1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Elbe

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ELBE (the Albis of the Romans and the Labe of the Czechs), a river of Germany, which rises in Bohemia not far from the frontiers of Silesia, on the southern side of the Riesengebirge, at an altitude of about 4600 ft. Of the numerous small streams (Seifen or Flessen as they are named in the district) whose confluent waters compose the infant river, the most important are the Weisswasser, or White Water, and the Elbseifen, which is formed in the same neighbourhood, but at a little lower elevation. After plunging down the 140 ft. of the Elbfall, the latter stream unites with the steep torrential Weisswasser at Mädelstegbaude, at an altitude of 2230 ft., and thereafter the united stream of the Elbe pursues a southerly course, emerging from the mountain glens at Hohenelbe (1495 ft.), and continuing on at a soberer pace to Pardubitz, where it turns sharply to the west, and at Kolin (730 ft.), some 27 m. farther on, bends gradually towards the north-west. A little above Brandeis it picks up the Iser, which, like itself, comes down from the Riesengebirge, and at Melnik it has its stream more than doubled in volume by the Moldau, a river which winds northwards through the heart of Bohemia in a sinuous, trough-like channel carved through the plateaux. Some miles lower down, at Leitmeritz (433 ft.), the waters of the Elbe are tinted by the reddish Eger, a stream which drains the southern slopes of the Erzgebirge. Thus augmented, and swollen into a stream 140 yds. wide, the Elbe carves a path through the basaltic mass of the Mittelgebirge, churning its way through a deep, narrow rocky gorge. Then the river winds through the fantastically sculptured sandstone mountains of the “Saxon Switzerland,” washing successively the feet of the lofty Lilienstein (932 ft. above the Elbe), the scene of one of Frederick the Great’s military exploits in the Seven Years’ War, Königstein (797 ft. above the Elbe), where in times of war Saxony has more than once stored her national purse for security, and the pinnacled rocky wall of the Bastei, towering 650 ft. above the surface of the stream. Shortly after crossing the Bohemian-Saxon frontier, and whilst still struggling through the sandstone defiles, the stream assumes a north-westerly direction, which on the whole it preserves right away to the North Sea. At Pirna the Elbe leaves behind it the stress and turmoil of the Saxon Switzerland, rolls through Dresden, with its noble river terraces, and finally, beyond Meissen, enters on its long journey across the North German plain, touching Torgau, Wittenberg, Magdeburg, Wittenberge, Hamburg, Harburg and Altona on the way, and gathering into itself the waters of the Mulde and Saale from the left, and those of the Schwarze Elster, Havel and Elde from the right. Eight miles above Hamburg the stream divides into the Norder (or Hamburg) Elbe and the Süder (or Harburg) Elbe, which are linked together by several cross-channels, and embrace in their arms the large island of Wilhelmsburg and some smaller ones. But by the time the river reaches Blankenese, 7 m. below Hamburg, all these anastomosing branches have been reunited, and the Elbe, with a width of 4 to 9 m. between bank and bank, travels on between the green marshes of Holstein and Hanover until it becomes merged in the North Sea off Cuxhaven. At Kolin the width is about 100 ft., at the mouth of the Moldau about 300, at Dresden 960, and at Magdeburg over 1000. From Dresden to the sea the river has a total fall of only 280 ft., although the distance is about 430 m. For the 75 m. between Hamburg and the sea the fall is only 31/4 ft. One consequence of this is that the bed of the river just below Hamburg is obstructed by a bar, and still lower down is choked with sandbanks, so that navigation is confined to a relatively narrow channel down the middle of the stream. But unremitting efforts have been made to maintain a sufficient fairway up to Hamburg (q.v.). The tide advances as far as Geesthacht, a little more than 100 m. from the sea. The river is navigable as far as Melnik, that is, the confluence of the Moldau, a distance of 525 m., of which 67 are in Bohemia. Its total length is 725 m., of which 190 are in Bohemia, 77 in the kingdom of Saxony, and 350 in Prussia, the remaining 108 being in Hamburg and other states of Germany. The area of the drainage basin is estimated at 56,000 sq. m.

Navigation.—Since 1842, but more especially since 1871, improvements have been made in the navigability of the Elbe by all the states which border upon its banks. As a result of these labours there is now in the Bohemian portion of the river a minimum depth of 2 ft. 8 in., whilst from the Bohemian frontier down to Magdeburg the minimum depth is 3 ft., and from Magdeburg to Hamburg, 3 ft. 10 in. In 1896 and 1897 Prussia and Hamburg signed covenants whereby two channels are to be kept open to a depth of 93/4 ft., a width of 656 ft., and a length of 550 yds. between Bunthaus and Ortkathen, just above the bifurcation of the Norder Elbe and the Süder Elbe. In 1869 the maximum burden of the vessels which were able to ply on the upper Elbe was 250 tons; but in 1899 it was increased to 800 tons. The large towns through which the river flows have vied with one another in building harbours, providing shipping accommodation, and furnishing other facilities for the efficient navigation of the Elbe. In this respect the greatest efforts have naturally been made by Hamburg; but Magdeburg, Dresden, Meissen, Riesa, Tetschen, Aussig and other places have all done their relative shares, Magdeburg, for instance, providing a commercial harbour and a winter harbour. In spite, however, of all that has been done, the Elbe remains subject to serious inundations at periodic intervals. Among the worst floods were those of the years 1774, 1799, 1815, 1830, 1845, 1862, 1890 and 1909. The growth of traffic up and down the Elbe has of late years become very considerable. A towing chain, laid in the bed of the river, extends from Hamburg to Aussig, and by this means, as by paddle-tug haulage, large barges are brought from the port of Hamburg into the heart of Bohemia. The fleet of steamers and barges navigating the Elbe is in point of fact greater than on any other German river. In addition to goods thus conveyed, enormous quantities of timber are floated down the Elbe; the weight of the rafts passing the station of Schandau on the Saxon Bohemian frontier amounting in 1901 to 333,000 tons.

A vast amount of traffic is directed to Berlin, by means of the Havel-Spree system of canals, to the Thuringian states and the Prussian province of Saxony, to the kingdom of Saxony and Bohemia, and to the various riverine states and provinces of the lower and middle Elbe. The passenger traffic, which is in the hands of the Sächsisch-Böhmische Dampfschifffahrtsgesellschaft is limited to Bohemia and Saxony, steamers plying up and down the stream from Dresden to Melnik, occasionally continuing the journey up the Moldau to Prague, and down the river as far as Riesa, near the northern frontier of Saxony, and on the average 11/2 million passengers are conveyed.

In 1877–1879, and again in 1888–1895, some 100 m. of canal were dug, 5 to 61/2 ft. deep and of various widths, for the purpose of connecting the Elbe, through the Havel and the Spree, with the system of the Oder. The most noteworthy of these connexions are the Elbe Canal (141/4 m. long), the Reek Canal (91/2 m.), the Rüdersdorfer Gewässer (111/2 m.), the Rheinsberger Canal (111/4 m.), and the Sacrow-Paretzer Canal (10 m.), besides which the Spree has been canalized for a distance of 28 m., and the Elbe for a distance of 70 m. Since 1896 great improvements have been made in the Moldau and the Bohemian Elbe, with the view of facilitating communication between Prague and the middle of Bohemia generally on the one hand, and the middle and lower reaches of the Elbe on the other. In the year named a special commission was appointed for the regulation of the Moldau and Elbe between Prague and Aussig, at a cost estimated at about £1,000,000, of which sum two-thirds were to be borne by the Austrian empire and one-third by the kingdom of Bohemia. The regulation is effected by locks and movable dams, the latter so designed that in times of flood or frost they can be dropped flat on the bottom of the river. In 1901 the Austrian government laid before the Reichsrat a canal bill, with proposals for works estimated to take twenty years to complete, and including the construction of a canal between the Oder, starting at Prerau, and the upper Elbe at Pardubitz, and for the canalization of the Elbe from Pardubitz to Melnik (see Austria: Waterways). In 1900 Lübeck was put into direct communication with the Elbe at Lauenburg by the opening of the Elbe-Trave Canal, 42 m. in length, and constructed at a cost of £1,177,700, of which the state of Lübeck contributed £802,700, and the kingdom of Prussia £375,000. The canal has been made 72 ft. wide at the bottom, 105 to 126 ft. wide at the top, has a minimum depth of 81/6 ft., and is equipped with seven locks, each 2621/2 ft. long and 391/4 ft. wide. It is thus able to accommodate vessels up to 800 tons burden; and the passage from Lübeck to Lauenburg occupies 18 to 21 hours. In the first year of its being open (June 1900 to June 1901) a total of 115,000 tons passed through the canal.[1] A gigantic project has also been put forward for providing water communication between the Rhine and the Elbe, and so with the Oder, through the heart of Germany. This scheme is known as the Midland Canal. Another canal has been projected for connecting Kiel with the Elbe by means of a canal trained through the Plön Lakes.

Bridges.—The Elbe is crossed by numerous bridges, as at Königgrätz, Pardubitz, Kolin, Leitmeritz, Tetschen, Schandau, Pirna, Dresden, Meissen, Torgau, Wittenberg, Rosslau, Barby, Magdeburg, Rathenow, Wittenberge, Dömitz, Lauenburg, and Hamburg and Harburg. At all these places there are railway bridges, and nearly all, but more especially those in Bohemia, Saxony and the middle course of the river—these last on the main lines between Berlin and the west and south-west of the empire—possess a greater or less strategic value. At Leitmeritz there is an iron trellis bridge, 600 yds long. Dresden has four bridges, and there is a fifth bridge at Loschwitz, about 3 m. above the city. Meissen has a railway bridge, in addition to an old road bridge. Magdeburg is one of the most important railway centres in northern Germany; and the Elbe, besides being bridged—it divides there into three arms—several times for vehicular traffic, is also spanned by two fine railway bridges. At both Hamburg and Harburg, again, there are handsome railway bridges, the one (1868–1873 and 1894) crossing the northern Elbe, and the other (1900) the southern Elbe; and the former arm is also crossed by a fine triple-arched bridge (1888) for vehicular traffic.

Fish.—The river is well stocked with fish, both salt-water and fresh-water species being found in its waters, and several varieties of fresh-water fish in its tributaries. The kinds of greatest economic value are sturgeon, shad, salmon, lampreys, eels, pike and whiting.

Tolls.—In the days of the old German empire no fewer than thirty-five different tolls were levied between Melnik and Hamburg, to say nothing of the special dues and privileged exactions of various riparian owners and political authorities. After these had been de facto, though not de jure, in abeyance during the period of the Napoleonic wars, a commission of the various Elbe states met and drew up a scheme for their regulation, and the scheme, embodied in the Elbe Navigation Acts, came into force in 1822. By this a definite number of tolls, at fixed rates, was substituted for the often arbitrary tolls which had been exacted previously. Still further relief was afforded in 1844 and in 1850, on the latter occasion by the abolition of all tolls between Melnik and the Saxon frontier. But the number of tolls was only reduced to one, levied at Wittenberge, in 1863, about one year after Hanover was induced to give up the Stade or Brunsbüttel toll in return for a compensation of 2,857,340 thalers. Finally, in 1870, 1,000,000 thalers were paid to Mecklenburg and 85,000 thalers to Anhalt, which thereupon abandoned all claims to levy tolls upon the Elbe shipping, and thus navigation on the river became at last entirely free.

History.—The Elbe cannot rival the Rhine in the picturesqueness of the scenery it travels through, nor in the glamour which its romantic and legendary associations exercise over the imagination. But it possesses much to charm the eye in the deep glens of the Riesengebirge, amid which its sources spring, and in the bizarre rock-carving of the Saxon Switzerland. It has been indirectly or directly associated with many stirring events in the history of the German peoples. In its lower course, whatever is worthy of record clusters round the historical vicissitudes of Hamburg—its early prominence as a missionary centre (Ansgar) and as a bulwark against Slav and marauding Northman, its commercial prosperity as a leading member of the Hanseatic League, and its sufferings during the Napoleonic wars, especially at the hands of the ruthless Davoût. The bridge over the river at Dessau recalls the hot assaults of the condottiere Ernst von Mansfeld in April 1626, and his repulse by the crafty generalship of Wallenstein. But three years later this imperious leader was checked by the heroic resistance of the “Maiden” fortress of Magdeburg; though two years later still she lost her reputation, and suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of Tilly’s lawless and unlicensed soldiery. Mühlberg, just outside the Saxon frontier, is the place where Charles V. asserted his imperial authority over the Protestant elector of Saxony, John Frederick, the Magnanimous or Unfortunate, in 1547. Dresden, Aussig and Leitmeritz are all reminiscent of the fierce battles of the Hussite wars, and the last named of the Thirty Years’ War. But the chief historical associations of the upper (i.e. the Saxon and Bohemian) Elbe are those which belong to the Seven Years’ War, and the struggle of the great Frederick of Prussia against the power of Austria and her allies. At Pirna (and Lilienstein) in 1756 he caught the entire Saxon army in his fowler’s net, after driving back at Lobositz the Austrian forces which were hastening to their assistance; but only nine months later he lost his reputation for “invincibility” by his crushing defeat at Kolin, where the great highway from Vienna to Dresden crosses the Elbe. Not many miles distant, higher up the stream, another decisive battle was fought between the same national antagonists, but with a contrary result, on the memorable 3rd of July 1866.

See M. Buchheister, “Die Elbe u. der Hafen von Hamburg,” in Mitteil. d. Geog. Gesellsch. in Hamburg (1899), vol. xv. pp. 131–188; V. Kurs, “Die künstlichen Wasserstrassen des deutschen

  1. See Der Bau des Elbe-Trave Canals und seine Vorgeschichte (Lübeck, 1900).