Station 8: A history of the ports

In all three countries, the Rhine ports play a defining role in the 3Land Project. The use of the Rhine as a transport route to the sea and various countries was, and still is, of major importance. However, port activities are also subject to structural change, and they are evolving.

The Rhine is a major transport route

The Rhine port in Weil in the 1930s ©Unknown/Source: Stadtarchiv Weil am Rhein

The Rhine has been an essential transport route between the North Sea and the Mediterranean since ancient times. People rowed, sailed, punted and towed up and down the Rhine, and even floated timber until the 19th century. In the 19th century, the Upper Rhine was straightened and its bed engineered to keep it in the same place. This increased the speed of its current. This made navigation enormously difficult, and the section between Strasbourg and Basel was therefore considered impassable for large motor vessels. Only since the 20th century has the Rhine been navigated by cargo ships up to Basel.


A progressive development of the ports

Basel’s first port, Sankt Johann, opened in 1911. This port was decommissioned in 2010. The construction of the current Rhine port in Kleinhüningen (Basin I) only began in 1919. The first tug docked there in 1922.  In 1935, the Rhine port in Weil came into operation.

Basin II of the Basel Rhine port was dug by hand between 1936 and 1939 as part of a project set up by the Basler Arbeitsrappen, an employment scheme. The excavated material was used to build the stands of the Sankt Jakob football stadium in Basel. Basin II began to operate after the Second War. Port facilities were also built in Birsfelden and Muttenz between 1937 and 1940.  The port in Huningue opened after 1950. Today the port of Huningue belongs to the Rhine port of Mulhouse.

A drone’s-eye view of Basin II

Advertising film for the Port of Switzerland

In 2007, the three Rhine ports of Basel, Birsfelden and Muttenz were merged to form the "Port of Switzerland". Their headquarters are in Birsfelden, and the management is based in Basel.

Advertising film for the port of Mulhouse

Until the 1950s, navigation was highly dependent on water levels. Sometimes, especially at low water, it was not possible to navigate for days or weeks. This changed when the Grand Canal d'Alsace (Rheinseitenkanal) was built in France in 1950. Since then, the Upper Rhine has been navigable, except at high water, largely independent of the water level.

The structural evolution of ports

Port of Basel ©Daniel Spehr

The structure of ports in all three countries is changing due to the shift from shipping in pieces or in bulk to container transport. The port facilities in Weil am Rhein and Huningue have been moved to the north, which has left large areas available for conversion. The planned container terminal in Basel and the new Basin III will connect the Rhine river traffic directly to the north-south corridor railway network (NEAT) as well as the motorway. Direct ship-to-rail transfer is essential in order to shift container transport from road to rail.

The grain silo, an example of the typical architecture of the port

The port silo in Kleinhüningen, designed by Hans Bernoulli ©Daniel Spehr

From 1923 to 1926, architect Hans Bernoulli and engineer Oskar Bosshardt built the first grain silo in Kleinhünigen port. The building comprises a concrete shell faced with brick. The bricks serve an insulating and aesthetic purpose, since the trend of the time was to cover technical facilities with a more ‘historic’ facing.

The viewing platform could also be accessed by means of an exterior lift. Originally designed for an exhibition, it served as an aerial observation post for the Swiss Army during the Second World War. An interior lift was later installed. After more than 80 years, the terrace was in danger of collapsing. It was renovated in 2006.

The silo comprises 105 compartments as well as 20 bulk floors and its volume is approx. 14,200 m3. It can contain almost 11,000 tons of grains such as oats, wheat, soybeans, barley and rye.

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