Vistula Dug-through. First such great river regulation accomplished by human hand

The branches were cut off and the current was held together. “Side effects” of the enterprise turned out to be advantageous for nature. Ornithological reserves, seal beds and sites of rare flora were created.

I intended to see a photo. A few-day stay in Kąty Rybackie on the Vistula Spit encouraged us to pay a visit to Mikoszewo, a village situated on the Eastern bank of Vistula estuary. It is where cruises close by the Mewia Łacha [lit. Seagull Sidebank] on which, reportedly, seals love to lie. Such trips have already been nicknamed – foczing [from Polish “foka”, meaning seal]. But that day the last, afternoon cruise was cancelled off as the cutter broke down. We went on foot, along the right bank of the Vistula: it’s about two kilometers to Mewia Łacha. The river there is embanked. Perfectly fitted huge granite blocks filled with smaller and equally perfectly fitting “cobbled” pebbles.

Well, I thought to myself: somebody must have done a truly great work. But when was it? For although at school I was a diligent student and then I was given the opportunity to visit half of the world, I had never been to the Vistula Spit before nor had I heard of such undertaking upon the Vistula. Probably nor had been the majority of Poles. Meanwhile it was an unprecedented investment, which whole Europe looks at with admiration. The current dug-through between Kąty Rybackie and Krynica Morska is very important for many reasons, but compared to the “Vistula Dug-through” it is small investment.

Shame on me, I haven’t even realized before that our queen, the Vistula flows into the Baltic through an artificial estuary created between 1891 and 1895. Probably It’s due to the fact that back in the day this area belonged to German Russia while in the Polish People’s Republic, as it is commonly known the authorities reluctantly mentioned the Prussian achievements and heritage in the “Recovered Territories”. The same today, when I began to tell my acquaintance about my walks by the monumental “Vistula Dug-through”, everybody automatically thought about the current Vistula Spit Dug-through. In the case of Wrocław, Posen, Stettin or Gdansk where almost every monument is virtually formerly German, the fact started to be recognized. In the case of Zulavia, Varmia and Mazuria i.e. former East Prussia the process of accustoming this “awkward heritage” is advancing more slowly, because in here, during the communist era it was erased more ferociously and the post-war DPs didn’t identify themselves with their new domiciles.

A good example for instance is Olsztynek where, before the city hall, sits a huge ion cut in stone. However it is extremely difficult to find somebody in the city who knows that this lion is the last remnant after a monumental mausoleum (Tannenberg-Denkmal) devoted to field marshal Hindenburg whose construction was ordained by Hitler. Nowadays the area after the mausoleum is grass and bushes, and the passing drivers travelling in the vicinity of Olsztynek on the S7 highway would probably be astounded if they were told that Adolf Hitler himself, together with Paul Hindenburg wanted to be buried on the hill seen from the S7 highway. Not in Berlin, but near Olsztynek. But that’s a different story – let’s go back to upon the Vistula.

A letter to king Stanislaus Augustus

Since the dawn of time the Vistula estuary to the Baltic was a great nuisance for the locals. The river, carrying, especially in spring, millions of tons of floe, sand, stones, logs and mud the river was constantly stuck and it would change its estuary flooding everything in the region. Over time, at the level Gdańska Głowa two branches of the final course – the so-called Gdansk Vistula (nowadays the Dead Vistula) and the Elbląg Vistula (now: Szkarpawa) were formed. But building dams, leveling up of floodbanks, and pile-driving was all in vain. The changeable river flooded Zulavia every spring.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The first preserved plans, from the late 16th Century, show us works consisting in building dams at the Vistula’s estuary, most probably with the help of wooden chests filled with stones. Notes form the 17th Century speak of the construction of numerous dams made of piles as well as of artificial dredging with hand sack buckets. Which was also in vain. The first documented project of a radical solution i.e. of making a dug-through that would eventually direct the river towards the sea by a single estuary comes form 1768.
The Vistula Dug-through on a 1901 map drawn by the Topographical Department of the General Staff of Royal Prussia. Photo: Wikimedia
The author of the project was John George de Woyten, major of the Polish army within the Commonwealth who, from the Malbork castle addressed a memorandum to the king, Stanislaus August Poniatowski. Without any response as the Polish state was already utterly powerless.

The Vistula having come under the well-organized Prussian state made wrestling with the river more dynamic. And although another dug-through project, presented by Frederick August Cochius, Prussian architect and construction engineer wasn’t put into effect either, but dredging, reinforcing the embankments with excavated earth and planting poplar and wicker were carried out more vigorously. Alas, it was still not enough. Therefore during the flow of ice in January 1840 jams were so huge at both estuaries of the Vistula that on a distance of around 20 kilometers the water banked up by 5,6 meters above the surface of the Baltic.

During the night of January 31-February 1, 1840, the jammed river made up a new, third outlet to the sea near the village of Górki. It was called the Bold Vistula. Paradoxically, this very incident caused the dug-through project be postponed. It was due to the fact the river shortened its course by 15 kilometers there, and the flow speeded up, thus deepening the channel. The Gdansk merchants were joyful but the navigation was reduced to almost nothing on the increasingly sanded Elbląg Vistula.

With time nobody doubted anymore that this vicious circle had to be dismantled – to cut off the branches and hold the current together. In 1873 regulation works commenced and they continued until 1886 which cost over 1.3 million German marks. It was also then, in 1877 a new dug-through project, commissioned by the Prussian authorities was submitted by two engineers: Ludwig Alsen and Heinrich Fahl.

As for that time the project was astonishingly bold. It provided not only for digging one direct and controllable river outlet into the sea and cutting off the previous estuaries by a system of sluices and dams but also regulation and deepening of the Vistula on the whole distance controlled by Prussia i.e. from Bydgoszcz onwards. But the estimated cost turn out to be equally gigantic as the project itself – around 20 million German marks, which after converting to today’s prices would give an amount of around 20 billion zlotys. Hence the project was welcomed without enthusiasm and the fickle Vistula kept doing whatever it pleased.

As estimated, since the flood of 1840 till 1889 the river bought to Zulavia over 120 million square meters of mud, not to mention massive ice jams occurring every year. The fertile Zulavia region was still flood-prone while Gdansk and Elbląg merchants were at risk of losses caused by the navigation blockage on the lower Vistula and silting of the Gdansk Bay.

Diggers, locomotives, and cranes

A turning point came only in March 1888 when the river gave Zulavia an extremely damaging flood made the region go back almost to the Middle Ages. On April 6 “Gazeta Olsztyńska” reported from Elbląg: “the upper part of the city is sticking out as an island completely cut off from the world. Pioneer troopers were sent from Toruń to Elbląg and Malbork. The water level Elbląg is so high that houses stand in water up to the first floor. We have received information from Elbląg that due to breaking the dam in Jonasdorf Nogat waters flood an area of 12 square miles. 77 villages are under water whereas 30 thousand people are homeless. On a certain floodbank there are 400 people and cattle under an open sky, without shelter and alimentation. A dispatch was sent for steamers.

The water level in Elbląg remained high until May. Tens of thousands of cows, pigs, hens and horses drowned in almost completely Zulavia; thousands of households were flooded; roads, bridges, sluices, dams and almost the entire infrastructure was useless. There weren’t many casualties but the material losses were estimated at over 30 million marks, so a lot more than the predicted cost of the Alsen & Fahl’s project.

The First Polish Commonwealth, the artichoke of Europe. The real circumstances of the first partition

We will eat the host: Poland – wrote the King of Prussia. The manifesto of the partitioning powers began with the words: “In the name of the Holy Trinity!”.

see more
Any further delay could prove even more costly. Therefore, on June 20, 1888, the Prussian parliament adopted the Act No. 9303 approving the project of the Vistula Dug-through, and on the same day it was signed in Potsdam by the new emperor, William II. Thus, it was confirmed that a new riverbed would be excavated, 7.1 kilometers long, 250 to 400 meters wide and surrounded by 10 meters high flood floodbanks in the section from Przegalina to Gdańsk Bay, along Przemysława, a medieval Vistula arm, which in later years disappeared. At the same time, they were to be cut off with sluices and flood gates of the Vistula Gdańsk, Vistula Elbląska and Nogat, and the course of their floodbanks was altered.

In addition, water and road communication between the ditch dug-through the Gdańsk Vistula had to be redeveloped. The Prussian authorities allocated almost 13 million marks for this purpose, and the remaining 7.2 million were to be contributed by local users, especially the local governmental Union of the Vistula and Nogat Floodbanks, created from the combined floodbank associations of Żuławy Gdańskie, Malborskie and Elbląskie, whose task was to take care of the embankments, observe flood hazard and natural warning.

This is how the Vistula Dug-through, known in German as Weichseldurchstich or Weichseldurchbruch, was finished. A detailed work plan was ready in the spring of 1891. For the execution of the dug-through, including the area between the floodbanks, under them as well for the dug-out soil, a strip of land was acquired, on average 1.1 kilometers wide and 7.5 kilometers long. Over 60 inhabited farms were removed from it, the rest of the land was made up of gardens, arable fields and meadows. In June 1891, the earthworks began.

It was fortunate that the basic works at the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal (later called the Kiel Canal) between the Baltic and the North Sea had just been completed. Therefore, the company Philip Holzman und Co. from Frankfurt, which won the tender, could immediately transfer some of the machines and personnel to the construction site of the Vistula Dug-through. On August 13, 1891, the first steam-powered excavator, the so-called Lubecki Suchy Bager started operating. Its productivity was 1800-2000 cubic meters of excavated material per day. Ultimately, seven such excavators and three mechanized loaders worked at the dug-through, and there were over forty steam engines in total. These were, for example, locomotives pulling freight cars with excavated material and building stone, locomotives driving trench drainage pumps and cranes for unloading building materials.

For four years, seven hundred to a thousand workers had worked daily at the Vistula Dug-through. The organization of labor was perfect. Along the entire ditch, tracks were laid on which 20 trains with 25 locomotives transported the excavated material and stones for the embankment. The places of loading and unloading were already lit by electricity. Pumps drawing water from the trench were working all the time to keep it dry, and two steam cranes on the banks of the Vistula were reloading materials from ships to cars.

Stone for the embankment was delivered from East Prussia by sailing ships and from Bornholm – by small steamers. The making of the dug-through meant the removal of seven million cubic meters of sand. 250,000 cubic meters of fascine and 190,000 cubic meters of stone were also used to strengthen and embank the floodbanks, which were made of excavated material, that would allow for paving a 100,000 square meter plaza.

Telegram from the monarch

The Vistula Dug-through met with great admiration and interest throughout Europe. It was, after all, the greatest river regulation accomplished by human hand in history, and at the same time a spectacular demonstration of the possibilities offered by steam engines and electricity, which were still a novum back in the day. The progress of the work on the construction site was repeatedly reported in the European press, and the Emperor Wilhelm II himself visited the construction site in May 1892. The last German emperor and king of Prussia (he stepped down on November 28, 1918) was a frequent visitor here because he considered the Elbląg Upland to be the most beautiful region in the Reich.
Świbno-Mikoszewo ferry-crossing through the Vistula Cutting, 2004. Photo: Rafał Guz / Forum
Enchanted by the unique mountain landscape in an unusual seaside location, the monarch even had his summer residence built here – the palace in Kadyny, near Tolkmicko. The palace was in the hands of the Hohenzollerns until 1944, and only the approaching Soviet troops forced Prince Ludwig Ferdinand, grandson of Emperor “Bill”, to flee it.

The seven-kilometer ditch was practically ready in November 1894, when it was connected to the Vistula. All that was left was to break through the Vistula Spit, which was planned for the spring of the following year, while the ice was floating. It was to be done by the river itself, just like during the flood in 1840. For this purpose, a narrow ditch less than a meter wide and 1400 m long was dug across the sand dune stretching from Świbno and Mikoszewo to the Baltic shore. 3.5 million cubic meters of sand to be washed away, which was to create a trough spacious enough to hold high waters and masses of ice floes.

The great moment came on Sunday, 31st March 1895. For the entourage of notables, headed by the supreme president of West Prussia, Gustav von Gossler, a provisional house made of pine poles was built on the highest point of the dune in Mikoszewo. Since the emperor was unable to attend the ceremony, a telegraph placed in the cottage sent Gossler a special signal from the ruler at 15:45. It was then that the supreme president was handed a beautifully polished and decorated spade, with which he solemnly pierced the new mouth of the Vistula with the words: “God bless this great work of the West Prussian Province”, and then he raised the spade up, he excited the crowd of thousands gathered on the causeway.

The Vistula River, which in front of the dune in Mikoszewo was already 4.5 m in the dug-through, started its “work”. First, a thin stream, then wider and wider. The provisional house on pine poles, which was initially located 20 meters from the shore, began to tilt more and more and in the evening hours rolled down into the water. By morning, the new estuary of the Vistula had widened to 300 meters, and the water depth was about three meters.

The river separated Mikoszewo from Świbno forever, but a day after the breakthrough, a water communication was opened between them – the boat carried letters and parcels that were waiting for delivery to the right bank from Friday. After a few weeks, it was possible to cut off the Vistula from the previous estuaries – with two sluices built in Przegalin and the sluice in Gdańska Głowa, which were also impressive and very modern investments.

Reserves and ferries

Time has shown that the Vistula Dug-through by all means was a profitable undertaking. Since its opening 127 years ago, in Zulavia there has been no catastrophic ice jam obstruction. Of course, the whole thing requires constant maintenance, dredging, crushing ice floes with icebreakers, etc., but the Prussian workmanship was so solid that even today it can be admired by architects, engineers, builders, hydrologists and many other specialists. The more so because “side effects” of the enterprise turned out to be advantageous for nature, which is particularly appreciated nowadays.

The creation of the dug-through shortened the course of the river by about 10 km an caused the decrease of the basin of the Vistula from which the Motława catchment and its tributaries were cut off. All this resulted in the formation of a “pile cone” enlarged by the river debris carried and deposited by the waters of the Vistula. In practice, from the moment of digging the new estuary, the shoreline in its area moved away by about 3 kilometers towards the Baltic Sea, hence the emergence of Sobieszewo Island, which was previously a mainland, and after the flood in 1840, a peninsula.

Already in 1959, the Ptasi Raj [Bird's Paradise] reserve was established here for over 30 species of water and marsh birds. On the other hand, the continuous expansion of sandbanks deposited by the Vistula River and sea currents made it possible to create, in 1991, on both sides of the dug-through, the Mewia Łacha ornithological reserve with an area of over 150 hectares.

A Polish oasis of order and the liberal sciences in tsarist Russia. Lyceum of Krzemieniec

Just learning: 12,000 species of plants in the garden, textbooks from London, physical instruments from Paris - all paid for with the grain of Volhynia.

see more
The reserve protects the breeding sites of various species of terns, as well as the feeding and resting habitats of plovers and pallid birds. For some species of gulls (such as the little gull or common gull), the reserve is their largest habitat in Europe.

Recently, the main attraction of the Mewia Łacha reserve are seals. These lovable animals love to lie on the sand, especially in the morning and in the evening. They are usually gray seals with a herd of about 200. From time to time, individual specimens of the common seal, much rarer on the Polish coast, also appear. From Mikoszewo and Świbno, cruises are organized to the mouth of the Vistula ditch, in theory enabling the observation of seals on sandbanks. In theory, because despite the intense advertising, there is never a guarantee that the seals will show up However, the presence of a large number of water birds is guaranteed – gulls, terns, ducks and swans.

In the reserve, you can also find sites of rare, protected plants, such as the sea-holly, royal helleborine and linaria odora. The sites of garden angelica, aka Norwegian angelica or wild celery, are absolutely phenomenal. This plant, growing up to 3 meters, with a thick, hollow stem and large, beautifully scented umbels of greenish-white flowers, dominated especially the eastern edge of the ditch from Mikoszewo to the estuary and can be admired from a wild path leading there – a dyke between the river and the delta lake.

The emergence of the dug-through resulted in the interruption of road communication between Świbno and Mikoszewo, and thus the shortest road connection between Gdansk and the Vistula Spit. Therefore, a ferry connection between the two shores was immediately establishd. Currently, it is a cable ferry, guided by a cable attached to both sides of the river and powered by a tug boat flowing by. The ferry takes 21 cars and 100 passengers on board, and its carrying capacity is 90 tons. Crossing to the other side takes less than 5 minutes, and thanks to it the route Gdansk - Krynica Morska is shortened by 23 kilometers.

Unfortunately, there is no more unique steam railway ferry that transported the trains of the narrow-gauge Gdansk Commuter Railway across the Vistula Dug-through. The railway was built in 1886, initially for the needs of the sugar factories in Nowy Staw and Cedry Wielkie. On August 17, 1905, a connection from Gdansk to Świbno was established, where trains reached the Lewy Brzeg Wisły [Vistula’s Left Bank] station. Here they crossed to the other side of the Vistula ditch by train ferry to the Prawy Brzeg Wisły [Vistula’s Right Bank] station in the vicinity of Mikoszewo and continued their journey to Sztutowo, Nowy Dwór or Malbork. The peculiarity of this narrow-gauge railway were the so-called theater trains and a “bath train” from Gdansk to Stegna and Sztutowo.

Another ferry connection, which transported prisoners to the Stutthof camp during the war, had been in service until 1945. It was renewed in 1948-1956, while still operating the old German steam ferry, which, without proper maintenance, was in danger of sinking. From then on, until 1971, narrow-gauge passengers were transported by a motorboat, after which the entire line on the left side of the Vistula was eliminated.

Memorial boulders

Today, a great opportunity to admire this great investment, which is the Vistula Dug-through, is a walk along its reinforced banks, a cable ferry crossing or a cruise to the vicinity of Mewia Łacha. In Mikoszewo itself, right on the main road (No. 501), near the fire station, there is a red stone with the inscription “Prinz Albrecht's Höhe. 30.8.1896”. It is a memento of the visit of prince Albrecht Hohenzollern, regent of the Duchy of Brunswick field marshal and nephew to Emperor Wilhelm I. The prince sailed to Mikoszewo on board the steamer “Gottfried Hagen” and inspected the new estuary of the Vistula. Since the area around the river was flat, the prince had to move to the highest hill in the vicinity. On its top, at an altitude of 33 meters above sea level, a stone was erected with the date August 30, 1886 and the inscription “Prinz Albrecht's Höhe”, that is to say the hill of Prince Albrecht.
In the 1960s, the aforementioned stone was moved to the center of the village, and the stone stairs leading to the hill were pulled down. There are apparently plans to recreate the stairs and erect an observation tower. In Świbno, on the other hand, right next to the ferry crossing, there has been a stone since 1995 with a plaque commemorating the centenary of the opening of the dug-through, but no single word on who actually dug the canal.

It is similar with two boulders placed in the spring of 2015, in Błotnik, on the 120th anniversary of the opening of the cutting. On the first boulder, standing alone on the embankment away from everything, there is an inscription “The beginning of the Vistula Dug-through from March 31, 1895” and a map showing the course of the ditch. The second boulder placed in the Błotnik itself, with an identical map, describes this event in a slightly more detailed way: “To commemorate the 120th anniversary of the Vistula Dug-through. Until 1885, the Vistula River flowed through the Sailing Harbor in Błotnik. Thanks to the implementation of the investment, a new estuary of the Vistula was built in the years 1890-1895 and the area of Żuławy was secured against flooding”. The stone was erected at the expenditure of the inhabitants of the Cedry Wielkie commune. But only amateurs of history can associate that it was a Prussian investment.

–Krzysztof Darewicz
-translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Grey seals lying on Focza Łacha [Seal Sandbank] in the “Mewia Łacha” [Seagull Sandbank], Sobieszewska Island. Photo: Łukasz Dejnarowicz / Forum
See more
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Pomeranian Crime: Whoever is Polish must disappear
Between September and December, 1939, 30,000 people in 400 towns of Pomerania were murdered.
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Escape from Stalag – Christmas Eve Story 1944
Prisoners sought shelter in a German church... It was a mistake.
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
New Moscow in Somalia
The Russian press called him "the new Columbus".
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
Anonymous account by Witold Pilecki
The friend with whom they had escaped from KL Auschwitz was killed on August 5. He died with the words: “for Poland”.
History wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
Journalist purge to restore media monopoly
Only “trusted people” were allowed to work; over 100 employees were interned.