The Saimaa Canal is not only an unforgettable sight, but also an important traffic artery. The earliest attempts to build a waterway along this route were made in 1499 and 1607. Most of the remains of the old uncompleted canals were obscured when the present waterway was built, but traces of quarrying operations can still be seen.
In the early half of the 19th century, after Finland had become an autonomous grand duchy within the Russian Empire, new plans to build a canal were mooted. The canal was built between 1845 and 1856 and opened to traffic on 7 September of the latter year, Czar Alexander II's coronation day. The "Czar's Canal" is 58 kilometres long and has 28 locks. By the beginning of the first world war, the volume of cargo transported through the canal had reached 700,000 tonnes a year. With nearly 13,000 cargo and passenger vessels passing thr ough, a breath of the international atmosphere of St. Petersburg and Viipuri (Vyborg) reached the Finnish heartland.
Around the turn of the century, a special type of boat, the "Saimaa tar steamer", was introduced to suit the dimensions of the locks on the old canal, but by the 1920s a need to widen the waterway to cater for larger vessels had become inescapable. The so-called second phase of the canal's construction had not been completed by the outbreak of the second world war, after which the canal ran for half its length on the Soviet side of the new frontier.
A unique agreement to lease the Soviet part of the canal for 50 years was concluded in 1963. The third phase of construction began the same year and the upgraded waterway was inaugurated by President Urho Kekkonen in August 1968.
Today's Saimaa Canal is a modern waterway representing the state of the art in hydraulic engineering and traffic-control techniques. It is 43 kilometres l ong and rises through eight locks from sea level to the lake about 80 metres higher. Ships carry cargoes through the canal to a score of European countries and the annual passenger volume is 40,000-50,000.