Today in Transportation History – 1898: Sampo, The Finnish Icebreaker

Sampo, a pioneering icebreaker that the British manufacturer Armstrong-Whitworth (AW) had just built for the Finnish government, left the AW shipyard in northeastern England for her second sea trial. The first sea trial for Sampo took place about a month earlier and quickly ended in failure when the new vessel’s bow propeller shaft malfunctioned. Sampo’s second sea trial proved to be smoother and far more successful, and the icebreaker made her way to Finland several weeks later.

The steam-powered Sampo, which was named after a magical artifact in Finnish mythology, was only Finland’s second state-owned icebreaker. In addition, she was the first icebreaker in all of Europe to be equipped with a bow propeller.

The plans to develop Sampo can be traced to ever-increasing concerns throughout the decade that Finland’s original icebreaker, the single-screw vessel Murtaja (built in 1890), was not up to the task of unilaterally keeping ports on the Finnish coast open during winter. Sometime around 1895, the Senate of Finland ultimately decided that a second state-owned icebreaker was needed.

As a major step in this process, the Senate authorized a winter navigation committee to travel abroad to study the icebreakers being used by other nations and assess which vessel designs would work out best for Finland. The committee consisted of Helsinki-born August Gustav Leonard Melan, a middle-aged sea captain whose extensive maritime service included serving on Murtaja, and two engineers. As part of their investigations of foreign icebreakers, Melan and his fellow committee member went to Denmark, Germany, and what was then the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway.

Their investigations also took them across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, where they observed the performance of icebreakers in the vicinity of Philadelphia and Baltimore and within the Great Lakes region.   Melan and the engineers were especially impressed with the American icebreaker St Ignace, which had a propeller at each end. The men highlighted this vessel as a model for what was needed in Finland, and their recommendation led to the creation of Sampo. (Melan, incidentally, would serve for a time as one of the commanders of Sampo.)

During her inaugural winter season alone, Sampo cleared away ice for 128 ships altogether. Sampo continued to enjoy a productive career in the waters of Finland for many years, even as more icebreakers were added to the state-owned fleet. Sampo even set a record for Finland during the period between 1919 and 1922, when she provided safe waterways for a total of 636 ships. By the time Sampo was finally decommissioned and broken up in 1960, she had become one of the few surviving steam-powered vessels in Finland’s icebreaker fleet.

For more information on Sampo and her longtime service, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sampo_(1898_icebreaker)

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