February 2012:
Paddle Steamers on the Elbe

February 2012:
Paddle Steamers on the Elbe

With no less than nine paddle steamers, the Saechsische Dampfschiffahrt Company at Dresden owns and operates the largest and oldest paddle steamer fleet anywhere in the world. Here are four of them laid up for the winter and quietly slumbering at Dresden in late December 2012 with, from left to right, the Krippen of 1892, Diesbar of 1884, Leipzig of 1929 and the Meissen of 1885.

On the other side of the bridge are three more, again from left to right, the Pillnitz of 1886, Stadt Wehlen of 1879 and the Dresden of 1926.

The other two, the Kurort Rathen of 1896 and the Pirna of 1898, are on the slipway at the shipyard at Laubegast a few miles south of Dresden.

The youngest is the Leipzig of 1929 (on the right).

And the oldest is the Stadt Wehlen of 1879 pictured above providing a handy roost for passing seagulls.

An audience of two paddle steamer loving ducks inspect the Stadt Wehlen and her empty foredeck bereft of the usual summer seats which have been carefully stored away under cover for the winter. As this picture shows, the Dresden steamers use tiny pontoon piers held in position by the gangway from the shore and mooring wires.

Looking at them today lying peacefully at rest, it is hard to imagine just how much change these paddle steamers have seen in their long lives and how many different people from so many different eras and political ideologies have trodden their decks.

When built in 1879, the Stadt Wehlen, pictured here at Dresden in 1904, carried the citizens of the then only recently unified Germany of Otto von Bismark in their frock coats and pointy hats. A huge tourism expansion followed with the well off coming from everywhere to enjoy, and spend their money in, the delightful “Florence of the North”, as Dresden was described, before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 put a stop to that.

After that the sky high inflation and bankruptcy of the Weimar Republic dominated the nineteen twenties before Hitler’s National Socialists swept to power changing everything. This picture shows the Leipzig alongside at Bad Schandau on a happy and sunny afternoon in 1936 just two years before Kristallnacht, the horrifying pogrom which involved co-ordinated attacks on Jews throughout Germany, gave a chilling demonstration of what the future had in store.

Then came the Second World War with destruction on a massive scale everywhere, not least at Dresden itself which was pretty much wiped off the face of the earth by British and American bombing raids between 13th and 15th February 1945. One thousand three hundred bombers took part dropping 3,900 tons of high explosive onto the city and its surroundings producing a firestorm which destroyed fifteen square miles and everyone and everything in its path. The paddlers got it too as this 1946 picture of the Dresden shows.

When that war was over the Communists came to power and East Germany became part of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Bloc with “Uncle Joe’s” own labour camps and general brutality kept nicely air brushed behind advertising campaigns of which the banner on the newly rebuilt Dresden in this picture was a part. It reads “Stalin our best friend”

Then, forty years later in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, the Communists were out and a new era of international tourism dawned. These nine paddle steamers were all completely refurbished and off they went again with yet another set of customers.

So many different political systems. So many different regimes. So many different passengers. All on the same ships.

As we sit at home worrying about the EU, will it survive in its current form? Will the Euro have to go? Will some countries leave it? Will others join? The story of the Dresden paddle steamers is a good reminder of the transitory nature of politics. Leaders may come and leaders may go. Their views may one day be all the rage and thought to be the greatest panacea for everything that is good. Then the next those same views are seen as wholly wrong and a witches’ brew for everything that is bad. Here today, gone tomorrow. Gone tomorrow, here today.

But amidst this political maelstrom, one constant for more than a century has been these lovely paddle steamers which have calmly flapped their way up and down the Elbe between Bad Schandau and Seusslitz, and sometimes further afield, through all manner of different political systems and regimes, yet always remaining a cheerful force for good, giving pleasure to people and doing no harm to anybody.

Hurrah for that! And as a recipe for a happy life and the general spreading of that illusive goal of contentment, long may they continue to provide that same benign constant for good through all the inevitable buffeting and change of the next one hundred years.

And let us hope that that future has fewer political leaders than the twentieth century had of the sort who share the warped and ghastly logic of the self proclaimed philanthropist Mr Honeythunder in Charles Dickens’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” who boomed that the best way to avoid war and promote world peace was to get rid of everyone who disagreed with him!

If you would like to take a trip on one of the beautiful Dresden paddle steamers have a look at their website here.

Kingswear Castle returned to service in 2023 after the first part of a major rebuild which is designed to set her up for the next 25 years running on the River Dart. The Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle Trust is now fund raising for the second phase of the rebuild. You can read more about the rebuilds and how you can help if you can here.

John Megoran

John Megoran