Sunday, January 04, 2009

Alter Elbtunnel

Beneath Landungsbrucken is the famous duo tunnel under The River Elbe, one of the great engineering marvels of the early 20th Century.

Built from 1907 to 1911, The Old Elbe Tunnel (”Alter Elbtunnel”) links the Hamburg district of Saint Pauli with the island of Steinwerder on the opposite bank of The River Elbe. After almost a century of use, the tunnel still serves its original purpose.

Each twin tunnel is 426 meters long, 4.70 meters wide, 4.50 meters high and runs just 6 meters below the bottom of the riverbed. Built for automobile traffic, cyclists and pedestrians, the tunnel may only be reached by lift or by staircase.

The main purpose of The Old Elbe Tunnel was to provide Hamburg’s port workers and shipyard workers with better and faster access to their workplaces on the Elbe island of Steinwerder. The River Elbe bridges, which had been put into service in 1889, lay in the East, too far away from the city to be viable alternatives. Hence, the dockworkers had long since had to be ferried to and from their work in an assortment of river barges.

However, the transport capacity of these conventional ferry services was not able to cope with the incessantly-rising passenger traffic between Hamburg and Steinwerder Island. Therefore, in 1902, Hamburg authorities decided to build an underground passage below The River Elbe. The decision was made in favor of a tunnel because its total cost of 11 million marks was far less than the cost of building a high, river-spanning bridge, which would have required an investment of 25 million marks.

The tunnel was constructed by the shield-tunneling method. Construction was done under hydraulic pressure and, like the construction of the towers of Brooklyn Bridge, diver’s disease was a major problem, killing three workers and causing 74 severe and more than 600 light cases among the 4,400 workers. There were, in addition, two other casualties caused by accidents during construction.

After the completion of The Old Elbe Tunnel, an underground rail line, completed in 1912, brought workers from all districts of Hamburg to Landungsbrucken station. From Landungsbrucken, the trek by foot through the tunnel to the Steinwerder work sites was only one kilometer long. The tunnel has its own entrance building near Landungsbrucken station, part of the Landungsbrucken complex of buildings lining The River Elbe.

When The Old Elbe Tunnel opened in 1911, it was a technological sensation. At a depth of 24 meters beneath the surface, two tubes five meters in diameter connected central Hamburg with the docks and shipyards on the South side of The River Elbe. This meant a substantial improvement in commute time for tens of thousands of workers in one of the busiest harbors in the world.

Four huge lifts on either side of the tunnel carry pedestrians and motor vehicles 24 meters to the bottom. The original lifts are still in operation.

On one descent and on both ascents, we took the elevators. However, on our second descent, we took the very narrow and very winding stairwell that hugs the outer wall, which afforded excellent (but rather frightening) views of the elevator system.

The tunnel is decorated with ornaments and tiles of glazed terra cotta. The ceramic ornaments display items related to The River Elbe and other maritime motifs. Most are fish or crabs or mussels or seals, but a few show unusual items like waste and rats.

Due to increasing amounts of traffic, other bridges and tunnels have been built since 1911 to cross The River Elbe, and these more recent avenues of transportation now accommodate most of the cross-river traffic. The Old Elbe Tunnel today serves primarily as a tourist attraction.

From Steinwerder Island, visitors may obtain an unmatched view of Hamburg and the distant reaches of the port.

It was a dark, dreary, cold, rainy, windy day when my mother, my brother, and Josh and I traversed the tunnel and emerged on Steinwerder Island and took in the views of Hamburg across the river. The views were sensational. The dark, almost menacing, Baltic sky contributed mightily to the beauty of the Hamburg skyline, lending a measure of drama to an already-sublime panorama. It was one of the greatest views I have ever experienced. We remained out in the cold and wind and rain for over half an hour, marveling at the vast riverscape and cityscape laid out before our eyes, before we made our return journey back through the tunnel.

On our first walk through the tunnel, we encountered a single cyclist On our second walk through the tunnel, we encountered two persons on foot, one walking in each direction. We encountered no other persons or vehicles on our traversals.

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