Rhine River, Switzerland, 1986

In Mary Shelley’s famous horror story, published in 1818, Dr. Frankenstein boated down the Rhine from Switzerland through Germany, on his way to England to create a bride for his creature. Traveling slowly downriver, Frankenstein observed, “In one spot you view rugged hills, ruined castles overlooking tremendous precipices, with the dark Rhine rushing beneath; and, on the sudden turn of a promontory, flourishing vineyards, with green sloping banks, and a meandering river, and populous towns, occupy the scene.” This romantic view of the Rhine could not be sustained. Later in the nineteenth century others saw those sloping banks and meandering paths as impediments to the commercial development of the river.

After industry seized the Rhine as a convenient, and cheap, dump, the river turned into an open sewer.  Almost as an ultimate insult, a fiery explosion at a chemical plant in Basil, Switzerland, discharged thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals into the river killing much of the life that remained in the river.  People had had enough.  The incident galvanized officials, environmentalists, and ordinary citizens in countries along the Rhine and efforts to reclaim the river accelerated.

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