Rheineck und der Alte Rhein. Im Hintergrund der Bodensee. Foto/Photo: TES

The Grandeur of the Old Rhine and Rheineck

The creation of the Old Rhine (der Alte Rhein) was the result of the International Rhine Regulation (Internationale Rheinregulierung or IRR) between Switzerland and the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1892.

The Old Rhine near Rheineck

This treaty is still in force and aims to prevent floods in the Rhine area of St Gallen (Switzerland) and Vorarlberg (Austria). The office of the IRR is located in St Margrethen (canton of St Gallen).

Floods occurred regularly, and the construction of dams on both sides of the Rhine, i.e. on the Austrian, Liechtenstein and Swiss borders, was not an adequate solution. The construction of two side canals, the Werdenberger Canal (Werdenbergerkanal) and the Rheintal Binnen Canal (Rheintaler Binnenkanal), needed to be improved to prevent floods.

Although these canals caught the water from dozens of streams, once every three years, the Rhine basin was partially flooded in large parts from Sargans to Lake Constance.

Picture: Tschubby/Wikipedia

By 1906, the first canalisation of the Rhine was complete. Near St Margrethen (canton of St Gallen), the Rhine was deflected about 8 kilometres to the right. As a result, the town of Höchst (Vorarlberg) was left of the Rhine bank.

The opposite situation occurs at Diepoldsau (canton of St Gallen), which is on the right bank of the Rhine due to a later canalisation. With most of canton Schaffhausen and the municipalities of Riehen, Bettingen and Kleinbasel in the city of Basel, it is the only Swiss area on the right Rhine bank.

The Alte Rhein owes its existence to this intervention, and it remained the border between Austria and Switzerland. The Alte Rhein still flows into Lake Constance, although it has lost much of its grandeur.

Gaissau (Vorarlberg) seen from  Rheineck, transport upstream by horses. Picture: unknown artist and undated.  Picture: Gemeinde Rheineck

Rheineck, transport downstream, on the left timber rafts, on the right a sailing ship from Lake Constance. Picture: unknown artist and undated. Picture: Gemeinde Rheineck

Yet the shore still offers the appearance of a Golden Age. Rheineck was the city to store and transport goods downstream from Chur via Lake Constance to Schaffhausen for centuries. Upstream it went from Rheineck to Feldkirch and Hohenems, mainly with corn from Southern Germany.

From 1291, the Rhine was a so-called Freie Reichsstrasse, freely accessible for shipping (apart from tolls). From Chur, 400 to sometimes 1 200 wooden rafts sailed annually to Rheineck, carrying, among other things, skins, wine, textiles and rice. The wood was subsequently sold in Rheineck, with around 20 000 trees annually!

The town had city rights since 1276 and, until the canalisation of the Rhine, was even the highest Rhine port with a port, a Schifflände.

The castle ruins, the church, several monumental merchant houses and paintings depict this prosperity. Salt from Salzburg and the north-south route were the basis of trade and prosperity.

Canonballs in the walls of the castle ruins.

If climatologists’ forecasts are correct, in about 100 years, the Rhine will have about the water volume of today’s Alte Rhein. It is a small comfort for this once-mighty tributary of today’s Rhine, which has flowed into Lake Constance in Austria since 1906 and is no longer a border river from St Margrethen onwards.

Rheineck, The Löwenhof (1746), the largest mansion in canton St. Gall

(Source: Office of Internationale Rheinregulierung and the town of Rheineck).