Maritime Museum will turn it into a modern museum. Many important military historical buildings will be saved from destruction. The restored narrow-gauge railway will not only become a rare attraction throughout Europe, but a daily route for tourists and the islanders. This significantly reduces the use of old military vehicles in the nature park. The community of Naissaar wants to fully support the Maritime Museum in the implementation of the plan,» confirmed the island elder Toomas Luhaäär. 

Computer graphics of the Naissaare beach battery 10A reconstruction project.
Computer graphics of the Naissaare beach battery 10A reconstruction project. Photo: Meremuuseum

Urmas Dresen, the director of the Maritime Museum, said that he has been dealing with the development plans for the northern part of Naissaar almost every day for the last year and a half and he already has a fairly clear picture. The buildings closely connected to the railway with environmentally friendly and modern rolling stock – the officers' casino and the 10A battery – could become a visitor center and a two-storey exposition, respectively, which would reflect the history of Naissaar's fortifications.

«Our goal is also to restore the historical connection between the Seaplane Harbor and Naissaar, because before the First World War, the military facilities on either side of the Gulf of Tallinn were a part of the naval fortress. In recent years, the main shipping traffic to Naissaar has passed through the Seaplane Harbor. The goal for the near future is to restore the buildings listed in the project so that tourists could visit them by boarding the train in the island’s port,» explained Dresen. The organizers hope to have a public presentation of the project this summer.

In addition to Viimsi municipality and the Maritime Museum, the project also involves private individuals, because the officers' casino, two coastal batteries, the depot building and the mine storage area are currently in private ownership. It is intended that Nargen Nord would be built partly with the European Union support; the project would bring an estimated investment of about ten million euros to the island. According to the optimistic scenario – if the design and application for financing would happen at the expected pace – construction should start in 2024 and be completed by 2026.

The Viimsi Coastal People's Museum has already repaired a 3.5-kilometer railway section from Naissaar harbor to Lõunaküla village and passengers are carried by historic diesel locomotives.

As this is a large project, a significant increase in cargo traffic is expected in the only port on the island. Naissaar Harbor Master Jaanus Jürivete of AS Saarte Liinid said that the transport during construction and the subsequent transport of tourists have not yet been coordinated with Saarte Liinid.

«There have been no negotiations, but in general we are aware of what may happen. We shall try to organize traffic so that the ships would not arrive at the same time during the peak season, but at small intervals, so that everyone can get to and from the island,» said Jürivete, adding that everything happening on the island would not concern Saarte Liinid.

Joining the Seaplane Harbor and Naissaar seems like a logical move

Urmas Dresen, the director of the Estonian Maritime Museum. 
Urmas Dresen, the director of the Estonian Maritime Museum. Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

Urmas Dresen, the director of the Estonian Maritime Museum, hopes that in addition to the new visitor center, Naissaar will finally have a proper electricity supply, something the island has been waiting for a long time.

How did the plan to create a visitor center on Naissaar emerge?

Many museums are looking for new ways to attract visitors. This is reflected in new exhibitions, renovation and development of the exhibits. Fortunately, the time is over when you could say that the museum is now complete. The Maritime Museum has already done all this in the Seaplane harbor and in the Far Margaret Tower and will continue doing it in the future. From time to time, it is necessary to look more broadly towards the future, to seek for new developments where we could expand our potential. Naissaar's military sites date back to more or less the same period as the Seaplane Harbor, which was a part of the former Peter the Great naval fortress, thus we got the idea to unite it all.

How complicated would the project be and what are the main challenges?

Starting with the Nargen Nord project, the Maritime Museum is in some sense in the same position as in 2008; the development of the Seaplane Harbor ended with the reconstruction of the hangars. We have an idea and fine people, the difference is that now we have a lot more experience in carrying out major projects and there is also the financial capacity needed for preliminary work. At the same time, the project is quite different, including the restoration of the railway, the construction of new rolling stock, the reconstruction of concrete structures with technological facilities, as well as the creating of the exposition.

What is the importance of the sites preserved in Naissaar in the context of Estonian military history? What makes these structures special?

The old preserved narrow-gauge railway is a value in itself with together with the coastal defense batteries. Our main focus will be on reconstructing the best preserved 10A battery into a museum, no other such structure has been restored in Estonia so far. With the restoration of the north-south railway, Naissaar will have both an attraction and a functioning logistical solution, which was efficient in the old times. In principle, it is still a matter of complete restoration of the old military heritage, rather than the construction of new facilities.

View of Naissaare coastal protection battery 10A reconstruction project.
View of Naissaare coastal protection battery 10A reconstruction project. Photo: Meremuuseum

In your opinion, what is the biggest benefit for the community of Naissaar when the project will be realized? Or for the enthusiasts of military history from Estonia and elsewhere?

I would be very pleased and happy if, during the implementation of this project, Naissaar received a better technological solution for a permanent supply of electricity, because the Maritime Museum also needs it to carry out all its plans. It would probably be of great help to the island community, with whom we have been cooperating for almost two years. The island will have an interesting visitor complex that will bring tourists here, it will definitely created jobs for the islanders, and the northern and southern parts of the island as large as Naissaar will be better connected.

What is the timetable for implementing the plans and what are the first steps?

Thanks to the construction rights on the sections of the fortress railway, we can deal with the railway reconstruction project and start preliminary work for the design of new rolling stock. At the same time, we are also moving forward with the preparation of a tender for the reconstruction of the 10A battery and the conceptual solutions for the exhibition. We have started negotiations with the owner of the casino/commandant’s HQ building to acquire it, so that we can move forward with the design. According to the optimistic scenario, construction could start in 2024. Two years from now, in 2026, the first phase of the Nargen Nord Visitor Center should be ready to receive the first visitors.

Everything which promotes the island’s affairs is great

Tõnu Kaljuste
Tõnu Kaljuste Photo: Sander Ilvest

Tõnu Kaljuste, promoter of the Naissaar Nargenfestival, conductor

There is enough positive energy and good people on the island and any activity promoting the island’s affairs is great.

I am aware of the Maritime Museum’s Nargen Nord project and have a general idea of the plans but I am not personally involved in it. This is a separate project; I concentrate on my own center and the Schmidt Museum to be created there and we hope to have some good news about it in the near future.

There would hardly be any rivalry or competition over visitors between the two large centers.

I hope that all realistic plans will be completed and the champions of Nargen Nord will be able to find and involve the resources necessary for the project.