On Friday 10th March 1911 Lake Lucerne’s latest paddle steamer Rhein ran trials on the lake.
At 44m LOA Rhein was a medium sized paddle steamer 20m shorter than the Wilhem Tell which had been commissioned three years earlier in 1908 and so was economical to operate on all the lake services throughout the year.
Take another look at the picture of her above and Rhein looks every inch a lake Lucerne paddle steamer. However she started her career elsewhere and looking very different as one of the “penny steamers” on the Thames in London in 1905.
Built as Ben Johnson by John Thornycroft at Chiswick she was one of a fleet of thirty shallow draught paddle steamers designed with a very low air draught to get under the bridges for a new river service launched in 1905 by the London County Council connecting piers along the Thames. The thinking behind it was to try to draw people off the roads and onto the water for their travel thereby relieving pressure on London’s by then bursting streets where congestion by horse drawn vehicles, and removing the prolific quantity of horse manure they produced, was becoming a real challenge for the authorities.
Unfortunately the service was not a success. It consistently lost money particularly in the winter and failed to draw the numbers that had been expected. A river bus style service is all well and good if it connects points along a river between which people wish to travel. But it is next to useless otherwise and in London many of the main features between which people do wish to travel are nowhere near the ribbon that is the passage of river. The winter service was reduced in 1907 and by 1909 the whole operation had been closed down with 21 of the remaining paddle steamers put up for sale by auction.
There was much interest in this sale with some of the steamers finding new careers elsewhere all over Europe. One even made it as far as Iraq.
Ben Johnson was bought for further service on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland and so was towed away from the Thames to Rotterdam by a Smit tug on 30th September 1909. She was then brought up the Rhine to Basel where she arrived at 4.30pm on 16th October. From there she was transported overland to Lucerne.
After conversion she was a great success on the lake where she she continued to operate, including during the Great War, for the next twenty eight years right up to 1939.
After the war she was rebuilt once again this time as a twin screw motor ship emerging in time for the 1949 season under the new name of Waldstatter. And it was as Waldstatter that she gave yet more service on the lake for the next forty six years up to 1995 when she was replaced by a new and larger motor ship which took not only her place but also her name.
So any who visited Switzerland up to 1995 and had a trip on Waldstatter will be able to claim that they had a trip on the London County Council’s pre First World War Penny Boat Ben Johnson albeit by then in much modified form.
This article was first published on 10th March 2021.