Saimaan kanava

Saimaan kanavan historia

History of Saimaa canal


Waterways have always been natural transportation corridors in Finland. The history of Saimaa canal goes back to 1600th century and since then, it has been renewed and rebuilt on several occasions. The history of the canal has seen many phases and it´s history is still written today. 

Saimaa Canal was first opened for traffic in 1856. Building lasted 10 years. However, there were several attempts to build the canal before. The first attempt was already in in the 1600th century when it came relevant to build better and faster routes from Finland to Vyborg. The attempt failed, as the soil was too hard and there were no appropriate equipment. Second attempt was made in the beginning of 1700th century, when Admiral Juusten was appointed for the job. However, after only a year of build, Admiral died unexpectedly and the build was delayed once again. Later on, his death has been considered a lucky coincidence as if his plans had been successful, all water from Saimaa would have drained away as there were no locks to hold the water in.

After the second attempt, plans of building the canal was put to a hold, until the interest for fast waterway routes for timber arose. The planning of the canal started in the 1840s and after several years of planning, plans were ready in 1844. Nikolai I, who was the Emperor of Russia at that time, gave the order to start the build. It was calculated that the build would last for 15 years, but thanks to efficient builders, the canal was ready already after 10 years. The new canal was one of the most significant projects of its time, as it opened many new opportunities for the areas surrounding the canal. At that time, the Saimaa canal had 28 locks, which kept the water level at 76 meters above sea level. 


Picture: Building the Saimaa canal


The new canal opened new possibilities for the transport of timber from Saimaa area to Vyborg. Before the canal, timber had been transported via land, which was a hard and slow method. The new canal made transportation of timber faster, which boosted the economical development of the whole Eastern Finland. The canal also enabled other goods to be transported from and to the Saimaa-area. Hence, the value of exported goods was bigger than imported goods. However, soon the canal´s capacity came to maximum, the traffic was jammed and it was decided that the canal would be widened. The renewing process began in 1883, but was stopped when the World War I began.

The renewing process started again in 1927. At that time, the canal´s capacity was inadequate to serve the increasing amount of traffic in the canal. The aim of the renewing process was to enable vessels carrying over 1000 tons of freight to be able to sail in Saimaa canal. The renewing process also aimed to decrease the amount of locks from 28 to 9 and to equip them with electromechanical mechanisms so that they could be opened remotely. Unfortunately, the start of Winter War stopped the build once again and all was put on hold. The Winter War, fought between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1939, lasted only three and a half months, but when the peace treaty was signed in 1939, Finland lost most of the canal to the Soviet Union. Finland tried to regain the lost land in the Continuation War, fought 1940-1944, and did gain them back for a while, but in the treaty of World War II in 1947, lost the gained lands to the Soviets again.

Wars destroyed the canal. The canal didn´t suffer greatly in the Winter War, but in the battles of Continuation War, the canal was destroyed to the extent that it couldn´t be used anymore. The destruction of the canal cut the natural transportation routes of Eastern Finland. As the route was destroyed, Finland started to negotiate with the Soviet Union to be able to use the canal again. The crucial negotiations were started in 1960, lead by President Urho Kekkonen, and the issue was resolved in 1962 when a lease agreement of the canal was signed. The lease agreement was signed for 50-years and it was renewed again in 2012.

As Finland had gained the right to use the canal again, rebuilding of the canal was started in 1963. New, wider canal with 8 locks, 3 in Finnish side and 5 in Soviet Union side, was opened in 1968 when the freight vessel ”Bore IX” sailed through the canal. The same canal with same locks still serve the traffic today. Improvements have naturally been made; all locks are nowadays opened remotely and the locks have been also modernized.

Nowadays the maximum size of a vessel in the canal is 12,6 m (width), 82,5 m (length), 24,5 m (height) & 4,35 m (depth). However, there are plans to lengthen the locks in the near future, which would enable longer vessels to sail the canal. Longer ships would bring the vessel more capacity and would enable them to serve their customers better. There are also plans to rise the level of water in the canal, which would enable heavier loads to be transported in the canal.