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Sunken paddle steamer recalls golden age

The Bellevue sails out onto the lake from Thun (Markus Krebser collection) Die Bellevue sticht von Thun aus in See. (Bild: Sammlung Markus Krebser)

Plans are underway to raise one of Switzerland's first passenger steamboats from its watery grave at the bottom of Lake Thun.

This content was published on March 7, 2003 - 16:01

The vintage paddle steamer Bellevue has lain undisturbed on the lakebed since sinking in a storm in 1864.

Its exact location had remained a mystery until an underwater search team found the vessel last summer.

The boat was lying a few hundred metres from the landing at Oberhofen, 100 metres below the surface and almost entirely covered by sediment.

As the first passenger boat on Lake Thun when it made its maiden voyage in 1835, the Bellevue launched the tourist industry in the Bernese Oberland.

It gave tens of thousands of tourists access to the valleys and towns of the Bernese Oberland, including Interlaken, before the building of roads and railways.

Blue Water Search, which found the paddle steamer, is now discussing how to raise the necessary funds in order to bring the boat back to the surface and into the spotlight once again.

Using underwater cameras, sonar and magnetic detectors, the team deployed the latest technology to locate the vessel. They also required a lot of patience and luck.

Hidden treasure

"The main problem really was that 90 per cent of the vessel was covered with sediment," explained Tomi Peck, one of the team leaders.

"It may well have been that it was once fully covered by sediment and eventually uncovered partially by underwater currents."

The oxygen poor sediment may prove to be a blessing in disguise now that the boat has been located. Peck hopes that it has helped preserve the vessel, or rather what is left of it.

The Bellevue was stripped of its seats and rich ornamentation when it was converted into a barge in 1859.

When it went down in the spring storm, the boat was carrying a load of salt and one sailor, whose body has never been found.

Lengthy search

Last year's discovery of the Bellevue ended an almost 20-year quest by bookshop owner and amateur historian, Markus Krebser.

Krebser had been searching for the sunken vessel since 1985 - the 150th anniversary of steamboat travel on Lake Thun.

But despite his passion for the history of the Lake Thun region - and the Bellevue - Krebser is against attempts to bring it to the surface at any cost.

He says it should only be recovered if the necessary funds to restore it are found.

"It's sensational that it has been found," said Krebser. "But the future of the boat is uncertain."

Funds needed

Blue Water Search estimates the cost of recovering the boat and its restoration at about SFr600,000 ($440,000).

But a price cannot be put on its historical value. There are many restored paddle steamers plying Swiss lakes, but they only date back to the beginning of the 20th century.

The restoration of the Bellevue would fill an important gap in the history of navigation on Swiss lakes.

The only known surviving pieces of the Bellevue are the organ, a foghorn and painted lanterns.

They are all kept at the castle museum in Thun, but the organ is the only item on display.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

Maiden voyage in 1835.
Carried 25,000 passengers the first year.
Took 1.5 hours to travel from Thun to Neuhaus/Interlaken.

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In brief

The Knechtenhofer family built the first hotel in Thun in 1834, the Bellevue. A year later they ordered the construction of a paddle steamer from a shipbuilding company in Paris.

The 50 tons of parts were transported by horse-and-cart from Paris to Thun where it was assembled and launched.

The Bellevue played a key role in opening up the Bernese Oberland to tourism since there were no roads or railways on the shores of Lake Thun at the time.

Converted into a barge, it sunk in 1864 and its exact location remained a mystery until last year.

The amateur historian, Markus Krebser, and the Blue Water Search team which found the vessel hope to find sponsors willing to finance the recovery and restoration of the Bellevue.

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