The symbolism of the Daugava in the history of Riga and Latvia is so important that it is known as the River of Destiny and Mother Daugava.
Originally, it was the only transit route between East and West (“a road from the Vikings to the Greeks”), and Riga is a strategic and significant point along this way.
The Daugava begins at the Valdaja Plateau and flows through Russia, Belarus and Latvia. For approximately the last 20 kilometres before it joins the Gulf of Riga, the Daugava flows through Riga. Within the Riga area the Daugava is 700 m wide, and its depth is approximately 8-9 m.
Initially the Daugava in Riga was wide and shallow, with many sandbars, islands and canals. In the 18th century work was commenced on widening and deepening it. At the end of the XIX century the Daugava embankment was fortified with posts and dykes, and in 1912 the shipping channel was 8-8.5 m deep and 150 m wide.
The relationship of the citizens of Riga to the Daugava was always complicated. On the one hand, the river allowed navigation and the transporting of freight, enabled the control of transit, and defended Riga from aggressors. Fishing was also important. However, there were also some inconveniences, among them the threat of annual spring floods. Judging by the chronicles, the most destructive flood took place 1709. In that year the winter was very severe, the entire Baltic Sea was frozen and ice thickness in the Daugava reached 2.5 archins (1.73 m). Ice started drifting in the Daugava at the beginning of April, but the Gulf of Riga remained frozen. Ice was crowded in the river mouth; the level of water in the river sharply increased and it overflowed its banks. The ice blocks broke the city gates, and the river flooded the streets. Since that time, a small brass plate embedded in the wall of the Dome Cathedral has marked how high the water reached inside the Cathedral - 4.68 m on 13 April, 1709.
The second complication has been the river crossing. Riga also developed on the left bank of the Daugava, in Pārdaugava. An important road arriving from Jelgava, the capital of the Duchy of Kurzeme, passed through here. Thus ferrymen were important. From time to time, travellers waited for days for their turn to cross the river, setting up camps so often that a street named Nometņu (Camp) appeared in Pārdaugava. In the second half of the 19th century, small river ships were used to improve the connection with Pārdaugava. And in winter, light, simple toboggans called “butes” could be used in order to cross. Fishermen unemployed during the cold months would charge a few kopeks to take passengers to Pārdaugava over a special a path on the ice from Jauniela Street situated near the Daugava up to Āgenskalns Bay. Toboggan transportation in winter was very popular, and was utilised even up to the 1930s and during World War II.
However, obviously bridges are of the greatest value.
The Swedish King Charles XII ordered the first bridge across the Daugava, which was anchored and interconnected by ropes to boats in 1701. Utilising a smoke screen, the Swedes crossed this bridge and suddenly attacked the Polish and Saxon armies camped on the opposite bank of the river in the Spilve meadows. After the Swedish victory, the city was left with the structure. However, in 1705 the bridge, which was lodged for the winter in Vējzaķsalas Bay, was carried away to the sea by the high spring waters. The floating bridge was then restored, but the Russian army besieging Riga destroyed it in 1710.
From 1714, every spring after the ice melted a raft bridge was constructed. Every year on 1 November it was disassembled and placed in winter storage on one of the Daugava tributaries. With the course of time, the construction of this bridge repeatedly improved until it had become a famous example of soundly executed raft construction for river crossing. The Raft Bridge became an important symbol for Riga, and in the 18th century it was considered one of the three miracles of Riga.
The length of the floating bridge was 646 m, and its width was 12.8 m. It consisted of 8 big rafts and 3 additional sections. One of the additional sections was raised above the big rafts and placed on two pontoons. This part of the structure was demountable to let small ships, boats and rafts pass through. Another two additional links were used as inclining ramps to ascend a towering demountable part of the bridge.
To improve movement across the Daugava, in 1888 the City Council finally decided to build an iron pontoon bridge (though a tunnel was also discussed.) Construction of the Pontoon Bridge proceeded from 1892 to 1896. In 1915, wartime evacuation of the pontoons to Estonia was begun but a storm drove them ashore. Later, during Latvia’s first period of independence, the Pontoon Bridge was restored. During World War II the bridge was blown up, but in 1945 it was restored again. In 1957, the Stone Bridge was constructed in the place of the Pontoon Bridge.
After a railway junction was constructed in the 1860s, it became necessary to construct a railway bridge over the Daugava. An iron bridge was built in 1871-1873 that was used not only for railway traffic but also for carts and foot-passengers. During reconstruction of the Riga railway junction in 1914, a new iron bridge was constructed, which was destroyed in 1917. In 1928 the bridge was thoroughly repaired, but during World War II it was blown up. During the Soviet occupation a new railway bridge was built near the ruins of the old one.
Passage over the Iron Bridge, and also over the Pontoon Bridge, required payment. Only pedestrians, servicemen, police and firemen, as well as carriages of doctors and priests were allowed free passage. For example, at the end of the 19th century the toll was 5 kopeks for a cart, 6 kopeks for a single-horse vehicle if it was not carrying cargo, and 10 kopecks from a freight vehicle.