100 years since establishment of Czechoslovakia’s Labská Shipping Joint-Stock Company

Labská JSC's ships in Magdeburg

Once the largest river shipping company in Central Europe, Labská JSC was established thanks to the recognition of the Elbe as an international river. Its founders were the then Czechoslovak state as well as several banks. The establishment was approved by parliament on June 13, 1922.

Labská JSC's ship in Děčín | Photo: Československá plavba labská

The Czechoslovak state acquired ships after the end of the First World War as war reparations. These were then placed into the newly set-up company. Specifically, Labská JSC possessed 18 steamers, 11 speedboats, 189 boats, 7 chain steamers, 12 port steamers, 7 storage boats, 49 barges and 21 other support vessels. The company employed around 1,000 when it was founded and was based in the Northern Bohemian city of Děčín, which lies along the Elbe. Most of the initial sailors were German citizens with experience of navigating the river. It was only after the introduction of vocational courses in sailing that the company was able to start hiring Czechoslovak citizens in large numbers.

The Golden Era

Photo: Československá plavba labská

Labská JSC gradually grew in size as more modern motor cargo ships and tugs began to be constructed. However, further development of the company was hindered by the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1949 the company was nationalist and during the 1950s it was renamed to Československá plavba labsko-oderská ČSPLO (Czechoslovak Elbe-Oder Shipping). During socialism, specifically in the 1980s, the ČSPLO reached its zenith as it became the largest river shipping company in Central Europe with around 4,000 employees.

Photo: Československá plavba labská

The company owned ports in many cities that lay along the Elbe. Aside from Děčín, these included Ústí nad Labem, Lovosice, Mělník, Prague and Kolín. Roughly 700 Czechoslovak ships would transport up to a million tons of cargo along the Elbe from Děčín to Hamburg every year. This was also possible thanks to the advantageous lease agreement on part of the Hamburg port after World War I.

Labská JSC's ships in Magdeburg  (1967) | Photo: Steffen Ritter,  Bundesarchiv,  picture Nr. 183-F0506-0011-001,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Decline after 1989

Photo: Jan Bachorík,  Czech Radio

The company’s gradual decline began after the fall of communism and the onset of privatisation. The Elbe shipping route also began to be less important during the 1990s. Having lost its profits from transporting coal, the company was also plagued by bad management and years of unusually shallow water. It eventually went bankrupt in 2001.

Photo: Daniela Pilařová,  Czech Radio

Parts of the company were eventually sold off and still continue to operate. The shipping component went to a company called Argo Bohemia. Meanwhile, the docks were sold to České loděnice (Czech Shipyards). Finally, the harbour component was taken over by Česko-saské přístavy (Czech-Saxon Harbours). Further changes in ownership then took place in 2018. Today, the remains of the company are no longer in Czech hands as the Argo Bohemia share was bought by German company Rhenus. What remains is also considerably smaller than 100 years ago. Rhenus employs 71 employees and operates 24 ships.