Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
After nearly six years of construction and over a decade-long tug-of-war with various authorities, on February 18, 1902 Berlin´s first electric and predominantly elevated city railway opened for service.
The construction of Stammstrecke, or “Core/Stem Line” connecting Warschauer Brücke with Zoologischer Garten – two important railway junctions in the east and the west of the city (or, rather, cities since Charlottenburg and Schöneberg, which were to profit from the connection, were independent cities then), made its architects and engineers involved in the project face completely new challenges.
They also had to face a particularly strong wave of scepticism, bordering on hostility. Everybody wanted to get connected but nobody wanted either to see or to hear the trains dashing through their streets along steel viaducts. Not to mention the fact that their level of enthusiasm for the viaducts themselves was, to put it mildly, negligible.
Eventually, Charlottenburg and Schöneberg, put their foot down and demanded the line be built under the ground and out of sight for their more refined, aesthetically-sensitive citizens: well-heeled, influential residents forced the city authorities to re-negotiate a contract they signed with Siemens & Halske, the company which designed and built the line.
Charlottenburg went as far as to demand the line vanish under the street level as soon as it entered their territory, which then meant at Nollendorfplatz – now in Schöneberg, until 1938 Nollendorfplatz and Wittenbergplatz were part of Charlottenburg as well as a meeting point for the borders of all three cities, including Berlin. Eventually, both Charlottenburg and Schöneberg – which followed in its western neighbour´s footsteps and wished no elevated Bahnhof spoiled the view of their part of Nollendorfplatz either – had to accept the fact that laws of physics did not allow any trains to safely enter a subterranean tunnel directly from an elevated station. Instead, a descending ramp was needed, and built, in Kleistraße to have Hochbahn trains drive into the tunnel leading towards Bhf “Wittenbergplatz” gracefully and safely.
But on February 18, 1902 that section of the line was not yet available. The Western Stammstrecke would not open for another month (until March 11, 1902). On that winter Tuesday the first electric trains started from the underground station “Potsdamer Platz” and the elevated station “Stralauer Tor” at 5.25AM and 5.47AM respectively. At the time “Potsdamer Platz”, a devilishly difficult station to build, was the only subterranean stop on the new line. The rest was a Hochbahn, an elevated line.
Perhaps slightly confusingly, the term U-Bahn, for Unterpflasterbahn (lit. “under-the-pavement railway”), is used for both types of trains today. It makes things easier as both U1 and U2, the direct descendants of the old “Stammstrecke”, combine both types: they travel along their respective viaducts and then vanish under the street level.
But on the 18th of February, 1902 things were still quite simple: a steel viaduct ran from a station built at the northern end of Oberbaumbrücke, a bridge spanning the Spree between today´s Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg (a bridge built along with the viaduct and hiding its steel frame in the mock-gothic brickwork), snaking its way through Oberbaumstraße, Skalitzer Straße and continuing down to Kottbusser Tor.
From there it went further west to Hallesches Tor where it had it be partly embedded in the Landwehrkanal embankment (in fact, the station “Hallesches Tor”, built like a massive tank partly hanging over the water, has its foundations in the canal bed). Then along the canal it went towards the junction at the Gleisdreieck. Until 1912 there was no station “Gleisdreieck”, just a tremendously complicated, nearly 20 metres high intersection of three double sets of tracks – hence the name which means “triangle”. From there the line´s first regular passengers travelled to the said ”Potsdamer Platz”.
The Östliche-Stammstrecke, a nearly 6-km long elevated railway line, had eight stations: “Warschauer Brücke” (not opened until August 1902, so not used on the opening day, and since 1995 called “Warschauer Straße”), “Stralauer Tor” which was not re-built after WWII, “Schlesisches Tor”, “Oranienstraße” (later “Görlitzer Bahnhof”), “Kottbusser Tor”, “Prinzenstraße”, “Hallesches Tor” and “Möckernbrücke” – technically, the last stop on the original Hochbahn route, U-Bhf “Potsdamer Platz”, counted as another branch. Interestingly, the word “Tor”, or gate, appearing in most of the station names shows that the viaduct was constructed along the old, 18th/19th-century Berlin city wall – all of them commemorate actual city gates.
Passengers who used the first Hochbahn trains had to pay a fare of 50 Pfenning for a 2nd-class ticket and 30 for a the 3rd-class ticket: like Stadtbahn, Berlin´s older and then still using steam locomotives East-West city line north of the Spree, Hochbahn trains had no 1st class carriages. Those prices were intentionally high: Hochbahn`s management wished to keep the number of passengers low on the first days of business. They wanted to prevent over-crowding on the trains and negative feedback from irritated passengers.
Each of the trains, which could take up to 120 guests, comprised three cars painted shiny burgundy-red (2nd class) and mustard-yellow (3rd class). The 3rd-class cars doubled up as engine cars and, like today, had small front compartments for the driver.
The line´s time schedule, which had been tested from the afternoon of February 15 – starting right after the famous Ministerfahrt, “Minister Run”, attended by top state officials and the project´s management (despite prior declarations of interest, the Kaiser did not participate in the event) – followed a 5-minute tact. Later it was changed to 3 or even 2 minutes and as such was quite the same as today´s.
Famous for its precision and care for detail, Siemens & Halske, or rather the Hochbahngesellschaft – a company established to finance the project as well as to represent Siemens & Halske in all legal matters – insisted on testing the schedule, too. On February 16th, 1902 empty trains ran from 7AM until 1AM, while a day later, on the 17th, they started at what was to become fixed opening hours, at 5.26AM until 0.30AM. Needless to say, it all went like a clockwork.
Unfortunately, the names of the first passengers who travelled on the first Hochbahn trains were never recorded. But it is a safe bet that they knew they had been part of something extraordinary. After all, they were there when another great chapter in Berlin´s history was written. Or, to be more precise, driven:-)
Here are images of all stations opened on February 18, 1902.
If you are interested in the history of Berlin´s original elevated and underground railway, you will definitely enjoy listening to the next podcast produced by the excellent Walrus & the Bear – the show, featuring yours truly as a slightly madcap, sworn U1-afficionado, will be available online from the last week in February.
Also, I am looking forward to beginning a series of live tours of Berlin´s original Stammstrecke (early this spring) as well as offering the same tours as an adition to my Kreuzberg audio-tour through VoiceMap. It´s time to get on that train!