1902 Encyclopedia > Rhine


RHINE (Lat. Rhenus, Germ. Rhein, Fr. Rhin, Dutch Rhijn), the chief river of Germany and one of the most important in Europe, is about 800 miles in length and drains an area of 75,000 square miles. The distance in a direct line between its source in the Alps and its mouth in the German ocean is 460 miles. Its general course is north-north-west, but it makes numerous deflexions and at one point is found running in a diametrically opposite direction. About 250 miles of its length are in Switzer-land, 450 in Germany, and 100 in Holland; but the German half is in every respect so much the more import-ant that it is no misnomer to call the Rhine a German river, even if the word German be confined to its modern political signification. The name Rhine, which is apparently of Celtic origin, is of uncertain import, but has been supposed to mean "flowing" or "clear." The sources of the Rhine are found in the Swiss canton of Grisons, where the drainage of at least 150 glaciers unites to form its headwaters. Among these streams, all of which are termed Rhin in the Ladine dialect of the district, two are generally recognized as the main sources of the river, viz., the Yorder Rhein and the Hinter Rhein. The chief feeder of the former rises in the small Lake of Toma, situated on the south-east slope of the St Gotthard, at a height of 7690 feet above the sea and at no great distance from the source of the Rhone, which rises on the west side of the same mountain mass. It first flows to the east, receiving the waters of the Medelser Rhein and several other glacier streams, and after a course of about 45 miles unites with the Hinter Rhein at Reichenau. As far as Ilanz the Vorder Rhein is simply a mountain torrent, descending 1200 feet in the first 12 miles of its course. At Disentis, where it is joined by the Medelser Rhein, it is 15 feet wide, and at Ilanz it is about thrice as large. The Hinter Rhein has its cradle in the Rheinwald glacier, near the St Bernardino Pass, 7270 feet above the sea and 40 miles south of Reichenau. The Vorder Rhein con-tributes the greater volume of water to the joint stream, but the Hinter Rhein belongs to a more developed system.

Beyond Reichenau the united stream, 150 feet in width, bears the name of Rhine without any qualifying epithet. It is now navigable for rafts, and small boats begin to be seen a little further on, at Coire, where it turns to the north. On reaching the Lake of Constance the Rhine deposits the debris that it has brought down from its mountain sources, and the stream that emerges from the west end of the Untersee is of a clear deep green colour. Between the Lake of Constance and Basel the Rhine flows towards the west and practically forms the boundary be-tween Germany and Switzerland, At Schaffhausen, in penetrating the barrier of the Jura, it forms the imposing falls of the Rhine, where it is precipitated over a ledge of rock in three leaps 50 or 60 feet in height. Near Lauter-burg, where the river encounters the gneiss of the Black Forest, is a series of formidable cataracts, and about 15 miles lower down are the rapids of Rheinfelden. At Basel, which it reaches after a tortuous course of 250 miles, though it is only about a third of that distance from its source in a direct line, the Rhine turns once more to the north and enters Germany. Its breadth here is between 550 and 600 feet, while its surface now lies not more than 800 feet above the sea, showing that the river has made a descent of 6900 feet 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 feet 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 miles, 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 the bank. This is the most beautiful part of the whole course of the river, abounding in the ruined castles, the romantic crags, the sunny vineyards, and the picturesque lateral ravines that have combined to make the Rhine so favourite a resort of lovers of natural beauty. At Coblentz the valley widens and the river is 1200 feet broad, but the hills close in again at Andernach, and this ravine-like part of its course cannot bo considered as ending till below the Seven Mountains, where the river once more expands to a width of 1300-1600 feet. 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 neighbour-hood of Diisseldorf. Further 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. The river now loses its individuality in a number of separate branches, and the name of Bhine has often arbi-trarily clung to the smaller arm after a bifurcation. Almost immediately alter 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 Zuyder 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 Rhijn" to the right is com-paratively insignificant. Beyond Utrecht, where it is again diminished by the divergence of the Vecht to the Zuyder Zee, the river under the name of the " Oude Bhijn " or Old Rhine degenerates into a sluggish and almost stagnant stream, which requires the artificial aid of a canal and 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. See vol. xii. Plate I.

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 111 and the Nahe on the left and the Neckar and the Main on the right are, however, notable exceptions. Before joining the Rhine the 111 runs almost parallel with it and at no great distance for upwards of 50 miles. 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 Moselle (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.

The Rhine connects the highest Alps with the mud hanks 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, con-necting 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 Coblentz 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 Post-Tertiary 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 them-selves 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 wdiom 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 £200,000, 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 1831, 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. It was not, however, till 1869 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. The channel has been greatly improved and in many places made more direct since the beginning of the present century,—large sums being annually spent in keeping it in order. Capacious river harbours have been formed at various points, about twenty-five of these being in Germany and eight or ten more in Holland. The total weight of the goods forwarded each year on the Rhine has of late amounted to nearly 1,000,000 tons, the chief articles being timber, coal, iron, agricultural produce, and manufactured goods of various kinds. The position of the river is highly favourable for the development of its trade. It flows through the most populous regions of the continent of Europe, to discharge into one of the most frequented seas opposite Great Britain, and, besides serving as a natural outlet for Ger-many, 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 Moselle. 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 influx 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 Strasburg the depth of water is sometimes not more than 3 feet; between Strasburg and Mainz it varies from 5 to 25 feet ; while below Mainz it is never less than 9 or 10 feet. The deepest point is opposite the Lurlei Rock near St Goar, where it is 75 feet in depth ; at Dusscldorf the depth is about 50 feet. 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 feet 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.

The salmon fisheries of the Rhine, lying mainly between Baeh-arach and St Goar, have long been famous ; but their produce has been seriously diminished since the advent of the steamer. Pike, carp, and other white fish are also caught. A little gold is brought down by the Rhine from the Alps and the heights of the Black Forest, but not in sufficient amount to make its collection of economic value. The white wines of the Rhine are the finest in the world, though the palm in red wines must be given to the vineyards of Bordeaux. The vineyards lie mainly between Mainz and Bonn, a distance of 90 miles,—the choicest varieties of wine being produced in the Rheingau, a picturesque district on the right bank between Riidesheim and Biebrich, about 12 miles long and 5 broad. The well known brands Johannisberger, Steinberger, Mareobrunner, and Assmannshauser are all grown in this narrow compass. The valleys of the Neckar, the Moselle, the Nahe, and other tributaries of the Rhine also yield good wine ; and the valley of the Ahr may be indicated as the northern limit of the wine culture. The total annual value of the Rhenish wines is about £2,400,000.

The long array of ancient and flourishing towns along its banks bear witness to the great importance of the river. These are most frequent in the upper Rhenish basin and again below Bonn, the places in the narrower part of the valley being generally more remarkable for their picturesque situation than for their commercial or political influence. Beyond the borders of Germany the only large towns on the Rhine are Basel \in Switzerland, and Arnheim, Utrecht, and Leyden in Holland. Within Germany, as we trace the course of the river form south to north, we come successively to Spires, Mannheim, Mainz, Coblentz, Bonn, Cologne, Dlisseldorf, and Wesel. Worms, which was formerly washed by the Rhine, lies about | mile distant from the present course ; and Strasburg, which lies on the 111, 2 miles from the Rhine, may also be reckoned as one of its towns.

Politically the Rhine has always played a great part; and it would require no great straining to write a history of this majestic river which would also be a history of the western half of continental Europe. 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 (Moguntiacuni or Mainz, Borbetomagus or Worms, &c); 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 con-stantly 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 re-mains at Treves and elsewhere, the Roman roads, bridges, and aqueducts, are convincing proofs of what the Rhine gained from Roman domination. This Roman civilization was, however, des-tined 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 cul-ture of the Rhine valley again began to flourish, its results being still to be traced in the important architectural remains of this period. Atthe partition of the domains of Charlemagne in 843 A.]), 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 Germ my, 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 Strasburg 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 Cœsar restored. This ideal was realized in 1801, when the whole of the left bank 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 Csesar, who crossed it twice, down to our own time. The wars carried on here by his Most Christian Majesty 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 has always exercised a peculiar sort of fascination over the German mind, in a measure and in a manner not easily paralleled by the ease of any other river. " Father Rhine is the centre of the Gorman's patriotism and the symbol of his country. In his literature it has played a prominent part from the Nibelungenliecl 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. Victor Hugo has perhaps best described the mingled feelings which the Rhine awakens. "Le Rhin," he says, "réunit tout. Le Rhin est rapide comme le Rhône, large comme la Loire, encaissé comme la Meuse, tortueux comme la Seine, limpide et vert comme la Somme, historique comme le Tibre, royal comme le Danube, mystérieux comme le Nil, pailleté d'or comme un fleuve d'Amérique, couvert de fables et de fantômes comme un fleuve d'Asie." (J. F. M.).


This is the current estimate, but Strelbitzki, the latest authority, does not allow the Rhine a length of more than 710 miles.

"Rasticarum Alpium inaccesso ac pracipiti vertice," says Taeitus.

The nomenclature of the Rhine branches in the Netherlands is, according to Mr J. Dirks, a singular but historic system, by which the rivers are chopped up, as it were, into longitudinal pieces.

The Moselle rises in France, in the canton of Ranionchamp, at a height of 2379 feet above the sea, on the west side of the Vosges. Its length is 315 miles (of which 190 are in France), but the direct line from source to confluence is only about 170 miles. -At Bpinal (1010 feet) the Moselle passes out of the rocky mountain-glen where its course has hitherto been. It enters the Lorraine plateau, but the sides of the valley still remain high and steep. Below Metz (550 feet) the bottom-lands spread out to a considerable width ; in the section between Sierck and Coblentz the hills again close in upon the river. Rafts can generally be floated from Arches down to Frouard, and there, by the junction of the Meiirthe (itself navigable, though with difficulty, from Nancy), the depth becomes sufficient for boats. Since 1840 steamboats have plied between Treves and Coblentz.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-18 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries