Siltasaari is part of the Heinolanharju ridge, extending north–south, formed by the Ice Age. Water masses from the ancient lake Päijänne fractured the embankment some 6,100 years ago, forcing a channel to form for the Jyrängönkoski rapids toward the south-east, where it remains today.
The upper reaches of the stream, along with its narrowest part, were used for crossing the river already in prehistoric times. Traffic on the river crossing picked up in the 1400s when a unified riding path was formed between the Häme castle and the Olavinlinna castle. Later, this route evolved into the main road Suuri Savontie, strategically important for the kingdom of Sweden.
There were ferrymen and rowers who helped travellers cross the river in exchange for payment in grain. Their income diminished in 1790, when, on the order of King Gustav III, an openable ferry bridge was built across the stream, extending from the shore of the foundry to the area where the casino is now located.
When the ferry bridge began to deteriorate, a fixed bridge was built over the stream. The stream’s strong current made the construction project, implemented in 1823–1824, a demanding one. The problem was solved by means of a second channel for the Jyrängönvirta stream: the neck of the cape protruding into the rapids was cut off. The island formed between the two streams was connected to the mainland by two bridges.
The bridges were renovated, and the longer one was equipped with coffer structures of stone in 1855. In July 1900, its deck burned, as sparks from the funnel of a steamship set it on fire. The connection to the surrounding city was cut off, and traffic had to be handled by a ferry in summer and a temporary pontoon bridge in winter. A new, steel arch bridge, completed by the end of 1902, relieved the problem.
During the Finnish Civil War, the Reds tried to blow up the Jyränkö bridge but did not fully succeed in destroying it. After renovation, the bridge was used for traffic until the late 1960s, when the new highway bridges were completed.
In 1930, the construction of a railway bridge over the island began. It was completed in autumn 1932, when the railroad between Lahti and Heinola was opened for traffic with a festive ceremony. Since then, the huge stone columns and steel arch constructions have dominated the scenery. The massive rail bridge has become an emblem of Heinola, also featured in the city’s current coat of arms.
Bridges for light traffic were completed in 1983, allowing one to reach Siltasaari on foot or by bike.
Distillery and breweries
Brewing and distillation were important industries in Heinola in the 20th century. Products from Heinola were well-known and sold in other cities in large quantities. Finnish painter Albert Edelfelt describes, in a letter he wrote in 1874, how he met Finnish men in Paris who missed beer from Heinola, and Tollander’s cigarettes.
In 1855, P.H. Bökman, a tradesman from Sysmä, established the city’s first brewery on the island of Siltasaari. The availability and high quality of fresh water for production made this an ideal location. Also the road and boat traffic connections were excellent. In addition to the brewery, a restaurant and a shop were opened on the island.
The operations of the brewery, P. H. Bökmans Bryggeri, ended in 1860. Four years later, a company called Siltasaaren Oluttehdas continued the brewing operations on the island under the ownership of C.L. Lemström, a tradesman and bookkeeper.
From Lemström, the brewery entered the ownership of F. Lemström and U. Lindholm. These businessmen, engaged in the brewing industry elsewhere in the city, established a distillery in Siltasaari but brought its unprofitable operation to an end in the 1880s.
The Helander era
In late 1902, Siltasaari was sold to Municipal Counsellor Niilo Helander at an auction.
A successful tradesman and man of social influence, Helander had outdoor areas of the island restored. He expanded the main building, which became Heinola’s most handsome residential building. This long two-storey building was on the shore of the small stream.
Helander and his wife represented the upper class of society. In their time, social life on the island was active, and the family entertained many prominent people in their home.
After divorcing Onni Loviisa Ståhlberg in 1915, Helander married Fanny Clausen, a woman with Danish origins. She planted foreign plants in the garden, and at least some of these, such as shadbush, still grow on the island.
The family, among the richest in the region, probably left their home in February 1918 when the Red Guard occupied the city of Heinola for two months during the Finnish Civil War.
When the Reds withdrew from Heinola, the Helanders returned home. They moved to Helsinki in 1922, and Siltasaari and its buildings remained as a holiday villa. When living in the capital city, Helander established a foundation bearing his name. It is still in operation and grants bursaries for projects in various fields.
Helander was in favour of building a railroad to Jyväskylä via Heinola. However, he opposed the massive railway bridge being erected over his beautiful little island. He never saw it completed, because he was run over by a motorbike and died from the injuries in January 1930.
The handsome main building on Siltasaari was destroyed in an air raid by the Soviet Union on 25 June 1941. The target of the aircraft probably was the railway bridge, which still has a cut in the parapet as a reminder of the incident.