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Why do we celebrate the 100th anniversary of oil shale industry in 2016?

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The moment of a child birth is usually fixed very precisely. Sometimes just with punctuality to an hour and minute. It is impossible to determine exactly the moment of birth  in case of one industrial branch. What is considered as the start? Either it is a document signing or commencement of works in reality? In this case our oil shale industry is not an exception. It is difficult to find the date of birth or even the year of birth, since at first we should agree what is considered as the beginning. If to look further back in history, then the year 1789 could be considered as the year of oil shale industry birth, when the owner of Kohala manor  in Lääne-Virumaa found that local Estonians threw stones into the fire, where stones burnt and gave a lot of heat. Through the mediation of landowner Fabian Reinhold Ungern-Steinberg (1738-1795) „combustible stones“ were sent to  Peterburg Free Economic Society, where they were put on chemical trials. The results of the tests were published in the collection of the Society in 1791. Therefore, this year we can celebrate the 225th anniversary of the first description of typical Estonian oil shale.

The good 80 years past from oil shale discovery till its use. For this time oil shale was forgotten and discovered again two-three times. As long as transportation conditions were bad, there was no local industry and wooden burning was continued in the 18-19th centuries, the oil shale found no use. Only in 1870 it became known that the lord of the manor Kukruse Robert von Toll (1802-1878) used oil shale that came out from drainage ditch to heat his distillery. In Kukruse now so called Toll's ditch has been marked as the first oil shale quarry of Estonia. It is unknown, when and how long baron von Toll used oil shale, but why can't we celebrate the 145th anniversary of the first oil shale quarry this year?

Nevertheless, oil shale burning in Kohala and heating of distillery in Kukruse remained  just the  first trials which can not be considered as oil shale industry.

Date of birth of national oil shale industry of Estonia can be celebrated on the 25th of November 1918, when engineer Märt Raud, in the capacity of the assignee of the Provisional Government of Estonia, took charge of oil shale mine Kohtla-Järve from German occupation authorities. That mine was beginning of State oil shale industry, which later was replenished by oil plant Kohtla-Järve. Today Viru Keemia Grupp is that plant's successor in the certain sense.

In November 1918 Estonia took possession of the mines from the leaving Germans, but because of the started War of Liberation only 7-8 cars of oil shale where mined and only one arrived in Tallinn. Because of war and technical difficulties actual mining works begun on the 5th of May 1919. This is one more date, when birthday can be celebrated.

However, state oil shale industry was created not on the blank space. In reality oil shale history started in 1915 due to military events and severe winter. By that time very difficult situation for Russia had arisen at the fronts of the World War I. German troops captured Poland and the front moved to Riga. At the same time it meant that Petrograd, which from the war beginning remained without pit coal supplies from England, Sweden and Germany, also lost deposits of Poland. Since Donbass could not provide the whole Empire with pit coal, therefore fuel crisis occurred in Russia, and especially in Petrograd. To ligthen the crisis an alternative was actively looked for. And then tsarist government remembered Estonian oil shale again. It is known, that in January 1916 matter of oil shale was discussed by  Petrograd General Commitee on Fuel and corresponding document came to the table of tsar. Geologist Nikolai Pogrebov (1860-1942) was sent  to Estonia to assess oil shale reserves and research of possibilities of oil shale mining. That time he was a curator and archivist of the library of Peterburg Geologial Committee or in today's meaning a scientific secretary of the committee. Permission  for traveling around Estonia next to the front Pogrebov and his nearest colleague Pavel Krutikov (1885-?) received from province council on  15th June  1916. In the first place possibilities of oil shale mining in the Toll's ditch next to Kukruse grange were investigated. In July test mining was made next to the volost house Järve, the place, where mine car is  as a memory  sign of that event. That place was not successful  enough and in reality a quarry built near Pavandu tavern began to work, which is about more one kilometer from the memory sign in the direction of Kohtla-Järve. In principle, mine car is in the right place,  but 22 mine cars or  960 ton of oil shale been mined by December of  1916, came from Pavandu quarry. That tons did not smooth over fuel crisis of Petrograd, but trials conducted with the oil shale, knowledge of Pogrebov and experience of Krutikov became a good start of independent oil shale industry of Estonia.

Therefore, there is a real reason to celebrate the 100th jubilee of oil shale industry of Estonia  this summer. However,  it is impossible to say what date in summer of 1916 is exactly the start of oil shale mining.


Mait Sepp

Natural geographer

University of Tartu Geography Department

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