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