Steamships of Lake Geneva, Switzerland

Posted in OffTopic: not in NYHarbor, paddleboat, steamships by bowsprite on 2009/07/16

I am in Switzerland!

And on my first day, I went to the doctor’s. (Swim in a marina at your own risk, for where boats lie, wayward electrical currents, anti-fouling particles, oil, and foul matters from neighbors who do not pump out will surround you. I think I got hit by the latter, in the ear.)

In Dr. Hans Bänninger’s office was a book: A History of the Compagnie Generale de Navigation sur le lac Léman. It is a book on the lake fleet of paddelwheel steamers on Lake Geneva.


M/S Italie 1908 – decommissioned, but still floating around. Update (30nov2015): now in dry dock!
Paddlewheel, compound engine with double expansion, two equal high-pressure cylinders. Converted in 1958 to 8-cylinder, diesel electric.

length: 66m / 216.5′
breadth: 14m / 45.9′
displacement: 296t
ship depth, fully loaded: 1,51m / 5′
passengers capacity: 800
crew: 4


S/S La Suisse 1910 – the flagship of the fleet and still running!
Paddlewheel, one bow thruster; original 2 cylinder compound engine with double-expansion (one small high-pressure cylinder and one large low-pressure cylinder, each driving the pistons and the crankshaft with the same stroke.)

length: 78,5m / 257.6′
breadth: 15,9m / 52.2′
displacement: 518 t
ship depth, fully loaded: 1,61m / 5.3′
passengers capacity: 900
crew: 7

1n 1808, the Albany was the first paddle steamer which steamed along the Hudson to the coast of the Delaware River. 

Steamboat technology came to Switzerland in the shape of the Guillaume Tell on Lake Geneva in 1823. Her wooden hull was from Bordeaux, her engine from Liverpool. Escher Wyss in Zürich built the next few steamboats. Eventually the shipbuilding came to rest in a place with a great name for a shipyard: Ouchy! ha! however, it’s pronounced ‘Oo-she,’ like “who she?” minus the ‘wh’.

Many little companies competed on the lake until 1873, when the Compagnie Generale de Navigation sur le lac Léman (CGN) was formed to better compete against the railway. Their fleet grew and shrank over the years with their fortunes (in 1963-1964, they were 22 ships strong). But, they exist and persist, and some of the beauties are still running. The old ones are called the Belle Epoque ships.

La Belle Époque was a shimmery period (for the rich) from about 1890—when champagne was perfected!—until 1914: World War I. In the book are photographs of grand dining rooms, wooden ceilings and panellings with intricate inlaid work, exquisite brasswork, rounded steps with the name of the ships in brass on every step, hand-blown glass lamps and sconces, luxurious fabrics on banquettes and chairs, and potted palms.

The engine rooms are lovingly beautiful, captured in a romantic sepia glow at a time when steam and coal were used and when such engineering was a form of high art.

Some ships that were converted to diesel electric in the 1930’s (like the Italie) were part of a grand plan to return to steam in 1998. In 2001, the re-steamed Montreux was inaugurated with fanfare and a popular ‘gourmand-cruise’, however the costs of re-steaming three other Belle Epoque ships proved daunting, and the plan was dropped. The fate of the old ships seemed gloomy until steamboat lovers banded together in 2002 to form the Association des amis des bateaux a vapeur du Léman, the Friends of the Steamboats of Léman (ABVL).

Dr. Bänninger is a member of the ABVL, and he gave me the book from which these drawings and information come.  Merci millefois, Dr. Bänninger! for this book, and the ear drops!

lake geneva

from the CGN site:

“With a total surface area of 582.4 square kilometres (348 in Switzerland and 234 in France), the lake is 72.3 kilometres long, and averages 10 km wide (minimum width 8 km, maximum 13.8 km). Its maximum depth is 309.7 metres and it has 167 km of coastline. Its surface is 372.3 metres above sea level in summer and a metre lower in winter. The water is clear to a depth of 6.5 to 7.5 metres, depending on season and location.”

Click here to see their winter, autumn, and summer runs.



doucement – “sweetly” !
demi vitesse – half speed
en route – full speed
en avant – forward
en arrière – backward

21 Responses

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  1. O Docker said, on 2009/07/16 at 21:53

    Sweetly, very sweetly.

    One of the highlights of our trip to that region many years ago was a trip across the lake in one of the old steamers. Even in mid-summer, snow on the Alpine glaciers still reflects in the lake, from peaks with names like Dents Du Midi and Mont Blanc.

    The engine’s in the middle of the boat, a deck below the passengers, but in a well that’s open above. The designers knew very well what they were doing, opening the heart of the beast for all to see, like a giant brass pipe organ, playing beautiful music. The engineers perform, as in an orchestra pit, monitoring pressure and scurrying about with oiling cans, in neat, Swiss uniforms, while the massive drive rods swing out into open space, the sparkling oil reservoirs at the bearings like diamonds.

    We tend to hide our machinery today behind faceless panels that quiet the sound. But this was the machine age and no one was prouder of their machines than the Swiss.

    I’m reminded of a line from Theodore Roethke:

    “She moved in circles, and those circles moved.”

    • bowsprite said, on 2009/07/17 at 12:19

      A dear friend here, Frau B. Vischer, recalls when she was 5, her father brought her onto one of these ships, and the engine was clearly made the main attraction.

      In this book are a few old sepia toned photographs of the engines. The only word to describe the photos is “sensuous.” You’ll see what I mean when I’m home to properly scan and post them.

      One of these ships would employ a crew of twelve! bet the machines purred contentedly.

  2. Michael said, on 2009/07/17 at 09:16

    Such a charming throttle! I have no idea what it means, but who wouldn’t like a cup of Demi Vitesse? Bien Doucement!

  3. naveganteglenan said, on 2009/07/17 at 11:17

    Hola bowsprite, it’s amazing how these landlocked swiss can have those steamers as your beautiful acuarelas (watercolours) show 🙂 🙂 But, that it is Lake Léman.

    How I wish to make a regatta in a dinghy against them 🙂

    • bowsprite said, on 2009/07/17 at 12:34

      ah! a Challenger steps up to upseat the nautical power of the world!

      The new federal ship of the swiss, the catamaran Alighi (the 3rd?), was launched two days ago in Lake Geneva.

      A russian helicopter from Siberia came and took it and put it on the lake. If it victors over the windless fury of Lake Geneva, it will be flown to the Mediterrean. Perhaps, dear Friend, have a chance to take them on in your waters! (I know you are a good sailor, but I hope you sail a mean dinghy! I shall cheer for you!)

      Alighi gives me hope: hope for things like the Jamaican National Bobsled Team, who will give it another go in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.

      But we cannot be hard on the Swiss: they have lost several yodelling contests to a certain Japanese yodeller…

  4. tugster said, on 2009/07/17 at 13:52

    i’m with michael . . . from what manner of mouth and with what tone do you hear commands like “bien doucement” . . . it’s like pillow talk to me. maybe “avec force . .. encore . . . oui” might follow. please continue the series with telegraphs in italian, german . . . and from there . . . esperanto, chinese, pharoanic hieroglyphics . . . . after all, cleopatra had a royal barge, right? so how did she articulate commands . . . er . . . requests.

    • bowsprite said, on 2009/07/17 at 15:36

      …i’m still purring about the crew of twelve…

  5. Mage Bailey said, on 2009/07/17 at 21:57

    Bien Doucement back at you………….smiling again.

  6. Celeste Maia said, on 2009/07/18 at 12:28

    Oh what a great entry, your drawing are really good, and so is the story behind them. Are you staying in Switzerland all summer?

  7. tugster said, on 2009/07/19 at 08:27

    thanks odocker for the roethke quote. thanks bowsprite for assuring us there are doctors with GOOD BOOKS in their waiting rooms. wish my doctor and dentist learned that lesson from your dr. banninger. what i want to know . . . in swiss waters, are there places like morris canal and arthur kill with its “graveyard of ships” where you might find decaying portions of the belle epoque ships . . . or any ships? and besides the skyhigh end sailboats like alinghi, what small sailboats are found there? bravissimo on the work.

    • bowsprite said, on 2009/07/19 at 12:03

      My dear, nothing is given the chance to decay in switzerland.

      Sailboats aplenty here: I certified on Lake Maloja. Lake sailing amid these mountains is like sailing in NYHarbor: wind flows well, then wind is blocked. The difference is that there is no tanker about to run you over when you’re becalmed.

      Over in Silvaplanasee, international windsurfing competitions are held because of the good winds, the result of warm air from Italy and the cold from St. Moritz and the Julierpaß. Hey, Peconic Puffin! bring your board over!

      The only cargo port of Switzerland is in Basel, where ships navigate through the Rhine to the North Sea, but I have yet to see the maritime life there!

      yes–love ODocker’s quote! perfect for a paddlewheel steamer!

  8. naveganteglenan said, on 2009/07/19 at 16:22

    I reckon that the Maloja pass is impressive, and I’m sure that sailing in Silvaplana should be joyful. Switzerland it’s good. But I think you must travel and enjoy northern parts of Europe. Lets say Scotland.

    • bowsprite said, on 2009/07/19 at 17:55

      yes! the OTHER Jura! ; D

      So funny that you know and have worked in Switzerland! Danke, Grazie, Merci, y Graçias for the links that I was too lazy to go find!

      Your photos are beautiful! yes, maybe Scotland! or, let’s say an art rendez-vous by Lofoten, where mountains meet the sea? I wonder what it is like there???

      • Abdur Razzak said, on 2014/02/26 at 08:28

        Sir, I am from Bangladesh, I want to make some image of paddle-steamer but I can;t.Sir, I have same word as like you that those image are so exclusive and nice. I already have same those image to learn something.

        We have a fleet of century old paddle steamers in Bangladesh which are still in operation. They were built in the colonial period and still serving as a passenger boat. An overnight journey on those boats is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can check it here if you are interested: Paddle steamers in Bangladesh

  9. Pat said, on 2009/07/19 at 20:35

    I assume that was a typo and it was more like fifteen years rather than fifty between when the Clermont paddled the Hudson and steam travel began on the Swiss Lakes? It seems that mechanization would have hopped along quickly once the convulsions of the Napoleonic era ended.

    I agree that it’s wonderful to see the beating heart of an old steam ferry.

  10. Buck said, on 2009/07/20 at 11:05

    Very nice! What an excellent post, all round. Enjoy your holiday!

  11. bonnie said, on 2009/07/23 at 00:51

    Lovely! So glad I had a moment to visit you here in Switzerland! Now let me see if I remember the most important French phrase one could wish to remember there…

    Ou est le chocolat le plus proche, s’il vous plait?

    • bowsprite said, on 2009/07/29 at 05:27

      Ou est la mer? Wo ist das Meer? Dove e il mare? Aiuto!!!

  12. Michael said, on 2009/07/23 at 06:56

    Swiss blogfest!

  13. Celeste Maia said, on 2009/07/23 at 13:27

    Are you feeling better?
    Your influence, now I am always watching the comings and goings to the port of Lisbon. Yesterday a stunning ship very similar to the Sagres went by, all sails, graceful, gliding on the sea, gorgeous. Wish I had a camera so I could show you.

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