A lot of events are connected with the Baikal railway. Krugobaikalka (means “the railway going around the Baikal”) is known throughout Russia, and the Baikal-Amur Railway Line is famous all over the world. The railway with its entire infrastructure, i.e., production areas, stations, social objects, is one of the brightest examples of the human labor and art importance; it is a vivid display of human creative power and a link between several generations. The cape tunnels in Krugobaikalka and railway bridges over rivers can prove this.
The history of the Baikal railway is closely connected with the history of the whole country. The famous Decembrists Basargin and Batenkov were very worried about the development of thoroughfares with Siberia; the later even had three variants of the Transiberian Railway that was to connect St. Petersburg with the Pacific Ocean. Basargin thought that paving a railway through Siberia would help join the great desert country with the educated part of the country and would give new opportunities for the round-the-world traveling.
In 1888 before the building of the Great Siberian Way started there were two variants of it going round the Baikal in the south and in the north, but at last the south variant was chosen though it was not easy to realize; the way had to go along the breaks over the Baikal, more than 30 tunnels had to be pierced, a great amount of bridges had to be built and so on.
This way could help make profit not only from passenger and cargo transportation but also from local natural resources exploitation, so a lot of foreign businessmen expressed their wish to take part in the railway building in Siberia and the Far East. In 1904 the French businessman Loyk de Lobel (supported by the Americans) addressed to the government of tzarist Russia with the petition to grant his syndicate a concession for the building of the railway going through Siberia to Alaska, it was to go to the north of the Baikal. He made it a condition to vest his railway company the wayside more than 25 km wide for the period of 90 years. According to specialists’ calculation the Americans wanted to own 175 000 sq km of the wayside, that is equal to the territory of England and Belgium taken together. In spite of the fact that in Russia and abroad there were more than 2500 articles issued to support foreign projects, the Russian government declined them all as it realized that under such conditions there was a risk of predator plundering of Siberian riches by foreign companies. And such “alienation” of the railway was dangerous in terms of its strategic value.
The main obstacle for the Transiberian Railway building in the Eastern Siberia was the mountains in the south of the Baikal that came down right into the sea. The first variant was to build a ship-ferry that could transport trains across the Baikal.
The icebreaker “Baikal” was built for wagons transportation, and its route lay across the lake from Station (port) Baikal to Station Tankhoy (later on – to Mysovsk). The building of the railway along the Baikal was almost impossible because of its broken rocky shores and danger of rockfalls. Foreign experts in building tunnels confirmed the impossibility of the railway building in this region. In 1898 the Railway Building Committee ordered to postpone all the surveys indefinitely. But the Baikal willfulness in summer and autumn storms, the supposed inability of the icebreaker “Baikal” to go break ice during winter frosts made the ferry transportation of trains inconstant and unreliable.
Siberian old residents warned the “Baikal” building initiators that the icebreaker would not be able to break the thick Baikal ice with its hummocks and cracks at distance of 40 – 50 km. The engineers ignored the warning but it turned out to be true. In winter of 1900 the icebreaker left the dock, sailed for about 3 versts (3, 21 km), and when the captain realized the impossibility to fulfil the task and the icebreaker returned to the port. The attempts to cross the Baikal in winter were put to an end. The two icebreakers spent winters in the harbor, blocked by ice and being under repair.
The main deck of the icebreaker “Baikal” could place the whole train (not less than 27 wagons) on its radially located railway tracks; and up to 300 passengers. The wagons were driven to the middle deck backwards and placed on the tracks. Locomotives were not transported. Above the middle deck with the train there was a wooden superstructure where cabins, canteens, hotel and other rooms were situated. Above the cabins there was the upper deck that raised high above the water. Due to these structures and the upper deck the icebreaker looked huge and made a great impression.
At the beginning of the XXth century the famous Norwegian polar explorer Fritior Nanssen, who in 1893 – 1895 went on an expedition to the North Pole on the ship “Fram”, visited the Baikal. Though he traveled around the Baikal by train, he saw the four-pipe magnifical icebreaker. The traveler called the “Baikal” “one of the greatest icebreakers in the world”. The icebreaker reminded him of his own ship “Fram” by the shape of its bow and stern.
In 1901 the building of the Krugobaikalka started at last. People were coming from different place (foreigners among them) to take part in this process. For example, Italian stonecutters were invited to finish the tunnel portals, among general labourers there were a lot of Chinese and Albanian. In 2007 E. Kamenshchikov published the book “The Italians on the Shores of Baikal” in Irkutsk; it is about the lives of a great number of foreigners not only the Italians, who worked there. It contains an interesting document signed by the Minister of Railways at that time, N. Shchukin. This document says: “…the work of tunnel building, stone building and other items requiring huge stonecutting work or reinforced concrete constructions in the Baikal Railway divisions of Baikal-Irkusk-Tankhoy is to be reported to foreign businessmen, Italian, French, Swiss, Austrian, Greek, to control the work done”.
Of course, the greater part of the building railway work was done by local people. Exiled and convicts broke their backs fulfilling the hardest works; and after the tragic events on the Lena (execution of people taking part in the demonstration of 1912) the workers from the Lena mines were “brought” here.
In fact, it was a really hard job for all the workers. There were few machines; people pierced rocks not only exploding them but also doing this with their bear hands. A lot of builders sustained injuries in explosions and stonefalls; many fell down from the slopes. Stone sustainer walls, bridges and huge concrete galleries were built to protect the railway from the lake waves. It was very hard to cut the way in the rocks piercing tunnels, to put tracks on the turns of critical curvature. Perhaps, at that time there was a railway track built in such complex environments in the world, but its length was not so great compared with the transcontinental double-track railway that had the paramount importance.
There were a lot of innovations during the building of this division of the Kruglobaikalka. One of the most impressive was the railway building in the winter of 1904; the railway went from one side of the lake to the other connecting the stations Tankhoy and Baikal. That was dictated by the need to transport a big amount of military troupes during the war with Japan. The ice on the track was increased; sleepers and rails were put on it. Wagons and even locomotives were horse-drawn from February 17 till March 15. D.M. Kuznetsov, an Irkutsk merchant of the first guild, an engineer, was awarded by the tzarist government for creative and operative decision.
After the Krugobaikalka was put into operation from Port Baikal to Kultuk, wagon transportation by water became rare; and the ships were hardly “given any job”. In the summer of 1918 the icebreaker “Baikal” was docked not far from Harbor Mysovaya. The village and the station were captured by rebellious White Guard Czechs, who got to know that the ship crew stood for the Red Army. The icebreaker was taken under fire, and it began to burn. Such a bulky and cumbersome ship as the “Baikal” was burning several days, as a result of all the damages it sank. There is a supposition that the icebreaker still rests on the bottom of the lake; but another authoritative source proves that the icebreaker was lifted up, towed to Port Baikal and after that cut for scrap metal.
The practice of railway cargo transportation across the Baikal manifested itself in one recondite historical fact. After the end of the war with Germany Soviet troops were switched to the East to fight with Japan. The organizers of this transportation were afraid that the Krugobaikalka Railway could be blocked by landslide, or some sabotage act. Then in summer Port Baikal became a grandiose building, it was supposed to make it a comfortable harbor with highly developed transportation system that could provide transportation of people and machines across the Baikal to the safe railway station. The port rebuilding was held by militaries and civilians day and night, a lot was done at that time but there was no chance to use this transportation route.
G. Kublitsk, a writer and a journalist, who described this building in one of leading newspapers of that time, returned to the port “in the east” in several years and found a deteriorating old harbor. He asked one of elderly water-transport workers when and what for the harbour was built, and got the following answer: “Everyone knows. For docking ships. They say that it was built a very long time ago, in the tzarist time. Well, it was repaired from time to time, of course”.
Breaking in of the Irkutsk Hydroelectric Power Station and the risk of flooding the railway going from the city to the Baikal made people build a new track going right to the Sacred Sea. The railway section from Port Baikal to Kultuk became a kind of unnecessary appendix. And only today for the last decades it attracts people’s attention by its unique structures, more than a century old. Today it is a cultural site: a monument to an engineering idea, our ancestors’ handicraft and heroism of labor. The remaining section of the Krugobaikalka that stretches along the shore from Station Kultuk to the request halt Baikal Surf (more than 200 km) continues functioning, according to the developing economy of the country demands.
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