Posted by: travelrat | December 5, 2017

Straightening the Rhine


Although our Danube/Rhine cruise is still a few months away, I have been doing some research into where we’re going and what we’ll see. The other day, I came upon a fact which definitely qualifies for ‘things I didn’t know I didn’t know’, and I thought I’d share it now.

I’d always assumed you could, like you can today, sail a good-sized boat up the Rhine almost to its source since time immemorial. But, this was not the case. Up until the early 19th Century, the Upper Rhine was an area of marshland, with streams, lakes and channels wandering all over the place. This, and the surrounding forests, were the habitat of a wide variety of wildlife, but it was also a breeding ground for malaria and other ‘nasties’.

Then, in 1817, along came engineer and hydrologist Johann Gottfried Tulla. His mission was to narrow, deepen and straighten the river so it became navigable all the way up to Switzerland. The stretch between Basel and Worms, near Frankfurt, was shortened by about 45 miles when this was achieved.

There was a negative side to this, though. Without the marshland to absorb the melting Alpine snows, towns and cities further downstream began to be affected by frequent flooding, causing them to take measures to prevent this. And, there was the catastrophic effect on wildlife, caused not only by loss of habitat but loss of the spawning grounds of many kinds of fish.

Of course, this wouldn’t have happened today. They would probably have made the area a National Park and, even if that obstacle could be overcome, there would still be the likes of the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, David Attenborough and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all to deal with.

It’s tempting to think what our cruise would be like if the work hadn’t been carried out. Once we’d got as far as we could up the Danube, would we then be transported by coach to the highest navigable point of the Rhine? Or, would we have done a wildlife safari in the marshes by airboat or something?


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