Building for the Future
Outside and in, dare and win
In the 19th century Bremen trade flourished, primarily with England and the United States of America. Ships became bigger and bigger and needed a deeper navigation channel. In 1817 the first steamboat, the "Weser", began a service between Bremen and Brake but, despite a draught of only one metre it often ran aground during the dry season. The River Weser silted up more and more. Offers by engineers to dredge the navigation channel were judged by the Senate and City Parliament to be too expensive and not very promising. A decision was thus taken to narrow the river with buildings.
With the founding of Bremerhaven in 1827 the Hanseatic City of Bremen at last had its own port for ocean-going vessels again, and it was quickly successful. Contracts from Guatemala, Persia, Siam and Zanzibar to Hawaii guaranteed a tight trade network on all inhabited continents. From the year 1847 there was a regular mail steamer in operation to the United States. Norddeutsche Lloyd, which was founded in 1857, was to make Bremen the home of one of the most successful shipping companies in the world.
Goods and merchandise still had to be taken into the city on Weser barges; only smaller vessels and internal trade were dealt with directly. The deepening of the River Weser, carried out in the years 1863 to 1865 and 1877/78, allowed vessels with a draught of 2.6 m to enter Bremen at high tide. However, the narrowing and silting of the river heightened the risk of flooding, and at Christmas 1880 Bremen and the surrounding land were submerged.
At the end of the 19th century Bremen decided to seek a large-scale solution to the problems of the Weser narrowing. The chosen remedy was the Weser correction and the construction of new free ports on the meadow beside the Stephani Church and in the area of the city’s transatlantic port in Bremen. The general plan called for investments of 34.5 million Marks of which Bremen contributed more than two-thirds. By today's standards this was a billion-dollar investment and resistance against the project came from several parties: the Bremen merchants feared for the project’s profitability.
The first basin – today the Europahafen – was completed in 1887. It was 2,000 m long, 120 m wide, with a floating dock, warehouses, sheds and other infrastructure, all of it technically state-of-the-art. There was also a rail connection, and cranes and electric lighting for the entire site. The operator was Bremer Lagerhaus Gesellschaft (BLG), which was permitted to use the port facilities free of charge and in return gave a share of the profits back to the city. The investment was a great success right from the start with annual growth rates of ten and, later on, even 20 per cent. In 1891 the Holz- und Fabrikenhafen (timber and factory port) was built. This was no longer a free-trade area and so allowed for the establishment of the manufacturing and processing industries, such as Rolandmühle (1897) and Kaffee Hag (1906). In 1905 the shipyard port and, one year later, the transatlantic port opened. The Schlachte in Bremen city centre, on the other hand, no longer offered sufficient space for the ever bigger cargo vessels with the result that port operations ended there after more than 700 years.
Free ports are areas in which goods can be stored and handled without customs duties having to be paid. This was a decisive advantage for any commercial enterprise or city. Within the German Empire there were many people at the end of the 19th century who did not want to grant this privilege to the Hanseatic City of Bremen. In 1888 it was agreed that Bremen should join the German customs territory. The new ports became free zones in which trade, but no production, was permitted. All goods that were suitable for trading arrived there by ship or train and were transhipped to destinations throughout the world, at the top of the list and with the highest sales cotton from the United States, coffee and cocoa from Brazil, and wool and ores from the Baltic States.
For the correction of the Weser, tributaries were closed using fascines (rough bundles of brushwood placed between rows of stakes), the Lange Bucht straightened, and the river dredged to 5 m by 1894.