Like a phoenix from the water
The year is 1899, and the century of German industrialisation is rapidly approaching its close. In Ruhrort, the shipbuilding division of Gutehoffnungshütte (GHH) was forced to fold due to competition from the Netherlands. Cheaper shipbuilding steel and wages that are 25 percent lower could not be undercut. At the same time, more and more people are continually switching their primary means of transportation from ships to trains, which are penetrating deeper into rural areas. The era of iron and steel ships sailing away from GHH’s forges along the banks of the Rhine would appear to be over. However, this does not mean that GHH’s connection to the water is gone. Just three years later, it begins excavation work on a Rhine harbour to the south of the village of Walsum in Dinslaken district, which it will use as a transshipment point for the products of its mines and steelworks. The first vessels arrive in 1905, and the Südhafen in Walsum subsequently develops into the starting point for all of GHH’s shipbuilding ambitions.
Built from the ground up
In the midst of the First World War, Paul Reusch (1868-1956), CEO of GHH since 1905, presents his plans for reviving the company’s shipbuilding operations. Mass production to measure is the order of the day. The ship components are to be prefabricated at GHH’s bridge workshop in Sterkrade, then assembled at a new shipyard. In the first three years following the end of the war, GHH constructs a shipyard initially focusing on river transportation on a site in Walsum covering around 75,000 square metres. Ships can be pulled diagonally onto land and repaired at one of the 15 building slipways, each of which measures a kilometre and a half in length, along its 300-metre waterfront. GHH even patents these transverse building slipways. However, the opening of the Walsum shipyard on 1 January 1921 comes at an unfortunate time. As new ships are still prohibited from being built in the first years of Allied occupation and Germany is failing to make agreed reparation payments under the Treaty of Versailles, the canal barges produced by the new shipyard are included in the reparation assets – 29 of them in the first year alone.
Diesel instead of steam
While the former shipyard in Ruhrort built its success on the emergence of steam energy in German inland shipping in the 19th century, Walsum develops into a pioneer for the construction of diesel-powered riverboats. In cooperation with MAN, GHH constructs the Franz Haniel XXVIII there in 1922 – a ground-breaking achievement. 54 metres long and 8.6 metres wide, the diesel tug has a draught of 2.25 metres and can generate an impressive 1,180 kW of power (1,600 hp). Its diesel engine removes the need for preheating and hence can be started from a standstill. The Walsum shipyard introduces another innovation in 1936 with the first motorised sea-river coaster. At this point in time, the hermetically sealed shipyard employs up to 700 people.
Working its way to the top
Sophisticated welding technology – replacing conventional riveting – is one of the pioneering technical improvements that not only makes Walsum the biggest and most powerful inland shipyard in Europe, but also allows it to make special-purpose vessels to measure. Walsum’s repertoire includes passenger ships, motorised cargo ships, crane pontoon barges, customs crafts, bucket chain excavators with a displacement of 900 tonnes, tugs, ferries and tankers. This versatility attracts international interest: Right into the 1980s, GHH in Walsum continues to build ships such as ferries for Greece, ore transport ships for Goa (India), and the Vencemos I, a motor cargo ship with a 3,300-tonne load capacity for carrying loose cement to Venezuela.
The destruction of the Second World War brings the upturn of the last 20 years to an abrupt end, the production site having been misappropriated shortly beforehand for the construction of supply vessels and aircraft salvage barges for the war. But regular shipbuilding recommences as early as 1948. The post-war period of the shipyard is characterised by the construction of tropical fruit transport ships and tankers, with the production focus shifting from inland to deep sea shipping. Special-purpose vessels for transporting acid, ore, cement and gas enjoy particularly strong demand. The thousandth ship is launched in May 1963. As late as 1978, Walsum lands a 35 million Deutschmark order for a floating dock to be shipped to Peru.
The curtain falls
Demand for German ocean-going vessels declines as a result of the oil crisis and recession in the late 1970s. The situation is exacerbated by increased competition from domestic shipyards and countries that used to import but now build ships themselves. The Walsum shipyard delivers its last two ships to Nigeria in April 1983. After 62 years, the second act of GHH’s shipbuilding history comes to a close on 30 April 1983. The curtain falls.
Incidentally, other than the harbour basin, there is now almost no evidence of the long history of the Walsum shipyard. The buildings have been demolished and the area is a brownfield site. In the mid-1980s, the decaying halls served as the backdrop for the German television series Tatort featuring Götz George as detective Horst Schimanski.