EThe merchant carriages needed a day trip from Lüneburg to Lauenburg in the Middle Ages. Loaded with salt for Scandinavia and Russia, the carters followed the salt route, the ancient trade route to Lübeck.
In the evening the men came to Lauenburg. On the Elbe they found inns, changed horses and stayed the night before they set off with the precious freight at the very early morning.
Those who turn from Bundesstraße 5 to the lower town 70 meters below are immersed in the past of the 700-year-old town. Red tile roofs on colorful half-timbered houses, built close together between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Every square meter on the narrow bank in front of the steep slope of the Geestrücken was used. Historic buildings crowd along Elbstrasse. The richly decorated facades with their rosette decorations are stone witnesses to the wealth of their builders: craftsmen, but above all Elbe boatmen, lived in the half-timbered buildings.
Some houses were not only living space but also a workplace. Shoemakers and locksmiths had workshops there, shipping companies their offices. Breweries and schnapps distilleries produced barley juice and hard liquor. According to stories, there were around 30 breweries around 1700 – with only 1000 inhabitants.
History of shipping on the Elbe in the museum
Bicycle tourists roll over bumpy cobblestones, en route they are on the Elbe cycle path between the Czech Republic and the river mouth near Cuxhaven. Lauenburg is a popular stopover, also for visiting the Elbschifffahrtsmuseums.
There, shipping history is impressively brought to life on interactive screens, with models and construction plans from ancient times to the present, from the dugout canoes to cargo sailors and the hard work of the towers who pulled heavy barges upstream with muscle power. On a display board is noted: “They gasped, the sweat flowed like a stream down between the shoulder blades. He ate the shirts broken like a rodent. “
“The development of Lauenburg and shipping on the Elbe are closely linked to the social structure of the people and the work culture,” explains museum director Jörn Bohlmann. There are surprising things to discover in the museum.
Who knows today that from 1866 a 720 kilometer long chain from Hamburg lay upstream on the bottom of the Elbe? It was the time of rope chain shipping, which lasted until the 1920s.
37 chain steamers operated on the river. The tugs hung themselves with their barges along the chain against the current. They speak of a “rattling revolution” in the Elbe Shipping Museum.
From the 1850s on, passenger ships steamed in regular service on the river, and 30,000 travelers drove from Lauenburg via Geesthacht to Hamburg in 1866. Ship models from that time are on display. At the beginning of the last century, diesel engines gradually replaced steam engines as ship propulsion systems.
Historical specimens can be admired in the museum cellar, carefully restored by volunteers from the Friends’ Association. Museum director Bohlmann: “Our treasure trove for technology fans.”
Lauenburg is repeatedly threatened by floods
In the 1950s, the long haul trains coming upstream from Hamburg moored in Lauenburg overnight. The shops on Elbstrasse were open until midnight for the ship’s crew, and some pubs for much longer. Harbor atmosphere inland.
Business was good in Lauenburg. “The Elbe is a blessing and a curse for the city,” says the city guide Claudia Tanck. This quickly becomes clear on your “Living with the Flood” tour. Devastating floods have repeatedly threatened the old town.
Tanck leads visitors along the promenade to the level board with markings of the last high water levels. In 2002, 2006, 2010/11 and most recently in June 2013, the Lauenburgers were literally up to their necks.
In the small town on the Elbe river, there are still shipping company offices today. About 30 Lauenburgers are on the move as captains, helmsmen and sailors on rivers and canals. The Hitzler shipyard, founded in 1885, manufactures harbor tugs, offshore utilities, icebreakers, ferries, coasters and inland vessels.
Trips with a paddle steamer planned
Although the heyday as a shipping town is over, they like to remember the past there, for example with the “Kaiser Wilhelm” paddle wheel steamer, Built in 1900. Although the ship veteran was never on the Elbe, he sailed the Weser with passengers. In 1970 it was supposed to be scrapped, but the Lauenburgers bought the steamer, saved it from the scrap press and brought it to the Elbe.
“The ‘Kaiser Wilhelm’ is one of the last coal-fired paddle steamers in the world,” explains Wilhelm Bischoff from the Friends of the Elbe Shipping Museum. The ship is currently being extensively restored by the association’s members at the Hitzler shipyard. In the post-Corona period, they want to set off again for passenger trips on the Elbe with a volunteer crew.
A few hundred meters further in the power station, Reinhard Lange and half a dozen helpers tend the old water wheels, turbines, diesel generators and control panels in their free time. “The water turbine went into operation in 1921, it supplied the Hitzler shipyard with electricity,” says Lange.
The palm lock next door, one of the oldest chamber locks in Europe, is much older. It was part of the historic Stecknitz Canal between Lübeck and Lauenburg. But that’s another story.