The Tales of Tar route expands to the surroundings of the Oulujoki river

The Tales of Tar route that can be experienced digitally on mobile devices around Oulu is getting three additional stories. The route is expanding along the Oulujoki river with events that took place in Muhos, Utajärvi and Vaalaa.

In November 2023, Oulu2026 published the cultural history Tales of Tar route, which consists of ten fascinating short stories. The stories are based on authentic locations, events and persons from the golden era of the tar trade in Oulu. The new stories transport the viewer to the area around the Oulujoki river and the events of the tar era. The stories are available in Finnish, English and Swedish. The stories in Finnish have been adapted to Easy Finnish and have been granted the SELKO symbol of the Finnish Centre for Easy Language.

The route map and locations of the story points are available at www.oulu2026.eu/en/northern-stories/. If you wish, you can also read the stories there.

“It’s great to be able to expand the Tales of Tar route to the Oulujoki river valley. The history of tar connects the entire northern region, and the subject involves many different stories, perspectives and fates. Hopefully, in the future, we will get to tell the story of tar even more extensively and to expand the route all the way to the tar production sites,” says Project Manager Anne-Maria Mäkelä from the Oulu2026 team.

The new additions to the Tales of Tar are The River Pilots of Oulujoki, Oulujoki Wharfs and From Lake Oulujärvi to Vaalankurkku. Previously published Oulu stories include Leveri, Snellman House, Seurahuone, Bergbom Warehouse, Hahtiperä, Linnansaari, Pikisaari, Merikoski, Frigate Toivo and Tervahovi.

The Tales of Tar route is designed to be permanent and is part of the Oulu2026 region’s journey to become the European Capital of Culture 2026.

The three additional stories have been realised by Rokua UNESCO Global Geopark/Humanpolis Oy as part of the project “Geoparks – attractive sustainable travel destinations”, which is funded by the European Union’s Regional Development Fund and the Finnish Government.

Photo: Finnish Agency of Heritage


More stories from the north coming soon

The Tales of Tar route is the first pilot in the Northern Stories project. The project is being implemented by Oulu Culture Foundation. The aim is to develop new ways of creating several themed routes with user-friendly mobile technology in the Oulu2026 European Capital of Culture area.

Highlighting the region’s cultural heritage and offering experiences free of charge strengthens the local identity of residents in their everyday environments and creates tourist attractions. The stories have been mapped with experts and local residents. The Tales of Tar route will be developed further on the basis of observations and feedback. The next story route, Sound of the North – tracing the origins of popular music, will be launched after Easter. The route traces the different eras of popular music, from Kuusrock to the 45 Special of today.

Further information and feedback

Northern Stories project, Project Manager Anne-Maria Mäkelä, anne.makela@oulu2026.eu, tel. +358 (0)40 673 5155

Implementer of the project: Oulu Culture Foundation, main financier: Council of Oulu Region

Project implementation period: 1 March 2023–30 April 2024

Oulu: the world’s tar capital

Today Oulu is internationally renowned as a high tech city: a major centre of competence and innovation in information and health technology.

Two hundred years ago Oulu had a very different reputation. It was known as the tar capital of the world.

“Whenever people ask me about Oulu, I always tell them that Oulu became a very wealthy city because of tar,” says Helena Petäistö, a well-respected journalist who’s spent half of her life reporting from France for Finnish TV channel MTV.

Born and raised in the Oulu region, she’s acquired a great knowledge of the history of the tar trade and she’s keen to raise public awareness of it.

What is tar?

Wood tar is an oil-like substance that was exported in large quantities from Oulu in the 19th century. It was used for waterproofing wooden sailing ships around the world.

Tar was produced by burning pine wood in villages along the Oulu river. It was put into barrels and transported to Oulu harbour in specially designed tar boats from where it was shipped to all over the world.

There was a strong demand for tar in the 19th century.

“The biggest fleets of the world, including Britain’s, France’s and America’s, were all covered by tar from Oulu,” says Helena Petäistö.

Thanks to the booming tar trade, Oulu became the world’s biggest tar exporting port with the largest fleet of merchant ships of any Finnish city in the 1860s.

“Tar trade on a big scale started in Oulu in the 1850s,” says Patrik Franzén whose job at the Northern Ostrobothnia Museum includes looking after tar-related projects.

“It reached a peak in 1865 when 80,000 barrels of tar were exported to other countries. Each barrel contained 125 litres of pure tar.”

Patrik Franzén says the tar trade was extremely important for the region’s economy. It provided jobs for a large number of people, lifting them out of poverty and saving families from starvation throughout the 19th century.

Tar and Oulu2026

Oulu 2026 will reflect on the importance of Oulu’s tar trade in a number of ways.

One of the flagship events in the cultural programme is a new opera entitled ‘The Rise of the Tar Kingdom”. Commissioned for Oulu2026, it will tell a mythical story about Oulu’s history.

The opera will be a unique piece of art that aims to reach new audiences by showing the wild side of the city. In addition to the opera, there are plans to run several workshops and exhibitions throughout 2026 to bring back memories of the tar trade.

“In 2026 we want to smell tar and we want to work with it. When you smell tar, old stories come to life,” suggests Patrik Franzén.

“We have plans for workshops on how to make tar, how to make a tar barrel and perhaps even build a tar boat. It will be wonderful. We want to make history living again.”

Oulu’s tar trade began to decline in the early 20th century after steel replaced wooden planks on sailing ships.

But Helena Petäistö says Oulu has maintained a special connection with tar.

”In Oulu we say coffee is black like tar. And in restaurants and cafes here you can try tar ice-cream. Believe it or not, it’s very good!”