Traveling in Punkaharju began in earnest in the mid-1840s, when the forester’s house in the northern part of the Crown Park was built. The house had three rooms for travelers. After several extensions were built it became known as “Valtionhotelli” (the State Hotel) — and now, the present day Hotel Punkaharju.
In 1843 two foresters were enlisted to oversee the esker at the established Punkaharju Crown Park. Houses were built for both in 1845; one in the south and the other at the northern end of the park. The southern house was named “Kipunavahdin talo” (Fire Ranger’s house). As the name implies, the task of the forester living in this house was to see to it that sparks from passing steam engines didn’t light up forest fires on the esker.
Three Rooms in the Forester’s House
The design for the northern forester’s house was approved by the signature of architect E.B. Lohrman in 1844. The house was a wonderful Swiss yellow-painted building design, and in addition to the landscape of Punkaharju, was the main attraction of the area. Three rooms were available for travelers. From its tower, visitors had an excellent position from which to see all of the stately scenery surrounding them; overlooking the esker and beyond, the magnificent views of Lake Pihlajavesi and Lake Puruvesi in the distance. The tower was also an excellent lookout point for the forester to spot potential forest fires.
A guest book was acquired and each visitor to the forester’s house wrote their name, home address and nationality in the book. According to the guest book, in 1845 there were 76 visitors, and the following year there were 180. By the 1850s approximately 120 persons stayed at the forester’s house yearly. Steady growth began in the 1860s, and in the next decade at high season the forester’s house wasn’t sufficient to accommodate all of the travelers who came to visit, and some of them had to stay in the farmers’ houses in Laukansaari and Tuunaansaari.
The modesty of the accommodations in Punkaharju attracted the attention of the press and after applications to the Finnish Senate in 1878, Alexander II granted permission to extend the northern forester’s house and convert the building into a proper hotel. Construction work commenced immediately and the hotel was finished the following year. It had two stories and contained ten new rooms. Three balconies were built around the tower of the hotel, and parts of the pine forest were cleared for a better view of the scenery. Pine trees were also cleared at “Runeberg’s mound” to provide for a good view in the direction of both Lake Puruvesi and Lake Pihlajavesi.
Better services meant an increase in travel. By the mid-1880s the hotel had a thousand guests a year and the swift growth of travel also meant that the hotel was too small. It was expanded twice in the 1890s: ten more hotel rooms were built on the north side, along with a spacious dining room and a new kitchen wing. A terrace was also built on the south end of the building.
Punahussila and the Czarina’s Villa
When the hotel was completed, the forester’s and innkeeper’s tasks were separated. The Crown leased the hotel operations to an outside entrepreneur, and a new house was built on the slope for the forester. The building was named “Punahussila” (red house) because of its colouring.
The extensions were still insufficient to meet the need for accommodations, and in1898 the Senate decided to build a separate building which was called “Villa Punkasyrjä”. Later, this building was renamed “the Czarina’s Villa”. The name change remains a mystery because no czarina has ever visited Punkaharju, nor it is known if such a trip would have even been conceived.
A significant number of the travelers to the hotel were Russian. They traveled to Punkaharju by either steam boat or horse, and beginning from 1906, by train. Travel guides on Finland were published, in which Punkaharju was extensively promoted. Regrettably, the beginning of the First World War put a stop to this flow of travelers, and the State Hotel found itself in difficulties until the 1920s, when it finally recovered as domestic tourism increased.