Steamboats celebrate 200 years on Prague’s Vltava

Vltava steamboat, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Two hundred years ago today on June 1, 1817, the first steamboat took to the waters of the Vltava in Prague. The attempt to launch steamboat transport did not meet with immediate success for their pioneer, but they later grew to be an important and continuing feature of the Czech capital’s transport and tourist scene.

Vltava steamboat,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
Prague’s steamboat pioneer was Josef Božek, a man who had already put together and demonstrated the first steam powered car in 1815 in Bohemia. Božek turned his attention to water transport and designed his own steamboat which was demonstrated to a curious admission paying audience on the banks of an offshoot of the Vltava.

The audacious experiment was not a success – not because of any problems with the steamboat itself but because someone ran off with the collection box containing the admission fees. Božek’s ambitions were holed, he was in debt, and he destroyed the steam engine and gave up experiments with the new power source for the rest of his life. But although the idea of steamboat transport on the Vltava did not immediately float, it did return with force around two decades later and steam soon became a power to be reckoned with.

Jan Hamza,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
To some extent, Jan Hamza, the head of Prague’s biggest and oldest ongoing water transport company, the Prague Steamboat Company, is the beneficiary of Božek and other pioneers. It’s fleet of pleasure craft include the two last steamboats now operating out of Prague, the 350-pasenger Vyšehrad and the 200-capacity Vltava.

As Hamza recounts, the Vyšehrad, dating from 1938, and the Vltava, launched two years later, both arrived in an era when the steamboat heyday was already drawing to a close.

"The biggest success was in 1921 when there were transported on the Vltava, and partly on the Elbe as well because the routes were quite long and went up all the way till Děčín, 2.1 million customers during the steamboat season.ʺ

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů
For the passengers then, as today, one of the attractions of a leisurely steamboat ride on the river is that you can easily take in the top tourist sights which Prague has to offer with a minimum of effort and avoiding most of the crowds. Jan Hamza again:

ʺThanks to the arrangement of the Vltava, we can offer the most beautiful scenes that Prague has to offer right from a pleasure boat on the river. Our customers can go right through the historic centre of the city, they go past the National Theatre, by Prague Castle, and of course under Charles Bridge. With smaller boats we can also go on Čertovka, the so-called Prague Little Venice. We go through the centre and past some of the most beautiful monuments Prague has to offer.ʺ

Vltava steamboat,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
Steam and pleasure boats in Prague have seen something of a comeback in recent years, largely thanks to tourism.

ʺWe have seen a resurgance in the last two years. That’s largely thanks to the tourist industry and popularity of Prague, we are talking here about foreign visitors. So we are transporting now around 400,000 people during the season. Together with our sister company, Prague Boats, we operate 20 boats including the historic steamship Vltava of which we are proud because it dates from 1940 and is still steam powered.ʺ