The ferry dock at Meilen.
Swiss Museum of Transport, Lucerne

The floating bridge on Lake Zurich

It seems the left and right shores of Lake Zurich are separated by more than just a lake: they’re known in the local vernacular as the ‘Pfnüselküste’ and the ‘Goldküste’. But no matter how dissimilar the lakeshores may be, there is agreement on one point: the unifying element is the Lake Zurich ferries.

Jean-Luc Rickenbacher

Jean-Luc Rickenbacher is a historian and curator at the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne.

Due to losing the sun earlier in the day, the ‘Pfnüselküste’ is suspected of causing more colds and sniffles among its inhabitants. The south-facing slope of the ‘Goldküste’, on the other hand, ensures residents there enjoy many more hours of sunshine. One side is characterised by industry, while the other is the home of the well-to-do. How did the two shores of Lake Zurich come to be connected by a ferry?

Founder’s share certificate valued at 1,000 francs, for the Horgen-Meilen Lake Zurich ferry company (Zürichsee-Fähre Horgen-Meilen AG) dated 27 August 1932.
Zürichsee-Fähre Horgen-Meilen AG

The ferry ‘Schwan’ docking at Horgen.
Zürichsee-Fähre Horgen-Meilen AG

The ‘Schwan’ preparing for departure in Meilen. The bascule bridges integrated into the vessel’s superstructure were a characteristic feature.
Zürichsee-Fähre Horgen-Meilen AG

Difficult beginnings

Lake Zurich is about 28 km long from Rapperswil to Zurich, but never more than 4 km wide. The idea of shortening the time-consuming journey around the lake by bringing in a ferry service at roughly the centre – between Horgen and Meilen – was initially met with chilly resistance. The suggestion had come from a Basel resident, the engineer and former director of the Oberrheine Schleppschifffahrtsgesellschaft (Upper Rhine towing vessel company) Julius Ott. In September 1930, a local council study commission in the municipality of Horgen asked the general public for its views on a ferry service for the first time. This service would make it possible ‘to get to eastern Switzerland by the shortest route, without having to use the narrow and hazardous [!] road across the Rapperswil causeway or the traffic-clogged streets of the city of Zurich’. It was only when Switzerland’s first car ferries started operating regularly on Lake Constance and Lake Lucerne that the project finally moved a big step closer, with the founding of the ‘Zürichsee-Fähre Horgen-Meilen AG’, the Horgen-Meilen Lake Zurich ferry company, in 1932. However, the bringing into service of the first ferry, ‘Schwan’, was delayed. When it was launched, the ferry, equipped with two diesel engines manufactured by Swiss Locomotive and Machine Works (SLM) in Winterthur and four propellers, couldn’t be navigated, and ended up going round in circles. After retrofitting with rudders and quite a number of extra costs, the ferry went into operation on 4 November 1933.

Maiden voyage of the new ferry ‘Meilen’ on 2 August 1979. The invited guests included FDP National Councillor Kurt Müller (1925-2016, front group of four, first person from right). To his left is the chairman of the board of Zürichsee-Fähre Horgen-Meilen AG, Kurt Richi.
Zürichsee-Fähre Horgen-Meilen AG

Long-term success

After some initial teething problems, the Lake Zurich ferry became a model of successful operation. By the end of 1934, the ‘Schwan’ had transported a total of 190,812 people, 14,307 bicycles, 11,708 passenger cars, 1,087 lorries and 1,102 carts from one side of the lake to the other. Although operating costs increased dramatically, the Lake Zurich ferry initially continued operating after the outbreak of World War II. At the same time, however, due to petrol rationing, there were very few passenger cars on Switzerland’s roads. As a result, ferry operations had to be stopped on 1 November 1942. The economic boom in the post-war period led to a massive increase in the number of cars. On numerous occasions vehicles had to be turned away at Horgen and Meilen because the ferry was already fully loaded. After the rebuild of the ‘Schwan’ in 1969, the fleet needed to be expanded: in 1979 the ‘Meilen’ joined the ferry family, followed by the ‘Horgen’ in 1991, the ‘Zürisee’ in 1998 and the ‘Burg’ in 2003. All the ferries were manufactured by the Bodan shipyard in Kressbronn, Germany. This fleet expansion paid off, because the demand for ferry services continued to increase and the service was able to move to a 10-minute pattern. On the weekend of the ‘Züri Fäscht’, the Zurich Festival, in summer 2007, around 20,000 vehicles and more than 33,000 people made use of the alternative route across the Lake.

Launch of the ferry ‘Meilen’ at Wollishofen on 2 August 1979.
Zürichsee-Fähre Horgen-Meilen AG

Extraordinary events

Apart from the normal daily operation, a number of extraordinary events have taken place between Horgen and Meilen. One memorable episode was the rescue of well-known experimental film-maker Isa Hesse-Rabinovitch (1917-2003) on 20 May 1996. The daughter-in-law of Hermann Hesse mixed up the accelerator and the brake pedal, sending her Opel Corsa smashing through the lashing straps on the ‘Meilen’ and, together with the 78-year-old driver, plunging into the chilly waters of Lake Zurich. While the car transformed into a submarine, ferry crewman Ruedi Rohr leapt into the water and rescued Mrs Hesse and her dog, Gipsy. Thanks to his heroic intervention, Rohr made the front page of the tabloid Blick. In the same year, Roger Cardinal from Condor Films chose the Lake Zurich ferries as a backdrop for his film Lost Daughter. In the movie Richard Chamberlain, who found global fame with the series The Thorn Birds, arrives at the port in Meilen on board the ‘Schwan’. Only rarely have the forces of nature managed to interfere with the reliable operation of the ferries. One exception was Hurricane Lothar, which created waves metres high on Lake Zurich on 26 December 1999. The ferry ‘Horgen’, which had travelled across to Meilen, was unable to dock at the landing pier there. The boatmaster had no choice but to return to the ferry’s point of departure.

Because of Storm Lothar, on 26 December 1999 the ‘Horgen’ was unable to dock at Meilen.
Zürichsee-Fähre Horgen-Meilen AG

The Swiss military’s Spital-Regiment 7 crossed Lake Zurich by ferry in May 1998.
Zürichsee-Fähre Horgen-Meilen AG

Today, the new ferry ‘Meilen’ is the jewel of Lake Zurich. The ferry replaced its predecessor of the same name in 2017.
Zürichsee-Fähre Horgen-Meilen AG

Further posts

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Landesmuseum Zürich
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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).