Rhine - Encyclopedia

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RHINE (Lat. Rhenus, Ger. Rhein, Fr. Rhin, Dutch Rhyn, or Rijn), the chief river of Germany and one of the most important in Europe. It is about 850 m. in length and drains an area of 75,000 sq. m. The distance in a direct line between its source in the Alps and its mouth in the German Ocean is 460 m. Its general course is north-north-west, but it makes numerous deflexions and at one point is found running in a diametrically opposite direction. The name Rhine, which is apparently of Celtic origin, is of uncertain etymology, the most favoured derivations being either from der Rinnende (the flowing), or from Rein (the clear), the latter being now the more generally accepted.

Table of contents

1. The Swiss Portion

The Rhine rises in the mountains of the Swiss canton of the Grisons, and flows for 233 m. in Swiss territory, within which its drainage basin includes about 14,059 sq. m., and every canton save Geneva. The two main branches of the Rhine, the Hinter Rhine and the Vorder Rhine, unite at Reichenau, 6 m. S.W. of Coire. (1) The principal stream is considered to be that of the Hinter Rhine, which issues (7271 ft.) from the glaciers of the Rheinwaldhorn group, and then flows first N.E. through the Rheinwald valley, and next N. through the Schams valley, which communicates by the well-known gorge of the Via Mala with the Tomleschg valley at Thusis, whence the stream continues its N. course to Reichenau; total length 351 m., total fall 3711 ft. It receives a number of mountain torrents during its course, the most important being that from the Avers glen, and the Albula, both on the right, which is itself formed by many mountain streams. (2) The Vorder Rhine rises in the small Toma lake (7691 ft.), S. of the Oberalp Pass, not far from the St. Gotthard Pass, and then flows N.E. past Disentis and Ilanz, which claims the honour of being the "first town on the Rhine," to Reichenau; total length 42 m., total fall 34922 ft. Its chief affluents are the stream dignified by the name of the Medels Rhine, that rises in the Cadlimo glen, W. of the Lukmanier Pass, and, after flowing through the Medels glen, joins the Vorder Rhine at Disentis, and the Glenner, flowing from the Lugnetz glen, both on the right. From Reichenau the united streams flow N.E. to Coire, the capital of the canton of the Grisons, and then turn towards the N., past Ragatz, the valley broadening out, and the river being joined on the right by the Landquart and the Ill, before it expands into the Lake of Constance. Extensive "corrections" of the river bed, especially the canal of Diepoldsau, have been carried out in the lower bit of this part of the valley, while from a little north of Ragatz the right bank belongs first to Liechtenstein and then to the Austrian province of the Vorarlberg. On issuing from the Lake of Constance at Constance, the Rhine flows nearly due west to Basel, where it leaves Swiss territory, the south bank during this portion of the river being entirely Swiss, save the town of Constance, but the north shore belongs to Baden, save in the case of the Swiss town of Stein-am-Rhein and the Swiss canton of Schaffhausen. The chief towns on its banks are Constance (S.), Schaffhausen (N.), Waldshut (N.), Laufenburg (S.), Sackingen (N.), Rheinfelden (S.), and Basel (both banks). About 12 m. below Schaffhausen the river forms the famous Falls of the Rhine, or Falls of Schaffhausen (60 ft. high), while at Coblenz, opposite Waldshut, it receives its chief affluent, the Aar, recently swollen by the Reuss and the Limmat, and of greater volume than the river in which it loses its identity. (W. A. B. C.)

2. The German and Dutch Portion

After Basel, when the Rhine turns to the north and enters Germany, its breadth is between 550 and 600 ft., while its surface now lies not more than Boo ft. above the sea, showing that the river has made a descent of 6900 ft. by the time it has traversed a third of its course. From Basel to Mainz the Rhine flows through a wide and shallow valley, bordered on the east and west by the parallel ranges of the Black Forest and the Vosges. Its banks are low and flat, and numerous islands occur. The tendency to divide into parallel branches has been curbed in the interests of navigation, and many windings have been cut off by leading the water into straight and regular channels. At Mannheim the river is nearly 1500 ft. in width, and at Mainz, where it is diverted to the west by the barrier of the Taunus, it is still wider. It follows the new direction for about 20 m., but at Bingen it again turns to the north and begins a completely new stage of its career, entering a narrow valley in which the enclosing rocky hills abut so closely on the river as often barely to leave room for the road and railway on either bank; during this portion of its course the speed of the current at a normal state of the water exceeds 6 m. an hour. This is the most beautiful part of the whole course of the river, abounding in ruined castles, romantic crags and sunny vineyards. At Coblenz the valley widens and the river is 1200 ft. broad, but the hills close in again at Andernach, and this ravine-like part of its course cannot be considered as ending till below the Siebengebirge (Seven Mountains), where the river once more expands to a width of1300-1600ft. Beyond Bonn and Cologne the banks are again flat and the valley wide, though the hills on the right bank do not completely disappear till the neighbourhood of Dusseldorf. Farther on the country traversed by the Rhine is perfectly level, and the current becomes more and more sluggish. On entering Holland, which it does below Emmerich, its course is again deflected to the west. Within Holland the banks are so low. as to require at places to be protected by embankments against inundations. Almost immediately after entering Holland the stream divides into two arms, the larger of which, carrying off about two-thirds of the water, diverges to the west, is called the Waal, and soon unites with the Maas. The smaller branch to the right retains the name of Rhine and sends off another arm, called the Yssel, to the Zuider Zee. The Rhine now pursues a westerly course almost parallel with that of the Waal. At Wijk another bifurcation takes place, the broad Lek diverging on the left to join the Maas, while the "Kromme Rijn" to the right is comparatively insignificant. Beyond Utrecht, where it is again diminished by the divergence of the Vecht to the Zuider Zee, the river under the name of the "Oude Rijn," or Old Rhine, degenerates into a sluggish and almost stagnant stream, which requires the artificial aid of a canal and of sluices in finding its way to the sea. In Roman times the Rhine at this part of its course seems to have been a full and flowing river, but by the 9th century it had lost itself in the sands of Katwijk, and it was not until the beginning of the 19th century that its way to the sea was re-opened. Though the name Rhine thus at last attaches to a very insignificant stream, the entire district between the Waal on one side and the Yssel on the other, the Insula Batavorum of Caesar, in reality belongs to the delta of the famous river.


The Rhine is said to receive, directly or indirectly, the waters of upwards of 12,000 tributaries of all sizes. Leaving out of account the innumerable glacier streams that swell its volume above the Lake of Constance, the most important affluents to its upper course are the Wutach, the Alb and the Wiese, descending on the right from the Black Forest, and the Aar, draining several Swiss cantons on the left. In the upper Rhenish basin, between Basel and Mainz, the tributaries, though numerous, are mostly short and unimportant. The Ill and the Nahe on the left and the Neckar and the Main on the right are, however, notable exceptions. Before joining the Rhine the Ill runs almost parallel with it and at no great distance for upwards of 50 m. In the narrow part of the valley, between Bingen and Cologne, the Rhine receives the waters of the Lahn and the Sieg on the right, and those of the Mosel, bringing with it the Saar, and the Ahr on the left. Still lower down, but before the Dutch frontier is reached, come the Ruhr and the Lippe on the right, and the Erft on the left. The numerous arms into which the Rhine branches in Holland have already been noticed.

Physical Geography

The Rhine connects the highest Alps with the mud banks of Holland, and touches in its course the most varied geological periods; but the river valley itself is, geologically speaking, of comparatively recent formation. Rising amid the ancient gneiss rocks of the St Gotthard, the Rhine finds its way down to the Lake of Constance between layers of Triassic and Jurassic formation; and between that lake and Basel it penetrates the chalk barrier of the Jura. The upper Rhenish valley is evidently the bed of an ancient lake, the shores of which were formed by the gneiss and granite of the Black Forest on the one side and the granite and sandstone of the Vosges on the other. Within the valley all the alluvial deposits are recent. Between Bingen and Bonn the Rhine forces its way through a hilly and rocky district belonging to the Devonian formation. The contorted strata of slate and greywacke rock must have been formed at a period vastly anterior to that in which the lake of the upper valley managed to force an outlet through the enclosing barriers. Probably this section may be looked upon as the oldest portion of the river course proper, connecting the upper Rhenish lake with the primeval ocean at Bonn. In this district, too, as has already been remarked, is the finest scenery of the Rhine, a fact due in great part to the grotesque shapes of the quartzose rocks, left denuded of the less durable slate and sandstone. All the strata intersected by the Rhine between Bingen and Bonn contain fossils of the same classes. The deposits of the actual valley here, belonging to the Miocene group of the Tertiary system, are older than the deposits either farther up or farther down the river; but they are contemporaneous with the basalts of the Rhine, which at Coblenz and in the peaks of the Seven Mountains also contribute to the scenic charm of the river. The very extensive pumice deposits at Neuwied and the lava and other volcanic rocks belong to a more recent epoch. Below Bingen the formations belong almost entirely to the PostTertiary period. Numerous extinct volcanoes rise near Neuwied. In the flatter parts of the valley occur large beds of loam and rubble, sometimes in terraces parallel with, but several hundred feet above, the river, proving by their disposition and appearance that the valley has been formed by the action of water.


The Rhine has been one of the chief waterways of Europe from the earliest times; and, as its channel is not exposed to the danger of silting up like those of the Elbe and the Oder, it has always been comparatively easy to keep it open. The Romans exerted themselves to improve the lower navigation of the river, and appointed prefects of the Rhine to superintend the shipping and to exact the moderate dues imposed to keep the channel in repair. The Franks continued the same policy and retained a system of river-dues. Afterwards, as the banks became parcelled out among a host of petty princelings, each of whom arrogated the right of laying a tax on passing vessels, the imposts became so prejudicial as seriously to hamper the development of the shipping. Many of the riparian potentates derived the bulk of their revenue from this source, and it is calculated that in the 18th century the Rhine yielded a total revenue of X200,000, in spite of the comparatively insignificant amount of the shipping. The first proposal for a free Rhine was mooted by the French at the congress of Rastatt (1797-1799), but Holland, commanding the mouth of the river, placed every obstacle in the way of the suggestion. In T831, on the separation of Holland and Belgium, the former had become more amenable to reason; and a system was agreed upon which practically gave free navigation to the vessels of the riverine states, while imposing a moderate tariff upon foreign ships. After the war of 1866, Prussia negotiated with Baden, Bavaria and Hesse-Darmstadt with a view to the removal of all tolls. It was not, however, till 1868 (see Die Rhein-SchiJ aarts Akte vom 17ten Okt., 1868) that the last vestige of a toll disappeared and the river was thrown open without any restriction. The management of the channel and navigation is now vested in a central commission, meeting at Mannheim on the 1st of July in each year. The channel has been greatly improved and in many places made more direct since the beginning of the 19th century, large sums being annually spent in keeping it in order. Capacious river harbours have been formed at various points, twenty-nine of these being in Germany and eight in Holland. The position of the river is highly f vourable for the development of its trade. It flows through the populous regions of the continent of Europe, to discharge into one 01 the most frequented seas opposite Great Britain, and, besides serving as a natural outlet for Germany, Belgium and Holland, is connected with a great part of central and southern France by the Rhine-Rhone and the Rhine-Marne canals, and with the basin of the Danube by the Ludwigs-Canal.

The introduction of steam has greatly increased the shipping on the Rhine; and small steamers ply also on the Main, the Neckar, the Maas and the Mosel. The first Rhine steamer was launched in 1817; and now the river is regularly traversed by upwards of a hundred, from the small tug up to the passenger saloon-steamer. The steamboat traffic has especially encouraged the ihflux of tourists, and the number of passing travellers may now be reckoned as between one and two millions annually. The river is navigable without interruption from Basel to its mouth, a distance of 550 miles, of which 450 lie within Germany. Above Spires, however, the river craft are comparatively small, but lower down vessels of 500 and 600 tons burden find no difficulty in plying. Between Basel and Strassburg the depth of water is sometimes not more than 3 ft.; between Strassburg and Mainz it varies from 5 to 25 ft.; while below Mainz it is never less than 9 or To ft. The deepest point is opposite the Lorelei (Lurlei) Rock near St Goar, where it is 75 ft. in depth; at Dusseldorf the depth is about 50 ft.

London, Hamburg, Bremen and the chief Baltic ports as far as Riga and St Petersburg participate in the traffic on the Rhine. The boats which ply up and down the river itself, without venturing upon the open sea, are mostly craft of Too to 200 tons, owned in the great majority of cases by their captains, men principally of German or Dutch nationality. This fleet is computed to number some 8500 craft, with an aggregate capacity of over 2 million tons, of which about one-tenth are steamships. The traffic at the chief German ports of the river aggregated 4,489,000 tons in 1870, but by 1900 this had grown to a total of 17,000,000 tons, thus distributed: Ruhrort, 6,512,000 tons; Duisburg, 3,000,000 tons; Cologne, 1,422,000 tons; and Mannheim, 6,021,000 tons. These are not the only ports on the river; a large trade is also done at Kehl, Maxau (for Karlsruhe), Ludwigshafen, Mainz, Bonn, Rotterdam and a host of smaller places. The amount of traffic which passed the town of Emmerich near the Dutch frontier, both ways, increased from an annual average of about 6 million tons in 1881-85 to over 214 million tons in 1899. Notwithstanding the inherent difficulties of construction caused by the great variations in the level of the stream, amounting sometimes to 20 ft. or more, the chief ports of the Rhine are admirably constructed, and well equipped with modern contrivances for loading and unloading vessels. Boats carrying as much as 600 tons are often able to proceed as far up stream as Strassburg, and smaller craft get as far as Huningen, a little above Basel. Large passenger boats ply regularly between Mainz and Dusseldorf, and sometimes extend their journeys as high up as Mannheim, and as far in the other direction as Rotterdam. The efforts of the river authorities are being directed to the deepening and improvement of the navigable channel from the sea to Strassburg, the low-water depths aimed at being TO ft. from Rotterdam to the German frontier, and To ft. thence to Cologne; 8 ft. 3 in. from Cologne to St Goar, and 6 ft. 6 in. from St Goar to Mannheim. At present the Rhine in Holland has a depth of about 9 ft. and a width of 1200 to 1300 ft., though the Merwede branch exceeds this depth by 8 in. Altogether a sum approaching 2,500,000 was spent in Holland within the latter part of the 19th century on the improvement of the Rhine and its principal arteries. Above Mannheim the depth of the stream is always less than 5 ft., and generally varies between that figure and 4 ft. 6 in. The difficulty of ascending the rapids near Bingen is usually surmounted by the help of steam hauling machinery placed on the bank, though powerful tugs have also come into use for this purpose. The work of blasting out the rocks which at that spot projected in the bed of the river, begun in 1830, was continued down to the year 1887, so that now there are two navigable channels of sufficient depth for all vessels which ply up and down that part of the stream. One of the most interesting features of the Rhine navigation is afforded by the huge rafts of timber that are floated down the river. Single tree trunks sent down to the Rhine by the various tributaries are united into small rafts as they reach the main stream; and these again are fastened together to form one large raft about Andernach. Though not so large as formerly, these timber rafts are still sometimes 400 or 500 ft. in length, and are navigated by 200 to 400 men, who live in little huts on the raft, forming actual floating villages. On reaching Dort the rafts are broken up and sold, a single raft sometimes producing as much as £30,000. The voyage from Bingen to Dort takes from one to six weeks, and the huge unwieldy structures require to be navigated with great care. The commerce carried on by the river itself is supplemented by the numerous railways, which skirt its banks and converge to its principal towns. Before the introduction of railways there were no permanent bridges across the Rhine below Basel; but now trains cross it at about a dozen different points in Germany and Holland.


Politically the Rhine has always played a great part. The whole valley seems to have been originally occupied by Celtic tribes, who have left traces of their presence on the contents of tombs and in the forms of names (Moguntiacum or Mainz, Borbetomagus or Worms); but at the beginning of the historical period we find the Celts everywhere in retreat before the advancing Teutons. Probably the Teutonic pressure began as early as the 4th century before Christ, and the history of the next few hundred years may be summed up as the gradual substitution of a Germanic for a Celtic population along the banks of the Rhine. Its second historical period begins with the advent of the Romans, who stemmed the advancing Teutonic tide. Augustus and his successors took good care to fortify the Rhine carefully, and a large proportion of the Roman legions were constantly in garrison here. For two hundred years the Rhine formed the boundary between the Roman empire and the Teutonic hordes; and during that period the left or Roman bank made prodigious strides in civilization and culture. The wonderful Roman remains at Trier and elsewhere, the Roman roads, bridges and aqueducts, are convincing proofs of what the Rhine gained from Roman domination. This Roman civilization was, however, destined to be swamped by the current of Teutonic immigration, which finally broke down the barriers of the Roman empire and overwhelmed the whole of the Rhenish district. Under Charlemagne, whose principal residence was in Aix-la-Chapelle, the culture of the Rhine valley again began to flourish, its results being still to be traced in the important architectural remains of this period. At the partition of the domains of Charlemagne in A.D. 843 the Rhine formed the boundary between Germany and the middle kingdom of Lotharingia; but by 870 it lay wholly within the former realm. For nearly eight hundred years it continued in this position, the frontier of the German empire coinciding more or less with the line of the Rhone. During the early middle ages the bank of the Rhine formed the most cultured part of Germany, basing its civilization on its Roman past. The Thirty Years' War exercised a most prejudicial effect upon the district of the Rhine; and the peace of Westphalia gave France a footing on the left bank of the hitherto exclusively German river by the acquisition of Alsace. The violent seizure of Strassburg by France in 1681 was ratified by the peace of Ryswick in 1697, which recognized the Rhine as the boundary between Germany and France from Basel to about Germersheim. It was an easy inference for the French mind that the Rhine should be the boundary throughout and the Gaul of Caesar restored. This ideal was realized in 1801, when the whole of the left hank of the Rhine was formally ceded to France. The congress of Vienna (1815) restored the lower part of the Rhenish valley to Germany, but it was not till the war of 1870-71 that the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine made the Rhine once more "Germany's river, not Germany's frontier." In the military history of all these centuries constant allusion is made to the Rhine, its passages and its fortresses. Every general who has fought in its neighbourhood has at one time or another had to provide for a crossing of the Rhine, from Julius Caesar, who crossed it twice, down to our own time. The wars carried on here by Louis XIV. are still remembered in the Rhine district, where the devastations of his generals were of the most appalling description; and scarcely a village or town but has a tale to tell of the murder and rapine of this period.

The Rhine in Literature

The Rhine has always exercised a peculiar sort of fascination over the German mind, in a measure and in a manner not easily paralleled by the case of any other river. "Father Rhine" is the centre of the German's patriotism and the symbol of his country. In his literature it has played a prominent part from the Nibelungenlied to the present day; and its weird and romantic legends have been alternately the awe and the delight of his childhood. The Rhine was the classic river of the middle ages; and probably the Tiber alone is of equal historical interest among European rivers. But of late years the beauties of the Rhine have become sadly marred; the banks in places, especially between Coblenz and Bonn, disfigured by quarrying, the air made dense with the smoke of cement factories and steam-tugs, commanding spots falling a prey to the speculative builder and villages growing into towns.

See Daniel, Deutschland: Beyerhaus, Der Rhein von Strassburg bis zur hollandischen Grenze (Coblenz, 1902); Mohr, Die Flosserei auf dem Rhein (Mannheim, 1897); C. Eckert, Rheinschiffahrt z9ten Jahrhundert; Horn, Der Rhein, Geschichte and Sagen seiner Burgen (Stuttgart, 1893); Treutlein, Die neueren Deutschen Rheinstromstudien and ihre Ergebnisse (in Ausland, 1893); A. Chambalu, Die Stromveranderungen des Niederrheins seit der vorrOmischen Zeit (Cologne, 1892), and handbooks of Baedeker, Meyer and Woerl.

(J. F. M.; P. A. A.).

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