Period III

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

1500 Swiss on a Timber Raft

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 1519, on their way to Dordrecht. They emigrated by ship to South Brazil.

It is an indication of the mass emigration from this region in the first half of the nineteenth century. It also shows the route of the emigrants.

The rivers were in this period the most secure, cheap and comfortable way to travel. The (hygienic) conditions were of course catastrophic.

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

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

The Palace on Dam Square is built, for example, 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. Smaller rivers such as the Main and Neckar transported the trees downstream to Mainz and Mannheim. The piles were tied together into huge rafts of up to 300 metres long and 60 metres wide.

From rafts sailed from to Dordrecht. The rafts were  dismantled and sold to local customers. A log raft contained some 30,000 m3 of tree piles.

These giant rafts were called Höllander Flöße. It was a complicated logistical operation to manoeuvre the rafts downstream 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, the fleet lord, helmsmen, and other high lords had special 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 often had to pay the price, the raft could take a beating.

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 on their way to Dordrecht.

It was an extremely lucrative commercial activity and the profits were fabulous. As an indication, a raft represented a value of up to 1 million guilders at that time.

The costs were of also high. The toll costed around 40 000 – 60 000 guilders, in addition to the purchase of wood and and forage and the the salaries of the crew.

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).