The Rhine lays claim to be the most famous of the rivers of Europe. It rises in Switzerland and flows for 820 miles, finally reaching the North Sea by a number of channels passing through Holland. ‘Father Rhine’ is a focus for a formidable body of legend, notably the Nibelungenlied, which recounts the heroic deeds of Siegfried. The fame of Siegfried was much enhanced by Richard Wagner, who also immortalised Lohengrin, the Knight of the Swan.
The Rhine intermittently forms the frontier between Germany and Switzerland, as it flows westward from Lake Constance. Although the kilometre markers along its course designate distance from Lake Constance, navigation is prohibited by the Rhine falls. At Basel, 870 feet above sea level, the river turns northward to flow through an extensive valley bounded by the distant Black Forest and the Vosges Mountains.
North of the Karlsruhe, where the banks are well wooded, it skirts the Palatine Plain to its west with rich arable land and vineyards. The largest of its eastern tributaries, the Main, joins the Rhine opposite Mainz, near the great bend, which diverts the waters in a westerly direction. This broad stretch of river, in places half a mile wide, is interspersed with islands and to the north are the low vine covered hills of the Rheingau.
Beyond Bingen, the river turns to the north narrowing as it does so and causing the rapids, which at one time had stationary engines installed to haul the boats safely round. The Rhine now enters a series of gorges as it cuts its way through the schist which forms the great plateaux of the Taunus and Hunsrueck. The soil, along with the favourable climate, makes this an ideal, if restricted, area for the growing of the vine. The most significant obstruction to the flow of the river along this stretch is the Loreley with its treacherous currents and semi submerged rocks. The Lower Rhine flows through an extensive valley passing Cologne and the great industrial complex at the mouth of the Ruhr to emerge into a countryside of limitless horizons which extends to Arnhem.
The Rhine is the major route for export and import of goods to and from Germany, a role it has played from the time of the earliest traders who, having crossed the Alps, travelled along its valley. Pilgrims and Crusaders have also followed its course. During the Middle Ages Cologne became a major inland port for the transhipment of goods including Rheinish wine and wool from England. This trade was seriously affected by the Spanish wars in the Netherlands and did not recover till the 19th century.
Steam boats were introduced on the Lower Rhine in the early 19th century and as a result of improvements to the river, it became possible for seagoing vessels to reach Cologne in 1885. The river trade increased substantially and by the 1920s Duisburg had become the largest river port in Europe. The Upper Rhine from Mannheim to Basel, which was of variable depth with shallows of never more than 5 feet, provided a formidable obstruction to shipping. Early in the 19th century boats known as Lauertannen, which went with the current, were dismantled at their destination but it was not until 1832, when steam boats were introduced that it was possible to establish an effective upstream service. This service was discontinued in 1855 when competition from the railways made it no longer economical. Subsequent dredging work encouraged the reintroduction of steam boats in 1904; the barges travelled up stream at 4 kilometres an hour and downstream at 20 kilometres an hour.
In 1922 a canal was proposed, which would link Basel to Strasbourg, finally solving the problem of the shallows. The canal entirely on territory in Alsace, recently returned to France, also provided an outer defence for the Maginot line. The first of the locks to be constructed was at Kembs with its superstructure designed by Le Corbusier. The advent of war prevented further work and also resulted in severe damage to Kembs Lock. The work recommenced in 1958 and was finally completed in 1977. The Rhine is also linked to the Rhône by a canal originally constructed in 1785 and to the Marne by a canal first built in 1838.