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The Sinking of the Dolphin

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

On the stormy night of 16-17 December 1850, the small steamship "Delphin" sank. 13 people lost their lives on Lake Walen.

A contemporary report from the Oberrheinische Nachrichten of 23 May 1914 tells of the tragic sinking of the steamship "Delphin" on Lake Walen:

A new steamer ploughs the waters of Lake Walen again. This is reminiscent of the sinking of an earlier steamer, the Delphin, on the stormy night of 16/17 December 1850. At that time, small steamboats also had to take care of postal traffic, but since the construction of the railway they have become superfluous for this purpose. However, the growing tourism made the introduction of a new steamboat desirable. In contemporary reports, we read the following remarkable accounts of the sinking of the Delphin:

A terrible accident occurred on Lake Walen in the night from Monday to Tuesday. The small steamboat Delphin sank into the depths of the agitated lake with people and everything on board. Thirteen persons were drowned. The written check, the only thing that could have provided complete information, was also swept away in the raging waters. The hourly pass requested by the Chur post office only contained the names of Mr Morandi and Mr Mondelli, Italian merchants, and Mrs Veraguth from Thusis, resident in Stäfa, for the fateful route. The other three passengers who could be located only became the unfortunate passengers of those postal travellers on the Delphin. Their names are: Balthasar Kundert, cattle dealer from Betschwanden, umbrella maker Josef Eichholz with his young son from Kirchberg. The stoker of the steamship was called Wolfensberger and came from the canton of Zurich. The conductor Rosenstock also came from the canton of Zurich and was the father of five children. The other victims included Captain Staub, also from the Canton of Zurich, who left behind a widow, the boat's cashier Franz Schlegel from Walenstadt, father of eight children and husband of a hopeful mother, the machine worker Baumann from Zurich, father of three children, two sailors from Weesen, Johann Joseph Beeler, a young man, unmarried, whose father died three years ago in the Linth Canal, and whose mother with three younger daughters now weeps for the loss of the only support of her age, and Franz Kid, also a young man, unmarried, who leaves behind an ageing father, whose son was mercilessly swallowed up by the waters of Lake Walen some years ago.

Around midnight, a violent gale arose that lasted several hours and damaged buildings in the neighbouring villages. Around the same time, the Delphin, which had to provide the night service for the Chur-Basel post office, began its arduous journey from Walenstadt to Weesen. It might have been midnight or a little above. During the journey, the storm seemed to want to subside, at least it stayed away for a while and stirred in less violent gusts of wind than before. But then, at about half past two in the morning, the storm rose with new, tremendous force. The ship succumbed to these violent gusts. Ship's servants, who were waiting for the boat to arrive in Weesen, noticed the dolphin no longer far from its destination. Residents of Amden, who were awakened by the storm and whose eyes were drawn to the lake, are more certain about the direction in which the steamship was heading at that terrible moment. Afterwards, the ship worked far from the influence of the Linth into the lake, closer towards the lake, i.e. at a distance of about 20 minutes from the pier in Weesen. Those inhabitants then also tell how they saw the steamboat more brightly lit than usual, but how in a flash, when suddenly the storm wind began to blow most violently, the shining sparks were extinguished, so that nothing more could be seen of the ship. In the morning, people in Weesen still believed that the ship had returned to Walenstadt, thrown back by the storm wind, while people in Walenstadt consoled themselves that it had happily reached Weesen. Scout ships that sailed to Walenstadt in the morning then solved the terrible mystery. The same devastating news was brought to Weesen by the steamship "Splügen" at midday. The incident made a shattering impression and the horror and heartbreaking lamentation of the victims is difficult to describe. A later report adds to this account that the claim that the storm wind had already made itself felt before the departure of the Delphin was false. At least the ship had begun its departure from Walenstadt at midnight calmly and, according to statements by shipmen on the left bank, had been able to continue beyond Quinten without difficulty. After that, the terrible battle seems to have begun very soon. A shipman from Betlis says that the storm already raged terribly when the steamer passed by there. His eyes followed the steamer until it disappeared from the big ravine of Amden. The observations of the inhabitants of Ammonberg seem to be correct, according to which the steamship moved backwards before all the lights suddenly went out, perhaps because it was no longer able to resist the onrush of the waves. No one knows whether the ship really sank at this point or only extinguished the lights. One can get an idea of the force of the storm from the information of the inhabitants of Amden, who were able to clearly distinguish the waves in the relatively weak illumination of the ship, and from the information of the shipman of Betlis, who reported waves as high as a house.

A found suitcase, a travel bag, the hat of the sailor Kid, the doublet of the helmsman Staub and a door from the steamship are the only remains from the accident. From the discovery of the doublet, it is concluded that Staub tried to save himself by swimming out of it, and the door seems to have been removed as a life board. Poignant events took place in Walenstadt. The crew of the night boat Delphin used to spend the day in Weesen. The wife of the money collector Franz Schlegel used to send lunch to Weesen on the day boat "Splügen". The crew of the steamship "Splügen" had just prepared to sail the morning after the accident and had heard the terrible news from the scout ships coming from Weesen, when Franz Schlegel's boy came along with lunch for his missing father. The shipmen took the food from him in silence, unable to say a word about what had happened to the unsuspecting child. They turned away to hide his tears and the bystanders broke into loud sobs. The crew of the "Splügen" refused to take on the night journeys in addition to the day journeys. Captain Lehmann from Stäfa was commissioned by the steamship administration to investigate the "Delphin". Finally, at the end of January, the "Delphin" was found between Betlis and the Glarus shore at a depth of more than 60 fathoms (1 fathom equals 1.8 metres, or 108 metres). The body of the sailor Kid was found next to the steamboat lying on its side. The face had become unrecognisable from the mud, but the clothes and pockets gave certainty about the person. Finally, at the end of January, the ship was salvaged with 12 anchors attached to two ships. The winding up of the ship, which was fraught with difficulties, took several weeks. In Betlis, the ship was then completely lifted onto the rocky shore, while thousands of curious people streamed in. Only three bodies were found. That of cattle trader Balthasar Kundert on the foredeck, Mrs Veraguth in the cabin of the first place and the umbrella maker Eichholzer from Kirchberg in the cabin of the second place. His six-year-old boy seems to have jumped onto the deck and disappeared there, just as the coats and boots left behind indicated that the others sought their salvation in swimming. The conductor's hides and mail bags were also present, as well as the captain's control book. The steam boiler was cracked, but the rudder was intact. Most of the damage to the steamship was apparently only a result of the salvage work. The compartments were partially filled with mud, the bodies were far better preserved than that of the sailor Kid, which had been brought to light 2 ½ months ago. They were buried in the cemetery in Weesen. The ship itself was to be brought into Lake Zurich through the Linth Canal when the water level was favourable.

The steamship "Delphin" was a small steamer owned by the "Vereinigte Dampfschiffgesellschaft Zürich- und Walensee". It was launched in Rapperswil SG in May 1843 and made its maiden voyage on Lake Zurich to Zurich on 3 July of the same year.

In May 1845, for the first time, there was a two-week visit to the Walensee. In 1846, it was acquired by the Zürichsee-Walensee-Gesellschaft under the chairmanship of Hans Caspar Escher. Escher-Wyss extended the ship and converted it into an 80-seater paddle steamer. In August 1850 it was finally transferred to Lake Walen, where it took over regular mail routes between Weesen and Walenstadt took over.

The cattle trader from Glarus was Balthasar Kundert from Rüti. He was born on 18 February 1802 in Rüti and married Verena Knobel (1802-1867) from Betschwanden in 1823. Kundert left behind 9 children in addition to his widow. There are still living descendants of his son Kaspar Kundert (1833-1898), who was a landlord and cattle dealer in Wattwil.

The true and surviving life stories of the crew and passengers are the focus of the historical novel "Der Untergang des Delphin" - Die "Titanic" vom Walensee (The Sinking of the Dolphin - The "Titanic" from Lake Walen) by Emil Zopfi, which literarily traces the events leading up to the salvage of the wreck and a national relief operation.

The book can be purchased at Amazon

After the publication of Emil Zopfi's book on the sinking of the steamer "Delphin" on Lake Walen, many people from the region expressed the wish for a memorial plaque commemorating the 13 victims of the accident. The shipwreck happened a long time ago, but it is certainly one of the most tragic accidents of the Walensee navigation. Emil Zopfi therefore decided to donate a bronze memorial plaque with the circumstances of the accident and the names of the victims. With the permission and support of the municipality of Amden, the plaque was installed on July 20, 2023. It is located on the road from Weesen to Betlis after the first tunnel. Nearby, the "Delphin" has been sighted for the last time. The location is chosen so that it is protected by a rockfall net and so that people looking at the plaque do not obstruct traffic.

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