Ten miles shy of its entry into the Baltic Sea, the Daugava River passes through the city of Riga. Within the borders of Latvia’s capital city, the nation’s great river give up some of its water to bifurcation streams before uniting again and emptying into the sea. The cradle of industry in Riga is the Sarkandaugava, a branch of the Daugava that flows around Kundziņsala, the largest island within the city’s borders.
This hidden Riga stream flows through traces of every period in the city’s history and holds the key to its future, as the gateway to Riga for seaborne goods.
Where it Flows
Looking at a 1933 planning map of Riga, the Sarkandaugava flows north, originating to the east of the Viesturdarzs (Viestur Garden), a park built near the point where the Sarkandaugava diverged from its parent stream.
Sarkandaugava then continued north across Pilsetas Ganibas, or City Pasture, an open space used for grazing livestock. The series of islands near its northern confluence with the Daugava were later fused together to form Kundziņsala.
On this 1933 map, the Daugava flows on the left side, while the Sarkandaugava meanders along its right bank. Pilsetas Ganibas is on the bottom. On the east is Mežaparks, or Forest Park, the largest of the city’s parks. By then, the banks of the Sarkandaugava were lined with docks and factories. Marshland along the stream was being filled as land was reclaimed for the city and its industries. The railways that followed the Sarkandaugava collected goods brought in by boats and brought in workers from other neighborhoods.
A Historical Tour
The river’s name translates to Red Daugava, possibly in reference to the reddish clay earth along its banks. It diverged from its parent river less than a kilometer to the north of Riga’s Old City, a peninsula known as Andrejsala (Andrew’s Island).
As with many place names in Riga, its name depended on who was in control. The Swedes called its Gustavsala after their king, and after Russia conquered Riga in the Great Northern War, it was renamed Petersala after the great western-oriented tsar. The former island is currently being redeveloped as a mixed-use district specializing in creative enterprises. Historically industrial in character, it was home to the city’s first electric power plant.
Within the Andrejsala neighborhood is Viesturdarzs, a public park commissioned by Peter the Great in 1712. During its construction, the section of Sarkandaugava within the park was transformed into ponds for swans (above photo) while exotic plants were brought to the park. As with Andrejsala, the city’s oldest park also went through many names: Imperial Garden (Kaisergarten to the local Baltic German nobles), renamed Viesturs Garden in 1923 during the first Latvian republic in honor of a medieval Zemgalian chieftain; and Hindenburg Park during the Nazi occupation. From 1973 to 1991, the Soviet authorities called it Song Festival Park, obscuring its indigenous name.
Beyond Viestirdarzs, the stream flowed across a vast meadow known as Pilsetas Ganibas, or City Pasture, an open space for grazing that received fortified embankments in the early years of Russian rule. The defensive walls later became the routes of Ganibas Dambis (Pasture Dam), and Skanstes Street, both of which ran across the marshland. In the 19th century, the marshes were drained and developed for allotment gardens and factories.
In the late 19th century, part of the meadow was developed as a horse breeding and racing ground, anchored by the Riga Hippodrome. At the turn of the millennium, the site was redeveloped as the Riga Arena (below) and Olympic Center.
The former stream bed continued north along Skanstes Street and Duntes Street, where it was filled in the postwar years.
Sarkandaugava on the Surface
The Sarkandaugava appears on the surface at Ganibas Dambis, where it crosses the present head of the stream near its intersection with Duntes, Tvaika (Steam), and Tilts (Bridge) streets.
The historic course of the Sarkandaugava follows Tvaika Street towards the bridge to Kundziņsala, where a larger branch of this stream connects to the Daugava. This section had some of the first factories in Riga, built along the stream where they received coal and wood from boats. The Baltic Germans settled in the region after the Crusades and had a privileged status in Latvian society into the early 20th century. The postcard below is from the 1930s, captioned in German. At the onset of the Second World War, all Baltic Germans were deported to Nazi-occupied Poland, and later to Germany. Below is a 1930s scene on the Sarkandaugava from the Latvia National Library Lost Latvia photo collection.
Kundziņsala is the gateway to Riga for oceangoing vessels, expanding and developing while retaining a small residential neighborhood of houses and gardens. Most of the island today is closed to the public, designated as a container port. The island’s name dates to the Middle Ages, Nobleman’s Island for its mansions and estates overlooking the Daugava. None remain standing today, their ruins hidden in the vegetation, off-limits to the public within the seaport zone. The island is connected to the mainland by one roadway and a railway across the Sarkandaugava.
The island is an ideal place for urban exploration as it has industry, nature, dilapidated residences, and empty spaces. As Riga competes with other Baltic ports for the world’s incoming freight, the island’s port will continue to expand while its publicly accessible spaces shrink on account of security.
At the northern end of the Sarkandaugava, the water of Milgravis (Mill ditch) flow into it. This inlet of the Daugava connects to the two great lakes of Riga, Ķīšezers and Juglas Ezers on the city’s rural eastern edge. From Degvielas Street above, one sees the cranes and fuel terminals along the Sarkandaugava. On the northern bank of the Milgravis and Sarkandaugava is the neighborhood of Vecmilgravis neighborhood of Vecmilgravis, an outpost of Soviet apartment blocks overlooking the streams.
Across the water, the northern tip of Kundziņsala continues to be filled in preparation for the expansion of the island’s seaport. Smaller islands such as Kurpnieku, Zirgu, Rutku, Gulbju, all forgotten after being fused to form the northern tip of Kundziņsala, where the Sarkandaugava reunites with its great parent river. Respectively, these isles’ names translated as Cobbler, Horse, Radish, and Swan, part of local lore whose stories are a distant memory. Another four miles downstream and the mighty Daugava concludes its story as it enters the Gulf of Riga.
More on the Hidden Waters of Riga:
To learn more about the history of Riga as a seaport, the Free Port of Riga Authority has a detailed historical overview on its website, along with news on the expansion of port facilities.
In my prior blog posts, I documented the history of the City Canal, and the unnamed ditch that flowed past my father’s garden in the Pleskodale neighborhood. I expect my next Riga-related post to be about the Marupite, the childhood stream that inspired my fascination with hidden urban waters in Riga, New York, and anywhere else in the world.