Timber rafts on the Rhine

Nijmegen, De Bastei. Replica timber raft. Photo: Eric Brouwer.

For centuries, timber rafts have been the most remarkable, but forgotten, means of transport on the Rhine. In the sixteenth century, this transport started slowly after it was decided in the Dutch province Holland that cities could only be built with stones. The demand for (long) piles to strengthen the fundaments of the houses in this delta was enormous. The Palace on Dam Square alone is built on more than 13,000 piles for example. The flourishing shipbuilding industry also needed wood. This wood (oak, beech, pine) was abundantly present in the Vosges, the Black Forest and other forest areas along the Rhine. Smaller rivers such as the Main and Neckar transported the felled trees downstream to Mainz and Mannheim on the Rhine, where the piles were tied together into huge rafts of up to 300 metres long and 60 metres wide. From Koblenz it then went to the end port of Dordrecht, where the raft was 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 on straw, 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 had to be put aside when one of the colossus’s came along. A small boat with a red-white flag sailed one hour ahead to warn, because the raft did 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 course also high, only in toll was an amount of about 40 000 – 60 000 guilders involved, in addition to purchase costs of wood, crew and forage. The last raft passed the Rhine in 1967 and consisted of only 2,500 piles pulled by tugboats. Four centuries of transport with rafts had come to an end.

A replica of these log rafts can be admired in the Bastei in Nijmegen, where an exhibition of the ‘Nijmegen Panorama View’ by Derk Anthony van de Wart (1747-1814) from 1808 can be seen until 1 September next. This view is the oldest still existing city panorama of a Dutch city and there is even a gigantic raft to be seen, although this raft was later added to the round view by another artist. This fact does not detract from its historical importance (source: K. Moerbeek, B. Gunterman, Het Nijmeegsch Rondgezicht. Een tentoonstelling over het oudste stadspanorama van Nederland, Nijmegen 2019).