Alter Elbtunnel: Walking the Old Elbe Tunnel

Updated on January 20, 2024  

hamburg alter elbtunnel

Spanning the Elbe River 80 feet below the surface, the Alter Elbtunnel (Old Elbe Tunnel) is an engineering marvel that has connected the two sides of Hamburg, Germany for over a century.

Constructed between 1907 and 1911 at a cost of 10.7 million marks, the tunnel aimed to improve transportation across the rapidly growing port city.

My Experince in Alter Elbtunnel

I enjoy discovering the hidden stories of cities, and Hamburg's Old Elbe Tunnel seemed like a cool way to literally travel back in time.

This tunnel, built over a hundred years ago beneath the Elbe River, is a marvel of engineering. It was the first underwater tunnel in continental Europe and opened in 1911 after four years of construction.

As I approached the north entrance, I looked up at the impressive green dome towering over the piers. It was like a gateway to Hamburg's early 1900s.

tunnel green dome

Taking the hydraulic lift elevator down felt like a journey through time. This same lift carried dock workers below the surface a century ago, and now it brings tourists like me.

Walking into the tunnel, I couldn't believe my eyes. The arched white tunnel looked straight out of a Victorian movie set, with intricate plaques on the walls depicting scenes from the Elbe River.

By the way, entrance to the tunnel is free.

tunnel lift

I walked alongside cyclists, commuters, and other tourists, all heading to the other side of the Elbe River. Despite the utilitarian look of the walkways, the ornate tiling caught my attention, showcasing the tunnel's 426-meter length.

The mosaics on the walls told the story of Hamburg as a port city, featuring aquatic life and folk motifs from northern Germany. One plaque even showed the spires of St. Michael's Church, my destination across the river.

fish mosaic

The cool air inside provided relief from the summer heat above, but I couldn't help but think about the tough conditions the workers faced back in 1907.

As I walked through the 12-foot-wide curved corridor, I marveled at the engineering and hard work put into building this tunnel.

Reaching the southern end, I took a moment to appreciate being twenty-four meters below the riverbed before the lift brought me back up into the sunshine. I had successfully crossed beneath the Elbe River!

Now, I headed to a viewing platform for panoramic views of Hamburg's skyline. Watching ships in the busy port, I recognized landmarks like the Elbphilharmonie concert hall. Looking across the Elbe, I felt a sense of nostalgia for the Victorian era preserved in the tunnel.

History of the Alter Elbtunnel

For more than a hundred years, the Old Elbe Tunnel has fascinated the people of Hamburg and visitors alike. Back in 1910, as Hamburg's port industries grew rapidly on the southern bank of the Elbe River, the city needed a better way to connect across the water.

Various plans for a bridge, viaduct, and even a suspended railway were considered but didn't work out. That's when engineers came up with the bold idea of building a tunnel beneath the riverbed. Despite the risks involved, this daring project caught everyone's imagination.

old elbe tunnel

Between 1907 and 1911, around 4400 workers worked hard to construct the tunnel, and unfortunately, some lost their lives in the process. The unique challenges of digging an underwater passage led to unsafe conditions and decompression sickness, known as the bends.

The result was two twin tubes, each only 2 meters wide and 6 meters high, providing a direct crossing 24 meters below the surface. Hydraulic lifts, capable of carrying 6000 kg, transported pedestrians, wagons, early automobiles, and cargo between St. Pauli on the north bank and Steinwerder Island's ports and shipyards to the south.

When the tunnel opened in 1911, it was hailed as an engineering triumph and a modern marvel. With stylish tiling and decorative wall plaques, it embodied Europe's forward-looking spirit entering the 20th century.

Despite damage from post-war bombings, the iconic entrance buildings survived on both sides of the river. The north entrance near the Landungsbrücken piers gained heritage status protections in 2003.

In 2011, marking the tunnel's centennial, the Association of German Engineers recognized it as a Historic Landmark of Civil Engineering, acknowledging its groundbreaking design in subaqueous construction. [1]

Alter Elbtunnel photo

Before settling on this unconventional solution, many alternatives like bridges and elevated railways were considered. The idea of digging a tunnel under a major waterway seemed unlikely, but the city's rapid growth convinced stakeholders of its necessity.

Today, over a century later, the Old Elbe Tunnel remains an iconic crossing for both locals and tourists. While newer tunnels and bridges now span the Elbe, none can quite match the charm and character of this historic tunnel.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to explore Hamburg's original river crossing firsthand. Walking through its tiled tunnels and using vintage lift elevators made history come alive in an unforgettable underground adventure.

Credit is due to the visionary engineers who pioneered this innovative solution, still serving Hamburg after more than a hundred years.

The Alter Elbtunnel seamlessly blends history with modern charm, making it a must-see in Hamburg. Its underground passage not only connects the city with the opposite shore but also bridges generations. 

As you traverse this tunnel, envision the past of the old town, creating timeless memories for your family or a romantic stroll with your partner. It's a living testament to Hamburg's rich heritage, inviting you to explore, experience, and cherish moments of connection.


References:

1: St. Pauli Elbtunnel, retrieved from https://www.hamburg-port-authority.de/en/hpa-360/construction-projects/st-pauli-elbtunnel

About the Author

Stephan Drescher