History of the port of Hamburg

At the beginning...

Model of Hammaburg Castle in the 9th century, Stiftung Historische Museen Hamburg, Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte, Photo: Fischer-Daber

A little port with a wooden landing stage about 120 metres long first appears in drawings dating from the 9th century. With a population of about 200, Hamburg used this to handle long-distance trade.

From charter via the Hanse to Germany's largest seaport

Model (diorama) of Hamburg's Alsterhafen in 1497, Hamburg Historical Museums Foundation, Museum of Hamburg History, photo: Fischer-Daber

In 937 Archbishop Adaldag granted Hamburgians the right to hold markets. About a century before this, Vikings from Denmark had destroyed the Hammaburg. This was now rebuilt.

By 1188 the first port facilities existed on Nikolaifleet. The Port of Hamburg?s official birthday came to be celebrated as 7 May 1189. It was then that Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa granted the Hamburgians the privilege of sailing free of Customs duties along the Lower Elbe as far as the North Sea.

Hanseatic League

Carta Marina, Copyright: Wikimedia Commons

The next decisive milestone in the history of the port was Hamburg?s accession to the Hanse in 1321. The Hanse was the most significant economic league of the early and late Middle Ages. Orientating its trading activities westwards, towards the North Sea, Hamburg occupied a special place in this alliance. The city acquired privileges in England and Flanders, also founding trading branches in London, Bruges, Amsterdam, in Scandinavia to the North and inland Germany.

Störtebeker & Co.

Piracy was a serious problem, Klaus Störtebeker being its most notorious practitioner. He was beheaded on Grasbrook on 20 October 1400. No established German maritime power existed at that time. However, the Hamburgians armed themselves against buccaneers by using ships in convoy. Led by Admiral Karpfanger, these successfully repelled the pirates.

Growth of the trading city

Port of Hamburg from 1497, Copyright: Wikimedia Commons

The healthy commercial situation led to a rapid increase in population, from 8,000 in 1375 to 16,000 in 1450. The discovery of America at the end of 15th century gave a further boost to Hamburg?s foreign trade and hence to the Port of Hamburg. The trading areas on the Baltic forfeited their primacy, whereas the countries on the edge of the Atlantic gained in significance. Even if this went against the principles of the Hanse, Hamburg therefore embarked on close economic relations with foreign ports.

Altona as competing Danish port

Fischauktionshalle, Copyright Wikimedia Commons

All the same, the Port of Hamburg was quite soon hit by strong competition from the neighbours. The Danish Altona gained city rights in 1664. Altona had been at the mercy of pan-Danish interests for two centuries. The port in Altona experienced a remarkable upswing in the mid-18th century. It could boast three large shipyards, along with many rope makers, sailmakers and anchor forges. Napoleon?s imposition of the Continental Blockade against England in 1806 affected the Port of Hamburg. This prompted some Hamburg firms to move to Altona in Denmark, where the blockade first applied from 1807.

Columbus and Napoleon shaped Hamburg shipping

Detail of the painting "View of the City of Hamburg from the Southwest" by Johann Georg Stuhr, on permanent loan from the Hamburg Historical Museums Foundation, Museum of Hamburg History, dated 1683. The convoy ship "Leopoldus I" can be seen in this detail.

Trade with America commenced in 1782. As the first Hamburg ship to do so, in 1783 the "Elise Katharina" crossed the Atlantic, making for Charleston and Philadelphia. By 1788, 150 ships were already registered under the Hamburg flag. By 1799, or within eleven years, the total had risen to 280 ships. A collapse caused by the continental blockade followed in 1806. Work on expanding the port only started again after the liberation of the city in 1814. The first steamship, the British ?Lady of the Lake?, appeared in the Port of Hamburg in 1816. From 1850 the Hamburg flag was to be seen on every ocean in the world.

Planning of the modern port

The Sandtorhafen around 1894, photo by Georg Koppmann, Copyright: Wikimedia Commons

Given growing cargo flows, extension of the Sandtor port basin in 1840 and of the lower port in 1855 did not suffice for long. In 1862 it was decided to make the Port of Hamburg an open tidal port rather than a dock port of the kind very common at the time. Johannes Dalmann as Director of Hydraulic Engineering then made a start on extensive planning for restructuring the port area. In 1866 he constructed quays and sheds along both banks of the River Elbe. The first ship-to-rail transfer then took place at the siding on Kaiserkai in 1872. This laid the foundation for Hamburg?s emergence as the largest rail port in Europe.

Freeport and Speicherstadt

In 1881 Hamburg joined the German Customs Union. The city was only permitted to retain one area where goods in transit could be stored duty-free. This consisted of the Freeport with the Speicherstadt or ?Warehouse City?. The Speicherstadt is the world?s largest warehouse complex that rests on timber (oak) piles. Since 1991 it has been protected as a monument. Building of this part of the Freeport commenced in 1883 and the first section was completed five years later. Long-term, duty-free storage as well as duty-free transhipment of goods from abroad remained possible there. After over 120 years of the Freeport, in 2013 this status was surrendered in the interest of the development of the port and the city. Today the port area is a European Customs Seaport.

The port at the turn of the 19th/20th century

Map Hamburg port 1910, Copyright Wikimedia Commons

Construction of the St. Pauli Landing Stages started in 1840. Their ceremonial opening followed in 1910. The nearby St. Pauli Elbe Tunnel was opened in 1911. Two years later, in 1913, Hamburg became a city with a million inhabitants, being the leading port on the continent and the world?s third largest, after London and New York. World War 2 then brought a serious reverse: 80 percent of the port facilities were destroyed.

Reconstruction and economic upswing follow World War 2

Hamburg, Destroyed port facility, Copyright: Wikimedia Commons

Reconstruction of the port as the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg?s vital artery proceeded apace after the war, since Hamburg?s economy and its prosperity had always been closely linked with developing the port. By 1953 the city had already invested 115 million euros in reconstruction of the port.

The dawn of the Container Age

American Lancer", at Burchardkai in Hamburg

The Industrialization of Sea Traffic commenced in 1967: The Age of the Container had arrived. The new transport boxes were initially only treated in the Port of Hamburg individually as additional deck cargo. Then on 31 May 1968 the American Lancer, the first wholly cellular containership, berthed at Hamburg?s Burchardkai. Container traffic advanced by leaps and bounds. Nowadays 98 percent of general cargo handled is containerized.

HHLA Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA)

When the first stages of planning the Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA) began in 1990, no one could have imagined how crucial the construction would be for the Port of Hamburg. Today, the CTA is considered state-of-the-art and is the first facility of its kind to be climate neutral. Besides its high space efficiency - an important factor when it comes to conserving resources - electrification plays a central role. Since most of the large units are now powered by electricity obtained from renewable sources, their CO2 emissions are very low compared to conventional terminals. By 2022, all container transporters (AGVs) are to be electrically operated.

The HafenCity project

Hafencity, Copyright: Hamburg Media Server/Timo Sommer

From 2003 one of the largest urban development projects in Europe began to take shape on 160 hectares of port land between Kehrwiederspitze and the Elbe bridges: HafenCity. By 2025 a vibrant and densely settled urban milieu with a strong maritime note will have been established here, combining working, living quarters, culture, leisure, tourism and the retail trade. Nearly 7,000 dwellings and over 45,000 jobs will have been created.

50 years containers

In 1968, the first container ship called at the port of Hamburg. Back then, hardly anyone would have guessed that these rustic steel boxes would change the port and the entire shipping industry more than any other technology before. Today, container handling is the main cargo segment on the river Elbe, with an annual volume of approximately 9 million TEU. In 2018, the colourful box celebrated its 50th anniversary in the Port of Hamburg.

Fairway adjustment

In order to maintain the competitiveness of the Port of Hamburg and to fully exploit its extraordinarily good economic development potential, it is imperative that the increasingly larger ocean-going vessels are able to enter the Port of Hamburg without cargo losses and long waiting times. The long-disputed fairway adjustment is the solution to the rapid growth in the size of ocean-going vessels.

After the dredging work on the Lower and Outer Elbe began in 2019, two sections of the fairway adjustment were completed: As of 29 January 2020, ships with an added ship width of up to 98 metres can safely pass each other in the so-called “encounter box”, the section of the Elbe that has been extended to the Hamburg state border. Furthermore, the waiting area in Brunsbüttel has been completed. Tide-dependent ships that cannot reach the tidal window due to unpredictable reasons have the option of waiting there for the next low-water phase.

Hamburg world port

Handling annual throughput of 126 million tons, the Port of Hamburg is the largest German universal port. Container throughput has reached almost 8.5 million TEU, or 20-ft standard containers. Hamburg?s facilities can clear ships of all types and handle goods of almost all categories. (Updated: 2021)