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German North Sea Coast and Islands : Hamburg / River Elbe based operators

Above : COBRA at Helgoland in a Reinicke & Rubin postcard, courtesy of the Istvan Radi collection

Steam navigation on the River Elbe began in 1816 between Hamburg and the newly developing coastal resort of Cuxhaven with PS Lady of the Lake, operated by Scottish concessionaire Paul Kincaid. The Scottish-built paddle steamer was two years old and 21.43 metres long. The service, originally given a four-year operating licence, survived only until June of 1817, when the ship returned to Scotland. 

With longer-distance steamship operation put into temporary abeyance, an unusual paddler with a central wheel did make a success of the short river crossing between Hamburg and Harburg. Local operator Peter Kleudgen ran the locally-built De Smeuker between 1818 and 1829, replacing her with Neptun which operated until 1841.

In thre meantime, paddle steamers were making inroads into deep-sea services from Hamburg to England and to the Netherlands but operated by British and Dutch companies respectively. The North Sea island of Helgoland was, at this time, a possesion of the United Kingdom (1807-1890) and was developing as a resort and many services called there en-route. The Dutch operators, the Amsterdamsche Stoomboot Maatschapij, saw the opportunity of profit on a dedicated Hamburg to Helgoland service for tourists and in 1829 placed the newly-built  De Beurs van Amsterdam on the route. The Dutch ship left the route in 1835 following the success of the Scottish-built Elbe operated by Hamburg-based JC Godeffroy. So successful was Elbe that a second ship, Patriot, followed in 1836. The first iron-hulled steamer was the Greenock-built  Helgoland of 1854, which brought new levels of speed and comfort to the Helgoland route.

A number of local operators, for example a company based in Stade provided links to the smaller communities on the Elbe Estuary. The merger of two such companies in 1853 formed the Stade-Altlaender Dampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft which proved to be one of the longer-lasting operators in the area.

The Hamburg-Amerikanischen Packetfahrt company, later generally known as HAPAG, which grew to international prominence maintained a sideline of excursion ferries from their home port : an involvement which was probably sustained because of the particular interst shown by its managing director, Albert Ballin. As a result, the HAPAG was the most prominent company serving the Helgoland and Sylt trade. Their 94 m long 2163 Gross Ton turbine steamer Koningin Luise of 1913 would be a game-changer on the Helgoland route, but within a little over a year and having spent a short time in the winter sailing out of Genoa in Italy, war was declared and she was enlisted for naval service as a minelayer. She was sunk by enemy fire off the Thames estuary on her first sortie   

After the interlude of World War I and the loss of many vessels and severe damage to port facilities, a slow recovery was made but currency reform in 1923 improved matters.
The Hamburg-Stade-Altlaender Line bought two large, but older, paddle steamers in 1924 (HAPAG's Willkommen and from the KD company on the river Rhein, the Rhein which became Cuxhaven and Hamburg). The company was taken over in 1929 by the Hafen-Dampfschiffahrsts-AG (HADAG), established in 1888 to provide ferry services and, later, sightseeing cruises around Hamburg's extensive docks and always with an eye on extending their presence beyond the city.  
he Hamburg-Blankenese-Este Line bought the Hansa and Lessing when the prospect of getting a share of traffic to Cuxhaven seemed attractive. Both these ships, bought second-hand after service in the eastern Baltic Sea, remained on local service from Hamburg to Cranz as the longer distance business proved too competitive.

It was HAPAG which took things to new heights with a number of new vessels for the Helgoland run whose size dwarfed those of the pre-war period and included turbine and motor power. Their last paddle steamer, Willkommen, was disposed of in 1924. Their largest ever steamer for the coastal service was introduced in 1939, but the outbreak of World War II followed almost immediately and the country was on a war footing once more. None of the three modern mini-liners of the HAPAG fleet would survive the war or in the case of its largest-ever ship, the 1939-built 113 m long and 2947 GT turbine steamer Helgoland, its immediate aftermath

Two paddle steamers continued in operation after World War II :  the local paddlers Hansa and Lessing and were to be real veterans when they were finally retired from service  in 1962 and 1963 respectively. following the takeover of the company by HADAG and the integration of a cross-river ferry service from Cranz to Blankenese into their schedules.

In 2020 there is an intensive passenger ferry fervice to Helgoland from Cuxhaven and from Bremerhaven as well as to Sylt and a network of inter-resort routes. HAPAG and NDL are no longer in the market. The principal operators are the Reederei Cassen Eils, Adler-Schiffe, Adler & Eils, and the Helgoline, the latter using catamaran fast ferries.  HADAG remains a major ferry and local sighteseeing cruise operator in the Hamburg port area and having been city-owned since 1918, its services are integrated into the local public transport network. 

The historical paddle steamer Kaiser Wilhelm, based up river at Lauenburg and owned and operated by volunteers as a museum ship, makes occasional visits to Hamburg, as does the commericlly-operated paddler Freya which operates mainly on the Kiel Canal. The historic screw steamship Schaarhorn (1908) is based at Hamburg and operated by volunteers. It now offers passenger cruises but was first built as a river survey ship for the city authorities.

Two notable names  came to prominence in the trade linking Hamburg and Helgoland : Godeffroy and Ballin.

JC Godeffroy & Sohn was a long-established family concern and a major player in worldwide trading with numerous ships.  The "JC" who established a paddle steamer operation on the Elbe was Johann Cesar VI (1813-1885) who was responsible for introducing paddle steamers on the Helgoland route soon after joining the company and before driving its growth internationally, particularly after taking full charge after the death of his father ten years later. Known as the Hamburger- Dampfschiffs-Compagnie the local service proved not to be profitable, but he continued with it as a personal project as the Hamburger- Elbe- Dampfschiffs-Compagnie from 1843.

JC Godeffroy :  Hamburger- Dampfschiffs-Compagnie   /   Hamburger- Elbe- Dampfschiffs-Compagnie

Elbe  (1834-1863)
Patriot  (1836-1854)
Henriette  (1838-1867)
Helgoland   (1854-1863)
Patriot  (1858-1867)

The internationally-operating Hamburg-America line (HAPAG) entered the business in earnest in 1866 but withdrew in 1875. Meanwhile, Albert Ballin (1857-1918) who had taken up employment with HAPAG in 1886 following the success of his agency business arranging emigrant passages and cargoes to the USA, entered the market in 1889 on his own account. HAPAG returned to the Helgoland trade in 1899 when Ballin was appointed Managing Director and the Ballin operation was absorbed into the larger concern in 1904. Ballin himself was one of the most important figures in world shipping

Hamburg-Amerikanischen Packetfahrt (HAPAG)

(1862-1865). Built in 1848 for use in Denmark, she was primarily used as a tender at Hamburg but operated trips to the beach resorts in 1863

Cuxhaven (1866-1884)
Helgoland (1870-1912)  Built in 1866. Renamed Blankenese in 1872
Helgoland (1872-1879) 
Willkommen (1899-1924) built in 1895 and later sold for further service
Westerland (1912)

ex-Ballin paddle steamers

Cobra (1904-1919 and 1920-1921)
Prinzessin Heinrich (1904-1920)

Ballin's Dampfschiff-Rheederei-Gesellschaft (Nordsee Linie from 1897-1904)  

Freia (1889-1896) 
Ariadne (1890-1895)
Prinzessin Heinrich
Prins Hendrik - sailed on charter in 1895-1896

Prinses Marie  - sailed on charter in 1896-1898

Above : Prinzessin Heinrich of 1896 was built for Albert Ballin's steamship company and was the last new-build paddle steamer for the Helgoland trade out of Hamburg and the Elbe estuary, surviving until 1920 sailing for the HAPAG line after its takeover of Ballin's business in 1904. She was a very close contemporary of and closely-matched to Willkommen, bought in 1899 by the then-competitors HAPAG from a British operator.  The Norddeutsche-Lloyd company operating out of the River Weser at Bremen were to outclass both on the Helgoland route with their new Nixe of 1899
Prinzessin Heinrich is seen in a postcard view in the public domain

Other Elbe estuary paddle steamers

Elbe-based operators are show in bold in the vessel histories below

Lady of the Lake

Built in 1814 by John Gray of Kincardine, Scotland
Dimensions : 21.43 x 4.94 m
Sailed on the lower Elbe in 1816 and early summer 1817 for Peter Kincaid before returning to Scotland, sailing on the east coast until 1843

De Smeuker

Built in 1818 by Stamann of Hamburg
Dimensions : 30 x 8 m
Central paddle wheel
Sailed for Peter Kleudgen on the short river crossing from Hamburg to Harburg from 1818 to 1829

De Beurs van Amsterdam

Built in 1829 
Dimensions : 33.5 m
Sailed between Hamburg, Cuxhaven and Helgoland for the Amsterdamsche Stoomboot Maatschappij from 1829 until 1835


Built in 1829 by J Lange at Vegesack on the River Weser
Dimensions : 33 x 5.2 m
Sailed for Peter Kleudgen on the short river crossing from Hamburg to Harburg from 1829 to 1841

Kronprinz von Hannover

Built in 1839 by Johann Beenck at Altona
Dimensions : 42 x 6.62 m
Sailed for Harburger Schiffer consortium of local captains and merchants until destroyed by fire on 8th August 1844

Itzehoe (later Die Stoer and Primus)

Built in 1839 by Caird & Co. in Greenock, Scotland
Dimensions : 34.4 m
Sailed on the River Elbe for the Itzehoer/Hamburger Dampfschiffahrstsgesellschaft as Itzehoe
Renamed Die Stoer and from 1841 Primus when operating the Hamburg-Harburg ferry
Sailed out of Buxtehude on the Elbe tributary river the Este from 1853 for the company which later became the Hamburg-Blankenese-Este Line
Tragedy struck in 1902 with the deaths of 103 passengers following a collision with the tug Hansa
Repaired, she sailed as Buxtehude for operators Suhr & Rusch from 1903 to 1910


Built in 1839 by Stephen Wood at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England
Dimensions : 32.2 x 4.06 m
Originally named Daylight, she came to the Elbe in 1840 to sail for the Glueckstaedter Dampfschiffsgesellschaft
She sailed between Altona and Husum under the Danish flag, representing the political situation a tthe time
In 1848 the ship was taken over by the Danish navy at the outbreak of the First Schleswig war and renamed Flensburg
In 1852 she was bought by C Karberg, an owner in Sonderborg in undisputed Danish territory


Built in 1840 by J Lange at Vegesack on the River Weser
Dimensions : 30.78 x 4.57 m
Initially operated by her builders on the Weser, she was sold later in 1840 to the Stader Dampfschiffsgesellschaft
Remained in service until 1873

Gutenberg II

Built in 1841 by J Lange at Vegesack on the River Weser
Dimensions : 32.4 x 4.9 m
Initially operated by her builders on the Wese, she was sold in 1844 to the  Stader Dampfschiffsgesellschaft
Withdrawn in 1872 and sold for further use on the River Ems out of Papenburg

Phoenix (I)

Built in 1841 by Gleichmann & Busse at Hamburg
Dimensions : 41.49 x 5.74 m
Initially operated by the builders on the Hamburg-Harburg ferry as successors to Peter Kleudgen, as the contract for the ship had been cancelled
Sold to HAPAG in 1869 and converted to a lighter and thus not in passenger service

Concordia (I)

Built in 1848 by J Lange at Vegesack on the River Weser
Dimensions : 40.6 x 5 m
Built for the newly-established operator Altlaender Dampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft, based at Twielenfleth and sailing between Hamburg and Brunshausen
Sailed for the merged Stade-Altlaender
Dampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft after 1853
Withdrawn in 1869 and sold for use in Russia

Grasbrook Faehre

Built in 1860 
Operated as a train ferry at Hamburg


Built in 1843 in England
Dimensions : 46 x 6.4 m
Operated in Danish waters between Flensburg, Copenhagen and Aarhus as Konigin Caroline Amalie
Served the Danish Navy between 1848 and 1851 before being released to J Danielsen at Flensburg
In 1856 she was sold to HH Roller, based at Rendsburg, serving until 1862 when she was bought by HAPAG for use as a tender renamed Groden
Occasionally used on trips to Helgoland.
Converted to a lighter and renamed Sudwest in 1866. Scrapped in 1877


Built in 1845 by Smith & Rodger in Glasgow, Scotland
Dimensions : 50.44 x 6.47 m
Operated a service across the North Sea from Leith (Scotland) and Hull (England) to Hamburg as Britannia
Sold in 1863 to Hamburg-based Ruebcke & Woellner for a service from Hamburg to Helgoland and renamed Helgoland
From 1865 to 1870 she sailed for British interests based in Helgoland


Built in 1864 by Caird & Co in Greenock, Scotland
Dimensions : 67.6 x 6.8 m
Built as Herald for blockade running for the Confederate States in the American Civil War but not delivered
Sold to local interests in Glasgow and renamed Hattie
Sold to HAPAG in 1866 for their Helgoland service and renamed Cuxhaven
Sold in 1884 to Cuxhaven-Unterelb'sche Eisenbahn Gesellschaft, who used her to connect their railway at Cuxhaven with Helgoland
Sold in 1890 to Ballin, but assigned to Ballin & Breunlich's Baltic Sea service between Stettin and Zinnowitz
Struck a reef off Zinnowitz on 24th July 1891 and was stranded with the loss of three lives

Union (later Elbe)

Built in 1866 by Janssen & Schmilinski at Hamburg
Dimensions : 28.96 m
Built as Union for local services in the Hamburg area for the Altenwerder Dampfschiffsgesellschaft
From 1892 she provided the short link to Finkenwerder for local operators
In 1905 she was taken over by HADAG and renamed Elbe, but in 1907 was sold for service on the Muggelsee in Berlin


Built in 1869 by Tischbein in Rostock
Dimensions : 40.4 m
Built for the Stade-Atlaender Dampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft

The ship was involved in several accidents including a collision in 1895 which resulted in 20 deaths
She survived until 1929, being scrapped soon after her operators were taken over by HADAG


Built in 1873 by Reihersteig at Hamburg
Dimensions : 44.25 m
Built for the Stade-Atlaender Dampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft
She survived until 1929, being scrapped soon after her operators were taken over by HADAG


Built in 1873 by R. Napier & Sons at Glasgow, UK
Dimensions : 68.3 m
Sailed for the Adler-Line of Hamburg from 1875 until taken over by HAPAG in 1877 after which she was laid-up
She was sold to the General Steam Navigation Company for use on the River Thames in 1879 and sailed until scrapped in 1897.

Gutenberg (III)

Built in 1876 by Tischnein at Rostock
Dimensions : 40 m
Built for the Stade-Atlaender Dampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft 
Withdrawn in 1924


Built in 1877 by Reihersteig Schiffswerft at Hamburg
Dimensions : 40.96 x 5.78 metres
Built for the Hamburg shipowners Wachsmuth & Krogemann and on the short ferry route from Hamburg to Harburg from 1878-1895
Sold to Franz Rathje of Warnemunde in 1895 and operated on the Baltic Sea as Fuerst Blucher
A series of quick changes of ownership led her to come into the hands of captain Ewald Moller in 1901 until sold in 1924


Built in 1879 by Blohm & Voss at Hamburg
Dimensions : 40.96 x 5.78 metres
Built for the Stade-Atlaender Dampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft
She survived until 1929, being withdrawn soon after her operators were taken over by HADAG


Launched on May 20th 1885 by Blohm & Voss at Hamburg
Dimensions : 71.9 x 8.1 metres
683 GRT
Operated by her builders, Blohm & Voss from Hamburg to Helgoland with occasional extensions to Wyk (on the island Foehr) after her originl specifiers cancelled their order.
After her first season she was transferred to the Ostend - Dover ferry route and spent subsequent winteres on the Riviera.
She returned to her Helgoland service each summer
Purchased in 1889 by the Ballin Shipping Company for their services to Helgoland
Sold to JF Braunlich of Stettin in 1896, she was substantialy altered, being increased to 858 GRT
Sailed from Stettin to the coastal and the island of Rugen and also on the sea crossing to Trelleborg in Sweden
Scrapped in 1929.



Kaiser Wilhelm II  (later Hamburg III)

Delphin (IV)

Prinzessin Elisabeth


Prins Hendrik

Hamburg-Stade-Altlaender Linie (1907-1919)
Built in 1887 by J Scott at Kinghorn, Fife as Halcyon for service on the Thames
Engines : Double diagonal
Dimensions : 209.2 ft x 26.2 ft
458 Gross Registered Tons


Hamburg (ex - Rhein)

Built in 1888 by L Smith & Zoon at Kinderdijk, Netherlands
Dimensions : 67 x 7.1 m
Built for service on the Rhine as Rhein until bought in 1924 by the Hamburg-Stade-Altlander-Linie
Given the name  Hamburg, reflecting her being used mostly on the lower River Elbe around this city.
With her owners business, she passed to the Hafen-Dampfschiffahrt AG (HADAG)  in 1929
Sold in 1939 to owners at Stettin on the Baltic Sea, she returned to Hamburg in 1940 and went soon afterwards to the River Oder.
Spent World War II as an accommodation vessel, returning to Hamburg in poor condition in 1948
Sold for scrapping at the end of 1954


Built in 1890
Length : 52 m
Built as Friesland for C. Bosman Shipping Co at Enkhuizen. NL
Bought in 1924 by the Hamburg-Stade-Altlander-Linie


Built in 1905 by Thames Iron Works
Engines : Compound Diagonal by builders
Length : 130 feet
120 Gross Registered Tons
Served London County Council's River Thames service from Greenwich to Hammersmith from 1905-1907 as King Alfred
Sold for service at Memel, Germany for Memel-Cranzer Dampfschiffsgesellschaft, through a London broker, and renamed Memel
Understood to have sailed for the Gebruder Bieber at Memel from 1920
Under the name Hansa, sailed on the Elbe estuary from Hamburg for the Hamburg-Blankensee-Este Line
Modernised with the construction of deckhouses etc, she survived until 1962 and was scrapped in 1965


Built in 1911 by Werft Fechter at Koenigsberg (now Kaliningrad)
Length 42.6 m
Built for the Tilsiter Dampfer Verein for service on the River Memel as Konigin Luise
Bought in 1925 by the Hamburg-Blankensese-Este Line and brought to Hamburg
Renamed Lessing in 1929
Taken over by HADAG in 1963 and scrapped in 1964

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Bremen / River Weser based operators
Emden / River Ems, Borkum & Norderney based operators
Island based operators - Sylt and Fohr

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Historical Database