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From the harbor district to Überseestadt

1817 to 1888 | Weser - trade - harbour

1817 - the first steamship is built

Home and away - dare to win. In the 19th century, Bremen’s trade was particularly flourishing with England and the USA. Ships were getting increasingly bigger and required greater draughts. The first steamship, the “Weser”, started sailing between Bremen and Brake in 1817. Despite having a draught of only one metre, it often ran aground in the dry seasons. The “Weser” ran into more and more troubles. Engineers offered to dredge out the shipping channel, but the Senate and Parliament considered this too expensive and not very promising. The decision was subsequently made to make the river narrower by building on it.

1827 - Bremerhaven is founded

When Bremerhaven was founded in 1827, the Hanseatic City finally had its own port again for deep-sea vessels and quickly became successful. Contracts from Guatemala to Hawaii via Persia, Siam and Zanzibar guaranteed a dense trading network on all populated continents of the world. A mail steamer started regular voyages to the USA in 1847. North German Lloyd, founded in 1857, was then to make Bremen home to one of the most successful shipping companies in the world.

1863 - Domestic trade continues

Goods and commodities still had to be delivered to the city using Weser barges; only smaller ships and domestic trade were regulated directly. The Weser was dredged out between 1863 and 1865 and again in 1877/78, allowing ships with a draught of up to 2.6m to travel to Bremen at high tide. However, the narrowing and silting up of the waterway increased the risk of flooding, so much so that Bremen was flooded during Christmas in 1880.

1880 - the Weser is dredged out

In the late 18th century, Bremen decided to carry out a large-scale solution to the problems associated with the narrowing of the Weser: A remedy was found by adjusting the Weser and building new free ports by the gardens of St. Stephen’s Church and in the international seaport area in the City of Bremen. The general plan envisaged investments worth 34.5 million German marks, with Bremen contributing over two thirds of what would have been worth billions by today’s standards. Several parties objected to the plan; Bremen’s merchant association, for example, feared it would not be profitable.

1887 - Europahafen is built

The modern-day Europahafen was the first basin to be constructed in 1887: It was 2,000m long and 120m wide, and its state-of-the-art infrastructure included a floating dock, storehouses and depots. It also boasted a railway connection, cranes and electrical lighting across the entire premises. It was run by Bremer Lagerhaus Gesellschaft (BLG), a local storage company that was given the port facilities for free, paying back a share of its profits to the city in return. The investment was a huge success from the very beginning with annual growth rates of 10%, later even rising to 20%. The timber and factory port followed in 1891: This was no longer a duty-free zone, allowing manufacturing and processing companies to set up business there, including the Rolandmühle (1897) and Café HAG (1906). The shipyard harbour opened up in 1905, and the international seaport followed a year later. However, the Schlachte promenade in Bremen city centre no longer provided enough space for the cargo ships that were constantly getting bigger. As such, port operations came to an end there after over 700 years.

1888 - free ports are built

Free ports are zones in which goods are stored and transhipped without having to pay duties, making them a decisive advantage for every trading company and city. Many people within the German Empire didn’t want to grant this privilege to the Hanseatic City of Bremen in the late 19th century. An agreement was struck to allow Bremen to enter the German customs territory in 1888. The new ports were to become duty-free zones in which goods could be traded but not produced. All goods suitable for trade were delivered by ship or train and then transhipped all over the world. The biggest sources of revenue were cotton from the USA, coffee and cocoa from Brazil, and wool and metal ore from the Baltic. The Weser was adjusted by filling in the river’s side arms with fascines (bundles of brushwood between rows of timber stakes), straightening the “Lange Bucht” (“Long Bay”) and dredging out the river channel to 5m by 1894.

From 1914 to 1942

1914 bis 1918

The outbreak of the First World War practically brought an end to all foreign trade: Sea and land routes were blocked, ships and offices were captured in enemy territory, and part of the workforce was called up to the army. The 6,323 ships that had arrived in Bremen’s ports in 1913 had been reduced to 894 by 1915. It took a while for production to successfully switch to armaments, such as at AG Weser and the Atlas Works at the Europahafen. The Auxiliary Service Act of December 1916 then effectively obliged all sectors of the economy and all available male workers to join the military cause. The ports’ transhipment figures increased slightly as the war went on, especially through trade with the Baltic Sea region.


Following the turmoil of war and the failed Soviet Republic of Bremen, the city’s ports were deserted with no goods or ships. The total amount of Bremen’s ships had been reduced to a quarter of its pre-war inventory, and the remaining vessels were predominantly sailing ships and barges. The rest had been sunk or commandeered by the Allies. Imports were also hindered by the decline of the Reichsmark against other currencies, and a lack of raw materials prevented the rapid growth that could have been produced by exports in the post-war peace industry. Grain and oil mills were the only sectors working at full capacity - apart from the black market and smuggling trade. The weak currency did have one advantage: German shipping companies were able to undercut their foreign competitors and use their scarce resources to their full capacity. This was hindered slightly when the exceptional railway tariffs for seaports were abolished, as these had significantly reduced transportation expenses via the adjoining Weser Train Station into the mainland. In 1920, revenue reached half of where it had been before the war. The construction of the “Bremen” in the neighbouring shipyards of AG Weser was only possible after the river Weser had been dredged out even deeper to a depth of 8 metres (1924-29). Facilities and equipment remained state-of-the-art, but the ports’ revenue dropped by 25% between 1931 and 1932 during the Great Depression.


The German Nazi Party (NSDAP) made huge ground in the parliamentary elections of 5 March 1933 and, alongside the Black-White-Red Struggle Front (KSWR), an alliance dominated by the German National People’s Party (DNVP), the government had a parliamentary majority after the election and was able to use this support to pave the way to the dictatorship. The subsequent elections in November 1933 offered voters a single list of NSDAP politicians in conjunction with a referendum on the country’s withdrawal from the League of Nations. The political change was as radical as the economic climate was brutal. Bremen, as a trading city, was also hit by the crises in the rest of the world. The majority of industrialised nations controlled currency trading to the extent that compensation transactions (the direct exchange of goods without money) soon became a part of daily trading. In the pre-war years, the revenue of Bremen’s ports stayed more or less the same, while the value of goods decreased. The main goods remained wool, tobacco, grain and coffee. By 1936, overseas trading had got back to 75% of where it had been in 1929. Little changed in the first years of the war until a lack of raw materials and workers in production companies led to the collapse of the export trade.

1945 bis 1968 | The years following the Second World War

1945 - no "zero hour" for Bremen

1945 was no “zero hour” for Bremen: It had a foundation it wanted to build upon and a great wrongdoing it wished to forget. The Hanseatic trading tradition remained and the region now had a mayor, Wilhelm Kaisen (SPD), who was the Senator for Social Issues until 1933 and said: “First the port, then the city”. Bremen’s biggest stroke of luck was its status as an American-occupied enclave. Bremen and Bremerhaven acted as supply ports for American troops, and so they had a vested interest in repairing the bombed docklands and salvaging the sunken ships. Furthermore, the Americans restored Bremen’s independence after holding talks with the British.

1945 - 1949

The ports were cleared of mines between May and August 1945, and the first merchant ship unloaded its cargo in September of the same year. Bremen’s citizens were helped by the Americans to clear the rubble, blow up the ruins and fill in bomb craters. Painstaking efforts were made to repair depots, storehouses, cranes and railway tracks with spare parts. The first scheduled voyage to the USA entered service in July 1946. In addition to the military supplies, transhipments were now also made for food, coal, metal ore and wool. Just two years after the end of the war, revenue was already half of what it had been in 1938. Considering the smaller economic area behind Bremen and the almost total destruction of local and national infrastructure, this was a great success. Nevertheless, this had been achieved without German ship owners: The ships that hadn’t been sunk had been commandeered, and economic operations were not encouraged by the maximum limit of 7,200 gross registered tonnes and 12 knots, introduced in 1949.

1950 bis 1952

The first stage of the port redevelopment project was completed in the early 1950s. The capacity utilisation of general and bulk cargo was so good that more storehouses, cranes and quays continued to be built.

The Senator for Port Matters, Hermann Apelt, initiated an investment programme in 1953 that would inject 20 million Mark into each port for the next ten years. Nevertheless, the Europahafen and international seaport had reached their natural capacity limits by the end of the 1950s. Some ships had to wait days. The construction of Neustadt’s port on the left of the river Weser provided the necessary relief and more modern facilities. The Senator’s statement that there was a natural limit for the potential size of ships, meaning ports in the City of Bremen would remain at the heart of the economy for a long time, turned out not to be true. Containerisation would bring an end to the lure of the Europahafen and international seaport.

1964 to the present | From the port to Überseestadt

The 1960s and later

1964 marked the beginning of the container era in Bremen. In 1966, the first container ship to appear in Europe, the Fairland, moored in the overseas port. In the following years, the capacity and draught of the ships continued to increase until they simply became too large for the Weser and the 19th century harbor basins. Despite this, the ports were kept attractive through constant modernization, for example through the construction of roll-on roll-off (RoRo) terminals in Überseehafen (1967) and Europahafen (1972).

The story of Überseestadt begins

Due to the further decline in general cargo volumes, general cargo ended in the 1980s.
Due to the considerable dilapidation of the quay facilities, the overseas port was closed in 1991. As there was no longer any need for the port and securing it seemed too costly, the port basin was backfilled in 1998 with around 3.5 million cubic meters of sand from dredging work in the Outer Weser.
This created the basis for one of the largest urban development projects in Europe: the "Überseestadt" port revitalization project. In 2000, the Bremen Senate adopted the "Development concept for the restructuring of the old port areas in Bremen". In 2003, the "Überseestadt Master Plan" was adopted.