Before the age of the railways, the waterway was the most cost-effective mode of transport with a number of different vessels used on the Danube.
Cargo boats were known as ‘Zillen’ and ‘Plätten’. Plätten were wider, slightly curved at the bow and stern and not pointed, in contrast to the Zillen. Both were used to carry goods and passengers.
These rowing boats were named after their places of origin: Kelheimers, Trauners or Ulmer Schachteln. Kelheimers were up to 40 metres long and transported salt, wood, ore, stones, wine, grain and livestock, as well as troops or migrants.
From 1696 onwards, boats known as ‘Ordinari’ sailed once a week from Regensburg (Germany) to Vienna (Austria). The journey of around 450 kilometres took at least a week.
The crew stood on wooden walkways operating the long oars, while for passengers and sensitive goods there was a 'hut' on the deck. Nights were mostly spent on land.
High-ranking persons were able to travel faster and more luxuriously in private personal ships, with escort ships for the servants as well as for supplies, kitchen, music, luggage and horses.
Strong ships survived several voyages, but many were dismantled to make firewood after a single voyage downstream, since for the upstream journey they had to be towed. For this, a number of cargo ships were roped together and, accompanied by various small ships, towed by horses.
On the Danube, protection and patrols were the responsibility of warships known as ‘Tschaiken’, narrow flat boats operated by sail or oars, with a crew of about 30 men and equipped with cannons in the event of war.
They were built in Klosterneuburg, with bases in Komorn and Titel (at the mouth of the Tisza river). A battalion of ‘Tschaiken’ was part of the Imperial-Royal Danube flotilla up to the middle of the 19th century.
Test runs with steamboats were started in 1818; in 1830, a steamer was used for the Vienna - Budapest route for the first time, covering the distance in a little more than 14 hours (the return journey took over 48 hours).