Back in 1911, when the Old Elbe Tunnel was opened to the public, it was an engineering marvel of the world. Back then it was called the St. Pauli Elbe Tunnel due to the area where the tunnel is located but, like the St. Pauli neighborhood, a lot has changed in the last years.
When the Old Elbe Tunnel opened to the public, it was the first river tunnel in Europe. This marvel of engineering was built to connect the central part of Hamburg to the growing harbor area with its docks and shipyards on the south side of the Elbe river. At the time, the tunnel was such a massive improvement for the workers that tens of thousands of them used the tube daily in what is one of the busiest harbors in the world.
On each side of the Elbe river, four huge lifts are used to carry pedestrians, cars, carriages and other motor vehicles. Under the river, there are two tunnels: one for pedestrians and another one for cars. Both of them are still in operation more than a century after it was opened. Nowadays, they’re not as busy as they used to be since other bridges and new tunnels were built in this part of Hamburg.
But, back in 2008, around 300,000 cars, 63,000 bicycles, and 700,000 pedestrians used the tunnel to travel under the Elbe river. And you can join the statistics by crossing the Old Elbe Tunnel which is open 24 hours for bikes and pedestrians.
A little bit of history from the Old Elbe Tunnel
Under the supervision of Philipp Holzmann, construction of the Elbe Tunnel started in July 1907. Connecting the neighborhood of St. Pauli to Steinwerder below the water table of the Elbe river, the tunnel was a marvel of engineering.
The construction was done under pressure to keep water from flooding the excavations, but this was a risk for workers since some of them would suffer from decompression sickness. From more than 4 thousand workers, three men died, 74 suffered severe cases, and more than 500 came down with lighter symptoms.
Since 2003, the Elbe Tunnel has been a protected monument and, on its 100th anniversary, the tunnel received the title of Historic Landmark of Civil Engineering in Germany.
For me, one of the coolest things inside the Elbe Tunnel is the decorated tunnel walls. They are made of glazed terra cotta and display ornaments that relate fo the Elbe river. Most of them are fish and crabs, but there are rats and some litter as well, which I thought it was amusing.