History of shipping on the Alster

A short chronicle of over 150 years of shipping on the Alster.

Shipping on the Alster is just as much part of Hamburg as the harbour or the tower of St Michael’s. The tradition began in the times when the first passengers were ferried across on cargo boats. And hundreds of years ago, Hanseatic folk were already enjoying pleasure trips on "Alster barges" accompanied by lots of jolly music.


How it began

It was the poet Friedrich von Hagedorn (1708-1780) who spoke in praise of the grand lake at the heart of the city that was able to thaw out the famous cool reserve of the citizens of the Hansestadt: "The Alsters are finally learning to be sociable!" he commented.

As settlements sprang up around the Alster (around 1800), traffic developed further and was carried by rowing boats, which in 1854 prompted Gustav Adolph Droege, an insurance broker who originated from Bremen and ran his business from the Uhlenhorst pier, to set up a shipping line, but only after long discussion and inquiry by the Senate. Unfortunately, in 1857, his ship, a Rhine steamer, sprung a leak and sank while crossing from the Rhine to the Elbe.

The first transport association

Shipbuilder Johan Peter Parrau however was more successful. He made a fresh attempt by commissioning a small Alster steamboat to be built at the "Reiherstieg Shipbuilding Wharf and Boilermakers". On 15 June 1859, the completed ship, the "Alina", launched the first shipping line across the Alster to the Mühlenkamp and on to Winterhude. New ferry connections were then introduced between the Uhlenhorster Fährhaus and the Fährdamm Harvestehude piers.

There was even a Royal Barge built for Kaiser Wilhelm II in the form of Lohengrin’s Swan, which took him majestically over the Alster on 29th October 1888.


As early as 1890, the Alster steamer shipping line ran regular services from the Jungfernstieg pier through the Eilbekkanal via Richardstraße to Von-Essen-Straße and back again. By the turn of the century, 30 steamers worked the Alster.

By 1911, passenger numbers had risen to just short of 11 million and Alster ships were in their heyday. Then the prospects for the steamers changed during the years leading up to the First World War, with the introduction of "flush-deck" vessels with through sterns.

By 1917 and the First World War, the heyday was over due to the coal shortage and was never to return, following the development later on of local passenger transport such as the underground and tram systems, which reduced travelling times still further.

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Hochbahn takes over

At the end of the war, ownership of the Alster shipping line was transferred to the Hamburger Hochbahn AG company. In February 1935, the first of 10 new motor vessels was named with great ceremony and to great acclaim, however, with the start of the Second World War on 28th August 1939 the Alster shipping line was discontinued (except for the ferry between Harvestehude and Uhlenhorst).

“The Alster ships are a peace symbol,” declared Hamburg’s Premier Bürgermeister, Max Brauer, on 25th November 1946, and with his proclamation, the Alster shipping line was back working the piers. In the 50s, they carried around 3.4 million passengers, and the Alster Round Trips and the Lamplight Tours by night enjoyed huge popularity, as new additions "Eilenau" and "Seebek" were brought into the fleet. Nevertheless, its time as a public transport service was past.

Alster 50er

From the 70´s to the 90´s

As the shipping line posted increasing losses during the 70s, the owners, Hochbahn, concentrated on tourism traffic. With the establishment on 27th April 1977 of ATG Alster Tourism, the service schedule was re-designed to attract tourists. Canal and Fleet Channel Cruises, Twilight Tours, Vierlande Cruises and even chartering became increasingly more significant. However by 1983, the shipping line was carrying just 690,000 passengers and a deficit of 1.3 million Deutschmarks, and so on 7th February 1984 the Hamburg Senate took the decision to close the line down. The same route now runs as the Alster Cruise, with 9 piers served once an hour.

In 1984, the insurance group, Volksfürsorge, began to provide support, now replaced by the Generali Group. This secured the Alster ships, and in particular the Alster Cruise, for the City of Hamburg and its visitors. This exemplary support also ushered in a new era:

Goldbek aussen Goldbek innen

In 1987, the Goldbek was converted into an exclusive saloon boat and new builds and new designs of vessels soon followed with the Schleusenwärter (1990), Quarteerslüüd (1994), Alsterschipper (1998). And in 1995 a convertible cabriolet was constructed for the first time, followed by a second in 1996.

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2000 till today

In 2000, the largest solar catamaran of its time, the “Alstersonne”, was brought into service. With its distinctive design, the craft stands proudly out , not least because it uses electricity only for all loads.

In 2002, ATG Alster-Tourism celebrated its 25th anniversary with a major exhibition of the history of shipping on the Alster, a huge firework display on the Binnenalster and the publication of the book “The History of Shipping on the Alster”.

The “Fleetenkieker” [fleet peeper] followed in 2003 - another new build with a new flat design. 

The 20th anniversary of Volksfürsorge’s support for Alster Tourism in 2004 began with the departure of a spectacular flotilla, and it was during the anniversary celebrations that Volksfürsorge insurance group confirmed that their commitment would be extended up until and including 2007. The restoration of the listed vessel “Aue” was completed in the summer of 2004 and the ship was brought back into service.

With the support of Volksfürsorge, ALSTER TOURISM has secured this icon of Hamburg as a firm feature of the city.

Since 2005, the "Osterbek" Alster steamer has served as ambassador for Hamburg, plying the Mittellandkanal to the VW factory city of Wolfsburg. This service is provided by ATG, as owners of the vessel.

The redevelopment of the Jungfernstieg pier which began in Autumn 2005 was almost complete by the start of 2006. In the meantime, ATG itself has now moved into its new “Bastion” operations centre. Information posts have been installed and the pontoons which were hired as temporary moorings during the construction phase have now been removed. There has been a huge festival for the inauguration of the new Jungfernstieg in May 2006.

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