Hamburg is located on the River Elbe, 65 miles upstream from the North Sea; the city’s docks are situated to the south of the river and much of the residential area is to the north. By the beginning of the 20th Century the number of workers needing to cross Hamburg Harbour was growing fast. The ferries then in use were overcrowded, impeded other port traffic and were affected by foggy conditions. As a result, construction of the Elbe Tunnel commenced in 1907. The tunnel connects St Pauli in the north with Steinwerder on the south bank.
Construction took place in a pressurised chamber to help prevent the inflow of water as was common engineering practice. However decompression sickness affected many of the construction workers and it is believed that there were three deaths amongst the 4,000 plus workers. Opened on 7 September 1911, the tunnel is 426 metres in length and consists of two separate bores, each 24 metres below ground level.
Going Up! Paradoxically, we started our underground visit by climbing several flights of stairs to the top of the entrance building. Positioned just under a marvellous dome, we had a bird’s eye view of the north shaft. The first person to officially travel through on completion was its architect, after his marriage. Descending to tunnel level, we were struck by the similarity of the staircase to that at Brunel’s grand entrance shaft at Rotherhithe. The whole tunnel is exuberantly lined in terracotta tiles and those around the north shaft included plaques illustrating the construction of the tunnel.
A unique feature of the tunnel is that cars enter and leave by four vast lifts on each side of the river. Although cars are prohibited at weekends, we were accorded a privileged ride in one of the vehicle lifts which are in fine condition. One of the bores of the tunnel (there are two) is currently under restoration and we were able to visit the work in progress. The original tiles are all being removed and replaced giving us a fine view both of the normally hidden linings and a preview of what promises to be a superbly restored finish.
Setting out under the river, the tunnel boasts frequent fine terracotta reliefs along the route. Most of these are of fish and other shellfish but others include a rather unexpected boot with rats around it! As we reached the south entrance shaft, we were delighted to hear that we had been granted permission to visit the machine room. Winding gear and drums for the six lifts (four vehicle and two passenger) lifts was in superb condition. We could see and appreciate the original centrifugal regulator braking mechanism.
After exiting the tunnel we had a short visit to the private museum on the south bank which had many original engineering drawings and artefacts. We had time to appreciate the view back across the river at Hamburg’s skyline before it was time to retrace our steps. The tunnel seemed familiar to some who had never visited Hamburg but this is probably because it featured in the Odessa File film of 1974.