Hamburg: A seaport without a sea

Hamburg, Germany is a major seaport… except it is 60 river miles inland from where the Elbe and the Atlantic meet. Cuxhaven is the seaport-on-the-sea. As strange as this sounds, a quick check of the map shows that most major ports on the North Sea and Baltic are well inland, up rivers that feed into their respective seas. My readers who sail are nodding and saying things like, “That’s because the Saxons and Slavs weren’t stupid,” and “If you’ve ever been there in winter, you’d stay away from the water, too.”

So, the WIP is set in Hamburg in 1891-92. The city is rather new, compared to Cologne, Trier, Regensburg and a few others, because it dates to the early 800s. Charlemagne wanted to control the Elbe river, and ordered a fortification to be built between the Elbe and Alster rivers, on a large natural island. His successors sent a bishop to check on things, just in time for the Vikings to attack. Charlemagne had been worried about Slavs from the east, not Swedes from the north. Oops. Scratch Hamburg 1.0.

However, such a good location would not be left a charred ruin, and so the fortifications were rebuilt and people began settling the swamps in the area, trying to reclaim the marshes. Keep in mind, this area had been planed rather flat by glaciers, and marshes took up much of the landscape. There were some bluffs on the northern bank of the Elbe, upstream of Hamburg, but not as much good farm ground as one might have wished for. However, people carried on, and by 1189 Frederick Barbarossa gave Hamburg its independence as an imperial free city. Or so city records reported a few centuries later, when a later noble attempted to assert control over the city’s tax income.

Hamburg really came into its own with the formation of the Hanseatic League, the great trading empire of the North Sea and Baltic. It prospered and expanded, despite plague, pirates, storms, fires, and other calamities. Hamburg flipped Protestant in the 1500s but did not see as much fighting as areas to the south and east. Although the Hanseatic League had disappeared, Hamburg prospered as a safe port for ships from the Atlantic trade. While not a modern deep-water port, the Elbe does have tides because the sea tide acts as a temporary dam, raising the water levels upstream. Cuxhaven, at the mouth of the Elbe, was the port for truly deep-water vessels, at least until the dredging of the Elbe in the 20th century.

Napoleon’s blockade of Europe hurt Hamburg, and the great fire of 1842 almost destroyed the city. Most of the old city was burned, and medieval churches and buildings vanished as 20,000 people found themselves without shelter. The city rebuilt, but not fast or well enough, and in 1892 a cholera epidemic swept the city, devastating the poorer working-class areas because the city fathers (patricians) had refused to pay for modern sanitation and water supplies. And they balked at accepting the germ theory of disease, because Robert Koch supported it, and he was a Prussian.

Did I mention that Hamburg was forced at gun-point into the German Empire? As a result, the city leaders had little, if any, fondness for anything associated with Berlin, aside from Bismarck. Prussia had been bad for trade with its taxes and import duties.

So, what is vital to the story I’m writing is the harbor, and the warehouse district, the speicherstadt. After 1842, a large area had been constructed on made land, including tall, slender warehouses for incoming and outgoing cargo. That was the only duty-free storage and Hamburg protected it jealously. The other important thing are the Vliets, pronounced “fleets,” the little channels for water and waste in the former marsh-now-city. Because there’s a secret in the vliets, and a haven on the Speicherstadt, if our hero can find them in time…

8 thoughts on “Hamburg: A seaport without a sea

  1. Sounds promising. And if the plot doesn’t go well for the hero, you have the chaos of an epidemic to fall back on. And marshland doesn’t sound like the kind of terrain favorable to giant mechanical soldiers. “Oops! We forgot that this weight limited roadway was built over a stream.”

  2. “And they balked … because…he was a Prussian.”
    “As a result, the city leaders had little, if any, fondness for anything associated with Berlin, aside from Bismarck.”

    Not just the Hamburgers. On my first trip to Bavaria, I was chatting with a shopkeeper, and we teased him about his prices asking if this was the “tourist” price or the “number one best friend” (as the middle eastern souk keepers promised me) price.

    He said, “Ja, ja, you got me. It is true, I have lowest price for locals, and higher price for tourists. But the highest price is for Prussians!”

      • For much the same reasons. A German friend once told me that it used to be because every 20 to 40 years they’d send armies out to conquer their neighbors. These days, it’s their tourists.

        • Apparently, according to a German acquaintance (and WWII vet), during the super-recovery period of the 1950s-60s (the Wirtschaftswunder), Germans went on vacation to France, Italy, Greece, and a few made comments along the lines of “I was here during the war and really liked it, so I decided to come back.” Oops.

      • The preface to “The History of the Imperial German Staff 1869 – 1945” notes that Prussia originated as an army in search of a country. The book is in storage between office moves, so I’ll need to recover the exact citation. It makes sense. German follow orders. Prussians are overjoyed to give orders; never mind to whom. Obey.

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