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The royal wheelbarrow that led to the world's greatest railroad

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13 May 2016


'The moment when the tsar's son pushed the wheelbarrow, moving it forward and dumping the soil, as if he was a simple worker, was truly solemn.' Picture: Old Vladivostok

Nicholas II would lose an empire, but as Tsesarevich - or Crown Prince - in May 1891 he pioneered the most exotic rail journey on the planet. Arriving in Vladivostok from Japan where he had narrowly missed assassination, he symbolically started work building epic Trans-Siberian Railway on the direct command of his father, Alexander III.

At the time, the future absolute monarch was on his way home to St Petersburg from a grand tour preparing him for his duties. 

On 19 May, Nicholas after a prayer and a salute in the presence of 300 people at Pervaya Rechka in the suburbs of Vladivostok 'personally deigned to load soil in a wheelbarrow, and laid it down' so formally commencing construction on the great Trans-Siberian Railway - which was to become the world's longest railroad. 

Local newspaper Ezhenedelny Vladivostok - or Vladivostok Weekly - reported: 'The moment when the tsar's son pushed the wheelbarrow, moving it forward and dumping the soil, as if he was a simple worker, was truly solemn. All were silent, motionless, and only raised their heads in order not to miss a single movement of work by the highest person... '

The makeshift wheelbarrow used by the future emperor would later be purged by Stalin. It was removed from the Arsenyev Museum in Vladivostok in the 1920s after an edict to get rid of everything connected with the Russian royal family. 

Pervaya Rechka

Before the ceremony

Nicholas and his wheelbarrow

Nicholas after a prayer and a salute in the presence of 300 people at Pervaya Rechka in the suburbs of Vladivostok 'personally deigned to load soil in a wheelbarrow, and laid it down'. Pictures: Old Vladivostok

The shovel used by 23 year old Nicholas, and two wooden boards on which he pushed the wheelbarrow, were also lost forever. 

Back in 1891, his presence here was seen as extraordinary. No reigning tsar ever visited Vladivostok, the country's Pacific capital, and he was the first and only crown prince to do so. His father had decreed him to start the building the great railroad through Siberia, a project envisioned for sometime but only now finally approved.

The missive dated 17 April 1891 from the tsar to his son read: 'Your Imperial Highness. I order now to start building a solid railway across Siberia, which is to connect the abundant gifts of Siberian regions with the network of internal rail routes. 

'With this I lay upon you the establishing in Vladivostok the Ussuri section of the Great Siberian Railroad, allowed to build at the expense of the treasury and on the direct order of the government. Alexander.' 

First train

Vladivostok railway station

Vladivostok railway station

The first train carried Nicholas and his suit along the first short stretch of Ussuri Railway. The old building of the Vladivostok Railway Station finished in 1893 and the new building finished in 1912. Pictures: Old Vladivostok, Armen Zakh

In fact, a short stretch of what was was known as the Ussari Railway had been built by then and after emptying the wheelbarrow of its soil, the next tsar rode by train - bedecked by green branches - with his entourage to lay the first stone with a silver plate with inscription at Vladivostok Railway Station, now the  terminus on the 9,289 kilometre (5,772 mile) line which connects the Russian Far East to Moscow.

The train moved so slowly that enthusiastic crowds - including workers and exiles - ran along the side of the train. 

The inscription read: 'In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In the year of Our Lord 1891, on May 19 in the prosperous reign of His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of All-Russian autocrat Alexander III in Vladivostok was laid the first stone of this building of the final section of the Siberian railway (Ussuri section) by His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince Nikolay Alexandrovich, in the presence of His Royal Highness Prince George of Greece...'

After the ceremony, the tsesarevich had a Champagne breakfast with engineers and other dignitaries, as fireworks marked the historic moment.

Baron Korf

Nicholas and Baron Korf

Amur Governor-General, Baron Korf (top). Nicholas (sitting on the chair in the middle) pictured with Baron Korf (first from the left) as he left Amur region. Pictures: VideoLain, Gazeta EAO

At the breakfast, the Amur Governor-General, Baron Korf proposed a toast, and said prophetically: 'Today was laid a solid beginning of a Great Siberian railway. 

'The consequences of this are so great that at the present moment we cannot understand them, and I'm not going to list them, and ... I can only say that we can thank the Emperor, who with his generous hand pours out his grace on our land, only if  we will keep in the depth of our hearts an oath to serve truly and faithfully to the great Russian deed and to hold high the Russian flag on the shores of the Great Ocean ...'

Nicholas would become tsar five years later, but the task of completing the railway was only accomplished in 1916, the year before he abdicated the Romanov throne as war-torn Russia was engulfed by revolution. 

The crown prince's own three month journey back to then capital St Petersburg in 1891 showed, in its way, the need for the new railway.

First he and his suite moved by horse drawn carriage to Nikolskoye village (now Ussuriysk), visited nearby villages, and continued his way to Khabarovka (now Khabarovsk) on the steamer Vestnik (Herald). 

Frigate Pamyat Azova

Crowd meeting Nicholas in Vladivostok

Meeting in Vladivostok

In Vladivostok the sea trip on the frigate Pamyat Azova had finished and after Nicholas spent 8 days in the easternmost city of Russian Empire he headed back to Saint Petersburg across his vast country. Pictures: Old Vladivostok

After two days in Khabarovka, he went up the Amur River on the steamer 'Graf Muravyov-Amursky' to Blagoveshchensk, at that time the largest settlement in the Russian Far East. Then he went by river to Sretenskoye before travelling by carriage along the post road. 

In TransBaikal region he met with Buryat representatives who had  prepared a yurt  for Nicholas in the middle of the steppe. He went on to the modern day Republic of Buryatia, a Buddhist region in Siberia. He crossed Lake Baikal on the steamer Speransky and arrived in Irkutsk. 

Moving West on his Siberian odyssey, he also visited Krasnoyarsk, Achinsk, Mariinsky, Tomsk, Narym, Surgut, Tobolsk, Omsk and then moved towards Orenburg province. On his way he made numerous stops and visited remote places to see how his future subjects lived. 

He travelled mostly by steamers and carriages. But some parts of his journey were on horseback. He took the train only after visiting Orenburg - some 7,400 kilometres west Vladivostok. The heir only arrived in St Petersburg in August. 

Departure to Khabarovka

Nicholas and Buryats

Crossing Baikal

Solemn meeting in Irkutsk

Departure to Khabarovka (now Khabarovsk) on the steamer Vestnik (Herald). Nicholas with elected Buryats of Aginsky department. Crossing Baikal on the steamers. Solemn meeting in Irkutsk. Pictures: KFSS.ru

He wrote to his cousin Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich: 'I'm terribly sorry that I did not answer your letters, but think, how could I find time for this in Siberia, where every day was overloaded to the point of exhaustion? 

'Despite this, I am so impressed by what I saw that the only orally can I pass my  impressions of this rich and magnificent country, which is still so little known, and ( my shame to say) is almost unfamiliar to us, Russians!' 

The following year, Nicholas was appointed head of a new  Committee on the Construction of Siberian Railway, and the rail crossing accomplished against extraordinary engineering challenges is today one of the most lasting achievements of his tragic reign.

Between  August 1917 and April 1918 the then tsar, his empress Alexandra and their five children would return to one of the stops on his Siberian trip - Tobolsk, before being moved to Ekaterinburg where they were shot by Russia's new Bolshevik rulers. 

Tsesarevich Nicholas pictured in times of his eastern trip. Tsar Nicholas II after his resignation. Pictures: Old Vladivostok, RuskLine

Young Nicholas

Nicholas after renunciation

Comments (1)

Thanks so much for this fascinating and detailed account. What an epic voyage for the Tsaserevitch!
Richard, Porirua, New Zealand
07/03/2023 15:04

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