De Bastei, Nijmegen. Photo/Foto: Eric Brouwer.

1500 Swiss on a Timber Raft or Höllander Flöße

A Dutch chronicle from the nineteenth century (Jan Willem van Druijnen, Leven aan de Waal of Vervolg der Kronijk van Nijmegen 1819-1859) reports that more than 1500 Swiss arrived in Nimwegen (Nijmegen) on timber rafts in July and August 1819, on their way to Dordrecht. They emigrated by ship to South Brazil.

It is an indication of mass emigration and the route of emigrants. The rivers were the most secure, cheap and comfortable way to travel, although the (hygienic) conditions were catastrophic.

Timber rafts have been the most remarkable, but almost forgotten, means of transport on the Rhine. This transport started in the sixteenth century.

The primary reason was the decision of the Dutch province of Holland in the sixteenth century to use only stones to construct buildings. The demand for (long) piles to strengthen the fundaments of the houses in this delta was enormous.

For example, the palace on Dam Square is built on more than 13,000 piles. The flourishing shipbuilding industry also needed wood.

This wood (oak, beech, pine) was present in the Vosges, the Black Forest and other forest areas along the Rhine in Switzerland.

Smaller rivers, such as the Main and Neckar, transported the trees downstream to Mainz and Mannheim. The piles were tied into huge rafts up to 300 metres wide.

The rafts sailed to Dordrecht. They were dismantled and sold to local customers. A log aft contained up to 30,000 m3 of tree piles.

These giant rafts were called Höllander Flöße. It was a complicated logistical operation to manoeuvre the rafts downstream the Rhine at a speed of approximately 16-20 kilometres per day (no night sailing).

Hundreds of crew members lived and slept on the raft in wooden huts, and the fleet lord, helmsmen, and other staff had impressive mansions.

Pigs and other animals for slaughter, thousands of kilos of flour, cheese and butter, salt, peas and beans and tens of thousands of litres of beer were taken along as forage.

Everything and everyone went out of the way when the colossus came along. A small boat with a red-white flag sailed one hour ahead to warn because the raft could not stop.

The braking distance with dozens of heavy anchors was miles long. Bridge pillars, quays and other ships were often damaged.

Hundreds of crew members rowed the raft, accompanied the raft on the side or manned the so-called knees at the front with ropes. Hundreds of these rafts passed the Waal at Nijmegen in the course of four centuries on their way to Dordrecht, a highly lucrative commercial activity whose profits were fabulous. As an indication,n, a raft represented a value of up to 1 million guilders at that time.

The costs were high. The toll cost around 40 000 – 60 000 guilders, the purchase of wood and forage and the crew’s salaries.

The last raft passed the Rhine in 1967. It consisted of 2,500 piles pulled by tugboats. Four centuries of transport by rafts came to an end. Switzerland had already become an immigration destination by that time.

(source: K. Moerbeek, B. Gunterman, Het Nijmeegsch Rondgezicht. Een tentoonstelling over het oudste stadspanorama van Nederland, Nijmegen 2019).