Annual History and Heritage Meeting


Annual History and Heritage Meeting

By Gerard Hillenbrand, P.E.

This year’s Annual History and Heritage meeting was held on Thursday, December 13th, 2007 at the Ukrainian Restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village. As usual, the featured speaker at this annual meeting was Conrad Milster, The Chief Engineer of the Pratt Institute Power Plant, a national Mechanical Engineering Historical Landmark. One attendee at this meeting noted that 2007 is the 15th consecutive year that Mr. Milster has given the Met Section his views on the importance of Mechanical Engineering in the development of modern technology. This year, as usual, Mr. Milster’s presentation emphasized his reputation as one of the most eminent Mechanical Engineering Historians in the profession.

The subject of this year’s presentation was a DVD copy of a film summarizing the commercial facilities existing in 1938 at the North German Port of Hamburg. This port, at that time, one of the world’s largest shipping centers, is located about 40 miles south of the North Sea coast line in an estuary at the southern end of which is the city of Hamburg, located at the convergence of the Elbe River and several minor streams. This port’s relatively sheltered location was one of the reasons for its prominent history in the development of the continental shipping industry. An Amateur Photographer using 15-mm color film shot this film. This photographer is a local German Pastry Chef who and Hamburg resident. He was suitably impressed by the multi-facetted technology exhibited daily in the port’s operations. This Amateur Photographer had, at that time, no official connection with the port of Hamburg and the Film itself was not damaged in the city’s destruction during World War II. The original film is now to be found in the Port of Hamburg Historical Museum. The DVD copy of this film was accompanied by an English Translation of the original German text.

At the time at which the film was shot, the city of Hamburg was the largest port in Europe, much larger, for example, that the city of Cologne, an important inland port on the Rhine River. The Elbe River and its tributaries separated the so-called “Free Port of Hamburg” from the residential portion of the city. A major tunnel under the river and a series of smaller bridges connected the various parts of the city complex, along with several rail spurs and steam ferry lines. Every day thousands of workers were transported from and to the shipping complex via these venues. The port itself was the headquarters of the well-known North German Lloyd Steamship line which conducted major ocean-going traffic between Germany and North and South America as well as with all major ports in Europe and Scandinavia. In the age of containerization, this line has evolved into the prominent “HAPAG” Transportation System, familiar to all observant New Yorkers. This port was also home to the Hamburg-American Steamship Line, the major ocean-going vessels of which transported passengers in luxury style between continental Europe and the Americas prior to World War II.

This film vividly illustrated the sophisticated cargo and passenger handling facilities employed in the Port of Hamburg at that time, which, of course, was very labor intensive. Steam, electrical and manually powered machinery transferred a multitude of products from land to ships and vice-versa. Among the products handled included lumber, grain, and cotton, wool and industrial products, such as motor vehicles and oil. In fact, the Dutch controlled Shell Oil Corporation maintained a major tank farm storage facility in the Port of Hamburg and this facility supplied 70% of all imported petroleum products to Germany at that time. The deep water of the Elbe River provided extensive berthing facilities for ocean going vessels along with major dry-dock provisions and construction cranes. The film also showed extensive warehouse facilities constructed adjacent to the river, and some of the images shown reminded our viewers of similar arrangements in the Port of Venice on the Adriatic Sea in Northern Italy.

Regrettably, a great majority of all this was destroyed by extensive allied bombing in World War II, during which more than 5000 Hamburg civilians were killed. German naval and training vessels frequently visited the Port of Hamburg and these ships were specially targeted by allied aircraft. Hamburg was the homeport of several prominent ships during the period and the film poignantly revealed their fate. Among these were:

  • The steamship St. Louis prominent in pre-war trade with the east and west coasts of South America This ship was notorious for its forlorn voyage all over the Atlantic Ocean with hundreds of Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution. This ship was refused entry into port throughout North and South America and finally forced to return to Europe where most of these refugees were killed in the Holocaust.
  • The diesel engine powered ship Wilhelm Gustcoff carrying 8000 refugees from Eastern Europe was torpedoed and sunk in the Baltic Sea on January 30, 1945 by a Russian submarine.
  • The ocean-going, three smokestack steamship Cap Arcona (Prominently shown in the film transporting well to do passengers and undergoing extensive dry-dock operations) was sunk by allied bombers on May 3, 1945 while carrying 5,000 refugees.
  • The luxury liner Monte Roma specializing in the South American trade and capable of carrying 1400 passengers survived World Was II and was sold for reparations after the war.

The tunnel under the Elbe River survived the allied bombing during the war but was partially damaged by defending troops attempting to prevent its capture by advancing allied troops. Unfortunately, this defensive effort trapped and killed 200 refugees hiding in the tunnel. This dynamite damage was repaired after the war. The city of Hamburg has been rebuilt after its wartime destruction and the port has also been restored, but this time with extensive container ship facilities. Much of the shoreline warehouse area has been rebuilt with residential housing.

The Met Section extends its sincere gratitude to Conrad Milster for his continuing, impressive efforts in commemorating the historic contributions of Mechanical Engineering to modern technology. Ling may he serve our profession and its proud heritage.

 Posted by at 5:21 pm