The history of navigation on Lakes Thun and Brienz

Innovative hoteliers

In 1834, the Knechtenhofer brothers laid the cornerstone for leisure navigation on Lake Thun. In order to attract more custom to their hotel in Thun, they ordered an iron-clad 16-horsepower steamer from the Cavé machine builders in Paris. As early as the summer of 1835, the Bellevue plied between Hofstetten and Neuhaus, which distance it covered in 1¼ hours non-stop. The success of this new means of transport prompted the hotelier David G. Matti from Kienholz to move a small steamboat from Lake Geneva to Lake Brienz by rather adventurous routes. From 1839, the renamed Giessbach plied between Interlaken and Brienz, with a stopover in Giessbach.

A constant coming and going

On the lower lake, the Knechtenhofer brothers tried to fend off a second steamship company. They finally reached an agreement with their competitor and established the United Steam Navigation Company for Lakes Thun and Brienz (VDG). The Bellevue was moved to Lake Brienz in the winter of 1842/43, where it was operated under the name of Faulhorn until 1857. Hotelier Matti, on his part, turned the tables: from 1843, the Giessbach plied between Hofstetten and Neuhaus, thus competing with the new VDG steamer Niesen. In 1846, the VDG purchased the ship from Matti and renamed it Helvetia. Yet no later than 1856, another competitor appeared on Lake Brienz. With their own screw steamer Giessbach, the owners of the Giessbach Hotel offered regular boat trips to Interlaken and Brienz. In 1857, the hotel and the ship were acquired by the VDG. A short time afterwards, the Giessbach was dismantled owing to an alleged design fault. In 1870, the VDG sold the Giessbach property to a third party.

New ships, new railways

In 1859, the Berne - Münsingen - Thun railway line was opened. Two years later, it was extended to Scherzligen, thus connecting up with the steamships to Interlaken. At around this time, further steamers were taken into operation on Lakes Thun and Brienz: the Stadt Thun (1856), the Interlaken (1857), the Giessbach (1859) and the Stadt Bern (1861). The Faulhorn was converted into a barge and moved back to Lake Thun, where it sank in a storm off Oberhofen in 1864.
Meanwhile, traffic on Lake Thun had greatly increased so that goods transport had to be shifted from the passenger boats to barges. For this purpose, the Steam Navigation Company acquired the River Aare barge Neptun, which was in operation until 1873.
In 1869, stakeholders from the Interlaken area who were dissatisfied with the VDG's service on Lake Brienz set up the Oberland Steam Navigation Company, which, however, was liquidated before it went into operation, and the saloon steamer it had ordered went on its maiden voyage under the name of Oberland for the VDG in 1870. During this time, some more steamers were launched: the Beatus (1871), the Brienz (1871) and the Bubenberg (1874). The timing for this extension to the fleet proved to be propitious since after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, traffic on Lakes Thun and Brienz registered a palpable increase.

With the inauguration of the Bödeli Railway in 1874, the previous upper terminus of the Lake Thun ships was moved from Neuhaus to Därligen, and the ship route between Interlaken and Bönigen was discontinued. As early as 1873, the Bödeli Railway started to operate a ferry of its own on the Scherzligen - Därligen route, which was able to transport four to five goods wagons. A further ferry with a capacity of five to six goods wagons was operated from 1886. The inaugurations of further railways such as the Brünig Railway (1888), the Lake Thun - Beatenberg Railway (1889), the Bernese Oberland Railways (1890) and the Brienz - Rothorn Railway (1892) had a favourable effect on the development of navigation. Since the Bernese Oberland Railways also connected up to the Bödeli Railway at the Zollhaus station (today's Interlaken Ost) and built a new railway station there, the ship route between Bönigen and Interlaken was reopened in 1891.

Under the BLS flag

In 1889, the new steamer Helvetia was added to the Lake Thun fleet in order to cope with increasing demand. In view of the imminent closure of the railway gap between Scherzligen und Därligen by the Lake Thun Railway, the VDG had a 2.75km shipping canal built between 1890 and 1892; this canal connects Lake Thun to the Interlaken West Station and is still in use today.
After the inauguration of the Lake Thun Railway in 1893, ship operators first suffered considerable financial losses, which fortunately were then compensated for by an increase in tourism. The era of ferry operation, however, was definitely in the past.
On Lake Thun, the steam barge Neptun (1901), the screw steamer Spiez intended for local passenger service (1901) and the stately saloon steamer Blümlisalp (1906) were taken into operation, as were the steamship Jungfrau (1898) and the motor freighter Mercur (1901) on Lake Brienz.
After tough negotiations, the VDG merged with the Lake Thun Railway in 1912. In turn, this new company was taken over by the Bernese Alpine Railway Society Bern-Lötschberg-Simplon, or BLS for short. The BLS has been responsible for navigation on both Oberland lakes to this day.

The collapse

A short time before the First World War, navigation on the two lakes experienced a heyday. In 1914, the new saloon steamer Lötschberg was launched – only to be mothballed after nine days when the war broke out. The era of the proud saloon steamers was over; reality had caught up with the carefree Belle Époque. Navigation was almost completely paralysed, and in 1917/18 it was even wholly suspended owing to lack of coal. Around the same time, the "Right Shore Lake Thun Railway" was set up in 1914, and the Brünig Railway was extended from Brienz to Interlaken in 1916. These railway lines combined to make navigation largely superfluous for local transport demand.
In response to the coal shortage and in order to rationalise management, the motor freighter Mercur was exchanged for the motor ship Mars in 1918; the Mars had been in operation on Lake Lucerne and was now run on Lake Brienz under the name of Iseltwald. In 1920, the BLS also acquired the MS Astra from the Lake Lucerne Steam Navigation Company; the new ship sailed on Lake Thun under the name of MS Gunten.

And another World War

When the old Thun Railway Station and the Scherzligen Station were merged into Thun's new Central Railway Station in 1923, the issue of a connection between Lake Thun navigation and the railway system was debated. The ideal solution came in 1925, when the shipping canal to the new railway station was built.
After passenger traffic had gained new momentum on Lake Thun in the late 1920s, the slump of the 1930s was again a cruel blow to navigation on the lakes. In the course of rationalisation efforts, the motor ships Morgarten (1928, from 1949 run under the name of Harder) and Niesen (1935) were acquired. This signalled the end for the steamships Stadt Thun (1929) and Oberland (1932).

After the Swiss franc had been devalued by 30% in 1936, tourism registered a new boom in the Bernese Oberland, too. For this reason, two new motor ships were launched in 1940: the Thun and the Oberhofen, the latter of which had been in operation at the Swiss National Exhibition in Zurich in 1939. Yet hardly had tourism recovered when the next World War broke out.

The years thereafter

The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of a new tourist boom. Since many ships had meanwhile become obsolete and uneconomical, an extension of the Lake Thun fleet had to be envisaged. Conversely, navigation on Lake Brienz had reported losses for years, and this raised the question of a complete close-down. Since the surrounding regions depended on revenue from tourism, however, the BLS decided to give this fleet a new lease of life, too. Thus the MS Rothorn was launched in 1950 and the MS Interlaken in 1956. The two last additions to the Lake Brienz fleet were the motor ships Iseltwald (1969) and Brienz (1981).
In a spectacular transport operation in 1999, the Lake Thun ship Jungfrau was moved to Lake Brienz and equipped with its new coat of flowers. In mid-2001, the small MS Harder was sold; it now lives as the Schwan on Lake Zug.
On Lake Thun, a number of new motor ships were added to the fleet: the Jungfrau (1954), the Stadt Bern (1956), the Niederhorn (1959), the Bubenberg (1962) and the Beatus (1963). The saloon steamer Blümlisalp was taken out of service in 1971. She was replaced by a motor vessel of the same name, which after the old Blümlisalp had been recommissioned in 1992 was renamed Stadt Thun. The fleet has since been further extended by the MS Stockhorn (1974) and the MS Berner Oberland (1996)

More pleasure whatever the weather

Travelling by boat is not only great while the sun shines, and BLS's special experience ships prove the point. Thus the Stadt Thun was converted into a dragon ship on the basis of an idea by the Thun artist Heinz von Gunten in the winter of 2000/2001. This unique ship attracted a great deal of attention throughout Switzerland and beyond its national borders. At the same time, the concept of the "fabulous Lake Thun region" was established, according to which a number of products and services were offered under the sign of the dragon. The dragon ship was reconverted into the Stadt Thun in the winter of 2003/2004. Traditional ships, however, have been faring equally well in  the meantime: in winter 2000/2001, the Lake Brienz steamer Lötschberg was renovated in accordance with the guidelines laid down by the Office for the Conservation of Historic Monuments, and the new seminar and event ship MS Schilthorn, with its modern technical infrastructure, has been cruising on Lake Thun since June 2002.

Tradition and innovation

In 2006, the steamer Blümlisalp celebrated its 100th anniversary. In the previous winter, the “old lady” had been smartened up for the festivities with a large-scale renovation. In 2008, the motor vessel Stockhorn was converted into Switzerland’s first lounge ship – in tune with the zeitgeist. In the same year, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) paid tribute to the restoration of the saloon steamer Lötschberg with its Special Award 2008. In 2009, Schifffahrt Berner Oberland registered a record utilisation of its regular passenger ship on Lakes Thun and Brienz.

More history

» Chronicle BLS AG

» Overview according to companies
(pdf; 56kb, german only)

» BLS Lötschbergbahn (pdf; 77kb, german only)

» Regionalverkehr Mittelland AG (RM)
(pdf; 69kb, german only)

» Navigation on Lakes Thun and Brienz

SS Bellevue

SS Bellevue

Interlaken steamship station

Interlaken steamship station

Employees

employees

SS Brienz

SS Brienz