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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.