In the early years of the 21. century, when Brigitte worked voluntarily at the local Eglisau Museum, I prepared these notes for a guided tour we were asked to give in English.
Eglisau is a tiny town, a “Städtli”, on the Rhine midway between Zurich and Schaffhausen. It lies on two important communication routes: the river which connects the Lake of Constance in the east with Basel in the west and the road joining Schaffhausen and the bigger German towns in the north with Zurich and the Gotthard in the south. Up until 100 years ago, the Rhine was central to the lives of all the citizens of Eglisau. They made a living as fishermen or they transported merchandise on the Rhine or they served the many travellers and merchants and carters who wanted to cross it or to stay overnight in their hotels before continuing their trip. Even the winegrowers were successful thanks to the river which had cut out a valley ideal for grape growing.
If one visits the Eglisau Museum one will see objects and models and pictures of Eglisau as it was. Because it was such an important place to cross the river there are pictures and models of the bridges that were built here. For the same reason that it was an important and strategic crossroads it was made one of six seats of local governors (Landvögte) who ruled the provinces around Zurich. The Eglisau governors were here for three hundred years (ca. 1500-1800) and before them it was ruled by the Barons of Tengen, German nobility who were also present for about three hundred years (ca. 1200-1500). These last built a castle on the south side of the river opposite the church, a castle that was used later by the local governors and finally pulled down in the 19th century.
Eglisau was first mentioned in 892 when the abbot Gozbert bequeathed “Zeglins Owa” (the au or meadow opposite where the Eglisau church now stands) to the cloister in Rheinau. In the 12th century it fell into the hands of the Barons of Tengen who built a castle on the au and also started the settlement on the north side of the river. A Romanesque church was built on the site of the present church and it was connected to the castle by a covered wooden bridge. The castle had a tower tall enough to look out over the plain to the south. All traffic crossing the bridge had to pass through the castle. In the time of the Landvögte (300 years later) this was still the case. The bridge was a toll bridge and the money paid in here was sent to Zurich where it represented a substantial amount of the total revenue of the city.
During the French invasion of 1798 the castle suffered under the barrages of French and Russian cannons – the Russians, worried by Napoleon’s plans for expansion had sent an army out to stop him. When the French seemed to have the upper hand the Russians retreated over the Rhine burning the Eglisau wooden bridge behind them.
Napoleon imposed a “modern” French type of centralized government on Switzerland which was a death-blow to the Landvogtei (local governor system) and so the castle (the governor’s residence) was no longer needed. In 1811 the whole of the eastern part of the castle was torn down to make a more convenient approach to the new wooden bridge, and thirty years later (1841) the tower and the manor house suffered the same fate because of the building of the more practical road along the Rhine.
The town was surrounded by deep trenches on three sides and by the river on the other. It had three gates: The Wiler-Gate between the church and the town hall (today the school) on the east side; the Rhine-Gate at the north end of the bridge, and the biggest one, the Törli (= the little gate!) or Obertor, stood near where the present council building is. The two gates east and west of the town were also equipped with draw-bridges.
Traffic which came from the south would cross the river and enter the town at the north end of the bridge, climb up the steep Untergass to the Törli and on up the hill to the plain.
The steep sides of the Rhine meant that most horse transport needed extra help to pull their loads up these roads and so an important business in Eglisau was the so-called Vorspann or extra horses that were used for this purpose. Other related jobs were blacksmiths, leather-workers and cart and wheelwrights for repairs to all horse and cart gear and the hotels for the travellers who stayed overnight before continuing their journeys.
Already the ancient Romans probably crossed the Rhine from the meadow of Seglingen (site of the old castle). In 1249 a bridge was mentioned for the first time. In 1549 a new one was built which was destroyed in 1799 as mentioned above during the French invasion.
Between 1895 and 1897 the spectacular rail viaduct over the Rhine was built allowing a regular service between Zurich and Schaffhausen, indeed connecting Germany with Italy:
In 1811 the master builder Stadler constructed a new wooden bridge which performed its duty until the flooding caused by the Rhine dam in 1919, when it was replaced by the present stone road bridge.
Because of the resulting high water level the houses on the Rheingasse and the hamlet Oberriet also disappeared.
In the 14th century the Romanesque church which had been built by the Barons of Tengen was enlarged and given a Gothic choir. In 1464 the baron Bernhard Gradner from Steyrmark (Austria) bought the right to rule Eglisau. He enlarged the castle and also the church increasing its length by 3 metres and giving it a choir and a tower covered with a pointed spire. In the choir he had a series of frescoes painted which were partly destroyed and then plastered over during the Reformation in 1523. These pictures were found again in 1960 when the plaster was removed. Also still visible today in the choir of the church is the memorial slab with a sculpture of Bernhard Gradner shown in full armour.
Gradner was responsible for many other artistic works in the church which however did not survive the destructive zeal of the Reformation. In 1716 the church was dismantled and rebuilt in the style of St. Peter’s in Zurich with a tower of tuff stone and an onion dome.
Fortunately the old choir remained with its magnificent 15th century frescoes which were to be rediscovered two and a half centuries later.
Weierbach House – Local Museum Eglisau
Built in 1670 it is a typical baroque construction of the region in the 17th century: large, solid, half-timbered, steep gabled roof, decorated eaves (here painted like the night sky), Zürivieri = Zurich-4 (often seen in the corners of the eaves in houses of this period – see picture below), painted lines parallel to the timbers give the impression of solid stone blocks (imitation of city houses).
It was built as a vintner’s house, with a wine pressing room with ventilation holes in the walls and a wine cellar with a double arched ceiling. The living rooms were quite luxurious for the time indicating that the first owner was probably fairly rich, although much later inhabitants were simple people including coopers (barrel makers), a grave digger and Italian seasonal workers. A part of the house was possibly used during the time of the local governors for administration of the castle. It is a mystery how such a splendid house came to be built outside the protection of the Eglisau town walls.
In 1965 it was bought by the local council, renovated in 1976/77 at a cost of 1’250’000 francs and is today used as a museum:
First floor: Living rooms and special exhibitions
Second and Third floors are the main display rooms of the museum plus the caretaker’s flat. In the Bürgerstube (Citizen’s Room) on the 2nd floor one can see the internal decoration as it probably was at the time when the house was built: Tiled oven for heating, wooden panelled ceiling, a sideboard from the Pulverturm (a doctor’s house near the Törli) and windows with tiny circular “bull’s eye” panes. On one of the latter is a copy of a stained glass coat of arms made in 1554 (original in the Landesmuseum, Zurich) which shows in the outer circle shields from seven castles in the Landvogtei Eglisau.
All the pictures on the walls of the Bürgerstube are paintings by or of Salomon Landolt (1741-1818). Salomon Landolt was the last governor (1795-98) before the French occupation, who later became famous through Gottfried Keller’s delightful short story Der Landvogt von Greifensee. (He was Governor in the Landvogtei Greifensee before coming to Eglisau). He was appreciated by his subjects as a wise and fair ruler and as a competent farmer and military leader as well as a gifted painter.
Glass doors lead from the Bürgerstube to the Models Room which displays models of Eglisau as it was, the castle, the Törli and a large model of the last wooden bridge built in 1810.
Reading clockwise round the walls is an overview of the main events in Eglisau’s history, illustrated by many pictures and objects of the time.
Fishing and Transport
The upper floor is dedicated to two of the most important themes of the museum: fishing and transport on the river. Up until the beginning of the 20th century the river was a breeding ground for salmon. This very large and tasty fish started its life at the foot of the Rhine Falls just below Schaffhausen. The young fish swam downstream to the ocean where they spent 3 or 4 years growing in the salt water. When they were sexually mature they returned to their place of birth to spawn and so to create the next generation of salmon. This return swim up the Rhine was fraught with difficulties, not the least of which were the many fishermen who were waiting all along the way with sophisticated traps and nets and forks. Once in fresh water these large fat fish stopped feeding (which meant that normal baits on hooks were of no use to catch them). The further upstream they came the thinner they got and at the same time their skin colour changed to indicate their intention of mating and creating thousands of off-spring. This change in appearance is so dramatic that German has a special name for the sexually active adult fish: Lachs. So fish that entered the Rhine as Salmon had by the time they reached Eglisau become Lachs. The flesh of the Lachs was not as delicate as that of the Salmon but it was nevertheless a very important part of the diet of all the inhabitants of the towns that lined this very long river. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, a series of hydroelectric power stations were built which stopped the Lachs from reaching their spawning ground and therefore killed the fishing industry.
Half the exhibition space on the upper floor of the museum is devoted to Lachs fishing. In the middle is a Weidling – the typical boat of this part of the Rhine. These boats are constructed of a flattish bottom curved fore and aft and two flat sides.
The sides are fixed to the bottom with special braces or angular brackets which were cut from the trunk and its connecting branch of a small tree. The boards that make up the bottom and sides of the boat had to be “caulked” to make them water tight. This was done with the leaves of a water reed (reedmace) which were rolled to a long sausage shape, stuffed into the gap between the boards and covered by a long lath with triangular cross-section which was fixed in place by rows of staples. These Weidling are still very commonly seen on the Rhine, but today they are pleasure boats (often equipped with outboard motors), their function as fishing vessels or freight carriers (propelled by an oarsman standing at the rear of the boat) has been lost. The Weidling exhibited in the Eglisau Museum was used here for many years as a fishing boat. A crane on the street lifted it up to the third floor where the central window post between the double windows had to be removed in order to bring it inside. Alongside the boat is a row of objects (nets, baskets, traps, forks and spears) used by the Eglisau fishermen. There are also models of some of the more refined fishing devices and pictures illustrating their use. In the north west corner of the room is a very interesting video showing footage made around the 1930s of fishing practice on the Rhine near Basel.
In the days of the Landvögte the fishermen had first to offer their catch to the governor. What he didn’t want could be sold at the market - there were two markets per week - and what was left over was sent to the city of Zurich. One specially tasty fish, the Nase, was only allowed to be caught by the Landvogt (or his servants).
The Weidling displayed in the Museum has a “Lantern Basket” hanging from its bow. This was used for nocturnal fishing when it was filled with pine wood which was burned to illuminate the water below it. Especially during winter when the Rhine level was low and the water clear, the fish could be seen sitting in holes at the bottom of the river. When the fishermen saw a salmon in the light of the fire they threw down their spears. Later, after 1875, spears were forbidden and were replaced by cover nets (Deckbähren).
One of the most import commodities that was transported on the Rhine was salt. It was mined in Austria (near Salzburg) and carted over land to the Lake of Constance, where it was loaded onto Weidlinge, taken to Schaffhausen, where it had to be carried around the Rhine Falls. and then on by boat to Eglisau. The salt was packed in long barrels called Röhrli which were laid crosswise in a Weidling. One has to imagine the Rhine as a fast moving and in places quite dangerous waterway (these days the many power stations along the river have tamed it somewhat). To reduce the danger of rolling over and of losing the precious cargo, it was customary to tie two or three boats side by side together, forming what was known as a Gfährt (see the model of a Gfährt in the gallery above the top floor).
In Eglisau just upstream from the church on the shore by the river was the Salt House, a large building for storing and redistributing salt. Salt was an essential mineral for the preservation of food, especially meat. Without it the population could not survive the winter. The average amount of salt used in these pre-refrigerating times was about 13 kg per person per year (these days it is about 8 kg). The cost of salt was considerable: the average man had to work for about two weeks to earn enough for the salt needs of his family for one year. Today he can do this in a matter of hours. The importance of salt transport on the Rhine remained until salt was discovered in Muttenz (near Basel) in the middle of the 19th century. With the advent of the railway (also in the middle of the 19th century) freight transport in general on the Rhine died out.
Just up stream from the Salt House was a Mill Boat (used for milling grain) anchored in the river. The hull of this boat (which was bigger than the local boat builders could manage) was made in Canton Bern, floated down the Aare and tugged up the Rhine to Eglisau. The mill and mill wheels were made here in Eglisau especially to fit onto this empty hull and it functioned very efficiently since the boat rose and fell with any change in river water level and so the paddle wheels were always at the optimum position in the water. The only problem was that flood waters could prove too much for it and occasionally carried it off down stream.
Eglisau Hydro-Electric Power Station
The building of the hydro-electric power stations at the beginning of the 20th century was not only catastrophic for the salmon fishing, but the Eglisau power station (at Rheinsfelden) also had serious consequences for the Städtli. The damming of the river caused a rise in water level of 7 to 8 meters at Eglisau. The once lively torrent became a lazy slow moving river, almost a lake. All the houses that lined the river (see picture above), including the old wooden bridge, had to be pulled down.
Health Resort/Mineral Springs
In 1821/22 attempts were made to find underground salt deposits in Eglisau, first on the left bank near the old castle and then on the right bank, where at a depth of 240 m an artesian spring was found with mineral content (41-42 l/min, 14°) but no salt. Six decades long this water flowed unused into the Rhine.
In 1879 a health resort near the site of the present road bridge was planned at a cost of 25’000 francs but, due to constant enlargement of the plans it was finished at a cost of 95’000! The risk of the enterprise had become too great for the Eglisau shareholders who sold out to a hotel manager, J.G. Sutter. It was opened with a big celebration in 1880 and was initially a big success, especially due to the health resort doctor, Dr Josef Wiel, who was also author of a diet cookbook (see museum show case top floor) and lecturer in hygiene at the Polytechnicum (ETH) and offered cures for stomach diseases. Unfortunately both Wiel and Sutter died a year after the opening and Sutter’s son, who tried to continue the business was incompetent and it went bankrupt in 1885. After 1991 it continued as a normal hotel until the building was bought by the Hydro-Electric Power Station (NOK) in 1915 and pulled down in 1918 because of the imminent rise of the Rhine water level.
The mineral water continued to be sold and in 1924 NOK sold the business to the firm Haller and Voser, who erected a new building on the site of the old health resort and thus started a business which for a while was the biggest mineral water supplier in Switzerland. Most of the water was, however, sold as cordial because the public didn’t appreciate the strong mineral taste.
The business grew until there was no more room to expand and so a new site was chosen on the opposite side of the river near the railway station where two new springs with almost ten times as much water were found. This new complex of buildings (after many changes of owners) was opened in 1970 and the old building on the Rhine was turned into private flats.
The Eglisau Vineyards (no display in the Museum so far)
Wine has been made in Eglisau for more than 1000 years. At first wine was enjoyed only by the noblemen and the clergy. In the late middle ages, however, it gradually replaced beer as a folk drink. Nevertheless the vineyards in Eglisau were owned by the upper class who rented them out to the winegrowers. These farming people were expected to give as rent half their production to the noble owner of their land. In addition, every 10th barrel had to be given to the state as tax.
Because of its special sunny slopes Eglisau expanded as a wine growing town and as it did, so did the related trades: From 1634 when there were 3 coopers (barrel-makers) it grew to be a centre of barrel making in the 18th century when there were 13 coopers. Another related trade was the selling of wine, where merchants became much richer than the farmers who made it. For a long time it was forbidden to sell foreign wine in Eglisau but, of course, no law against selling “Eglisauer” elsewhere.
The quality was extremely variable depending on the weather conditions and on plant diseases. A good year could mean that the income from the sale of wine was more than the town’s total expenses. A bad year could mean using the sour liquid for making plaster!
In the 19th century the vineyards covered 50 hectares of Eglisau’s slopes. Then came a series of setbacks including the grape louse which arrived from the USA and a decision was made to limit the amount of production, to work in syndicates for spraying, picking, pressing, etc. and the area was reduced to 15 hectares (mostly of pinot noir) to concentrate on quality rather than quantity.