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Navigating the Heart of Seoul
Transportation on the Han River circa 1900
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2008-03-25 08:23 (KST)   

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The Han River in the early 1900s.
©2008 Robert Neff Collection

The Han River is the heart of Seoul and divides the city into two distinct parts -- the northern and southern part. In the past it was an essential river highway that provided provisions and supplies required by the capital's ever-increasing population, and also provided a protective barrier against invasion. Junks, ferries, rafts and later, after Korea opened to the western nations, steamboats, plied the beautiful but treacherous river, often falling victim to its sandbars and shoals.

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Not only did vessels ply the waters; they were also built on the banks of the Han. One of the largest shipyards on the Han was at Noryangchin where ships had been built for more than five hundred years -- the secrets of their construction handed down from one generation to the next.

Junks and Riverboats

There were many types of vessels that traveled up and down the Han River. Some of these vessels were Korean coastal junks that occasionally ventured from, but more often hugged, the relative shelter of Korea's coastline. Others were seafaring junks including Chinese and Japanese that traveled from their own shores bringing goods to Seoul. And to a greater extent, the smaller Korean river vessels that remained within the confines of the Han River.

Captain Fritz W. Schulze, a German employed by the Korean Customs Department, wrote in August 1884: "Native junks from about 10 to upwards of 100 tons constantly navigate the river in perfect safety; also several foreign-built vessels under the Korean flag, officered and manned by natives. The Chinese and Japanese junks, as well as other sailing ships trading to this port, almost invariably obtain permission to proceed up river, as far as Song Gai, or Yong San (Mapoo)"

Boats Near Chemulpo in the early 1900s.
©2008 Robert Neff Collection

The Korean riverboats, depending on their purpose, were often altered to optimize their cargo capacity. Horace Underwood wrote: "An immense amount of brushwood is consumed as fuel in the city of Seoul and boats bringing this up the river in the fall have on either side a built out framework approximately equal to the beam of the boat, thus enabling them to carry three times the normal deckload of this light but bulky freight."

The boats were not built for comfort: "None of these river boats are decked or have enclosed cabins. A small section is used for galley where the crew cook the rice. This contains a place for a jar of the Korean pickle or 'kimchi'; a moderate sized water jar; a small supply of fuel, and space for the few dishes required Rolls of a kind of thatched-matting called 'dheum' are spread as a shelter against the weather and when loaded the cargo is often stacked to provide a sort of cabin." There was really no need for cabins because, for the most part, the ships did not travel at night, except in safer sections of the river and only when the moon was very bright. Most of the time the boats were brought close to a riverbank at dusk and tied to trees or large rocks until morning. The small crews were forced to find whatever shelter was available or slept amongst the cargo.

A sailor's life is inherently dangerous so it is with little wonder that many sailors find solace in religious beliefs, even today. The Korean sailors of the past were no exceptions but unfortunately many of their beliefs have been lost through the passage of time, or through people's unwillingness to divulge them. Horace Underwood, who wrote a book about Korean boats and ships, expressed his frustration in obtaining information when he wrote:

"Nor is it easy to get information from Korean sailors. Some have a superstitious objection to talking to a Christian about such things and others are half-ashamed of these old beliefs and fear that what they say will be used to ridicule the Korean people."

While there is a little information concerning the superstitions of sea-going vessels, there is less concerning the riverboats. It is very likely that river sailors made sacrifices of food and alcohol to local deities at sections of the river that were considered the abodes of dragons and spirits. Sacrifices were also made at places thought to be haunted by ghosts. One such place on the Han River was Son Dol Mok where lurked "the spirit of the boatman Sondol who was unjustly beheaded by the King."

Dogs were considered bad luck aboard ships. If a dog jumped aboard a ship it had to be captured and sacrificed as an appeasement to the gods, even if the sailors were required to pay an exorbitant amount of money to the dog's owner. Women passengers, at least on sea-faring vessels, were considered bad luck and were not transported during the first month of the year.

Despite the precautions taken by the superstitious sailors and Captain Schulze's insistence that during his survey of the Han River not a single accident occurred to any of the junks, accidents did happen.

The swift currents, fogs and shifting sandbanks of the river often claimed vessels, stranding them upon the sandbanks. In 1886, a young American woman and group of westerners departed Chemulpo on rickshaws and ponies carrying their light luggage, and had their heavy luggage shipped to Seoul aboard a junk. She recalled, "We did not see these heavy boxes for three months, as they were stuck on a sand bank during the rainy season!"


Because the Han River was often too deep to ford and possessed no bridges, ferryboats were an essential part of transportation. There were eleven ferry crossings, but the most important were Gwang, Hangang, Yanghwa, Mapo and Yonsgan. The ferryboats were "of very heavy construction, very broad in the beam, low in the bow to allow loaded ponies or oxen to come on and off; with relatively high poop to allow the use of the huge sweep required to handle so heavy a load."

One early western visitor to Seoul in 1885 wrote: "Arrived at the river, we found a large ferry-boat all ready to receive us. It already contained some two dozen Coreans, mostly with heavy packs on their backs, and a fine large bull; but we managed to find space for our three ponies, our mafoos [horse handlers], and ourselves, and the whole miscellaneous cargo was soon yulched across a somewhat novel sight." And while this all impressed the visitor, it was the Korean passenger with a pig on his back that seems to have dominated his attention.

Isabella Bird Bishop in her travels in Korea in 1894 and 1897 wrote: "Ferries are free. The government provides the broad, strong boats which are used for ferrying cattle as well as people, and the villages provide the ferrymen with food. Passengers who are not poor usually give a small douceur."

Transporting a car on the Han River in the early 1900s.
©2008 Robert Neff Collection

Evidently westerners were exempt from the free passage. Richard Wolfe, an English missionary visiting from China in the fall of 1884, noted in his travelogue: "About six o'clock I arrived at the river, which I crossed, pony and all, in a boat; fare, two cents."

Despite the ferryboats' strength, they were weakened by the inadequate ribbing and crossbeam support in an effort to make loading ponies and bulls easier. According to Horace H. Underwood, "after some years of use these boats loosen up in an alarming fashion."

There were other problems as well. During the monsoon season in 1897, The Independent reported: "One of the ferryboats at King's Ferry capsized two days ago with thirty passengers and two oxen, including two boatmen and they were all drowned. The police Dep't ordered the ferrymen not to carry such a large number of passengers in their boats during the rainy season."


In September 1884, Captain Shulze presented his opinion on the feasibility of steamboat navigation on the Han River to his superior, P. G. von Mollendorff. In it he wrote, "I am glad to report that of the many Chinese and Japanese junks which obtained permission to proceed up river, none have met with any accidents, which favorable results naturally lead to the inference that steam navigation can be carried on still more successfully."

His opinion was evidently shared by many; in 1886 a group of Korean merchants pooled their money together and formed the Corean Merchants' Steamship Company with the intent of establishing steamship transportation along Korea's coast and on the Han River. When it began operating in 1886, it was lamented by the Chinese and Japanese vessels that plied the river and were no longer able to do so with the ease they once enjoyed. A Japanese paper wrote:

"Formerly Chinese and Japanese vessels were permitted to proceed up the river to Mapoo, a port near Soul; but since the Otsu Maru -- a small steamer purchased in Nagasaki by Coreans -- went to Corea, and applied for a Corean flag, and is to be transferred in a legal manner, it has been denied. The privilege of being allowed to run under the Japanese flag has also been refused."

Eventually the Corean Merchants' Steamship Company failed, but in 1888, another Korean company based in Chemulpo, the Samho Hwaesa, bought two small wooden steam launches from Osaka and renamed them Yongsan (16 tons) and Samho (13 tons). These ships ran between Chemulpo, Hangang, Yongsan, Seogang, Yanghwa and Mapo (Samho).

In August 1893, The North China Herald announced the "trial trip of the Hanyang, a vessel which has been constructed by the Fauchong and Co. for a Chinese syndicate, to ply between Chemulpo and Mapo, Corea, a distance of about sixty miles on the river Han. The boat, which is commanded by Capt. Morsel, indicates a very creditable spirit of enterprise on the part of some Chinese capitalists, who if the present venture is successful -- and the prospects are unusually promising -- will soon put other vessels on the line. Being only intended for river service the Hanyang is a small and handy craft. She is capable of carrying some 60 tons of cargo, and about 140 passengers She has been built to steam 10 knots an hour The fare for Asiatic passengers from Chemulpo to Mapo will be 75 cents and for foreigners $1.50. The main source of cargo receipts is expected to be from rice, the syndicate having also acquired a monopoly of the tribute rice carrying along the district they serve."

Following the defeat of the Chinese by the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the lucrative steamboat operation was taken over by the Japanese, specifically the Shoji River Steamer Company. The company at first operated two steamboats between Chemulpo and Seoul, but in 1898 it expanded to four. These ships were the Sebi Maru, Yaski Maru, Amakusa Maru, and Suminoye Maru, and were undoubtedly the pride of the river, but not all were pleased with them.

Captain Shulze insisted in 1884 that as long as "foreign navigators with foreign-built vessels, especially with steamers" used "common nautical skill and ordinary caution" they had "no reason to hesitate to participate in the navigation of this river, where the natives with their clumsy and frail boats have hitherto carried on the trade quite successfully." Despite his insistence, the steamboats often suffered the same problems that the junks did -- groundings on shifting sandbanks.

Isabella Bird Bishop caustically described steamship travel on the Han River in 1894 as: "Nearly every passenger who has entrusted himself to the river has a tale to tell of the boat being deposited on a sandbank, and of futile endeavors to get off, of fretting and fuming, usually ending in hailing a passing sampan and getting up to Ma-pu many hours behind time, tired, hungry, and disgusted. For the steam launches are only half powered for their work, the tides are strong, the river shallows often, and its sandbanks shift almost from tide to tide. Hence this natural highway is not much patronized by people who respect themselves "

Dr. C. F. Reid described his and Bishop E. R. Hendrix's 1895 Han River trip as being unforgettable. He wrote that "after puffing away for about seven hours our little craft ran on a mud-bank and our captain informed us that there was no hope proceeding further for at least eight hours (until the next high tide). As we were looking about for some protection from the piercing wind which swept the deck a fellow passenger told us of a good road to Seoul only six miles away.' Determined to 'show how Occidental pluck and energy could overcome Oriental inertia' the party left the boat about 5 p.m. Soon they learned that the good road was a myth and that it was twenty miles to Seoul instead of six! But they had started out to demonstrate and they did, reaching Seoul at half past one the following morning "

Yun Chi-ho who went out to meet Dr. Reid and Bishop Hendrix wrote in his diary: "At 1 p.m. went to Riongsan with Mr. Appenzeller to meet Bishop Hendrix and Dr. Reid. The river steamer did not come in until 5 a.m. but the parties we waited for were not on board. Learned that the Bishop's party, on the boat's being stuck on the sand bar down the river, took to their feet and made for Seoul overland. Felt very sorry for them."

The Han River was notoriously treacherous for its shifting sandbanks that stranded ships for hours waiting for the incoming tide to release them; it also occasionally claimed a victim.

In November 1889, an Englishman working for the Korean government approached Captain Dryer, commander of the American warship USS Marion, and asked if he could obtain some chains and cables to help raise the Chai-kang. Evidently the ship, commanded by the very experienced Captain Meyer, sank on the evening of Sept. 30 after striking a rock -- fortunately no one was killed. The ship, however, could not be raised by the Koreans. Captain Dryer informed the Englishman that the USS Marion had no chains and cables to loan the Korean government. The ship appears to have been completely wrecked and it is unclear if it was ever recovered.

However, by 1897, according to an article in The Independent, those frequent groundings and steamboat accidents were things of the past:

In the early days of steamship travel on the Han River "it was very much of a lottery if you caught the steamer at all, and then the odds were even as to reaching your destination. The steamers generally walked the distance, feeling their way along with poles on each side and making it in anywhere from twelve to thirty-six hours . The channel was a mystery and you always counted on resting on a mudbank to eat your lunch. There is not a mud bank between Chemulpo and Seoul I have not eaten a lunch on, at some time or other. Those days are no more. A race of pilots have sprung up who know the old river like a book, and the trip on the Han has become a pleasure trip through Aradian scenery instead of a plunge into the unknown."

Despite his assurances, misfortune continued to plague the Han River steamers. A couple of months later, the Shoji River Steamer Company's vessel, the Yasuki, had a near-explosion when some of the plate on the boiler dangerously bulged out and would have burst, possibly destroying the ship, but fortunately the engineer shut it down before this could happen. About a year later the Independent reported another incident involving the Shoji River Steamer Company: "The new river steamer 'Sebi Muru' recently put on the run between Chemulpo and Seoul foundered on the evening of the 14th at a place some 15 miles below Yongsan, and is now quite covered up by sand. Out of some 23 people on board 17 were lost. The cargo is a total loss."


Dangers to river navigation were not confined only to natural and supernatural events -- there were also incidences of piracy and armed robberies. Although steamships were exempt from the ravages of the pirates, native and foreign junks were not. The Korean Repository noted that on May 19, 1892, a number of Chinese merchants left Chemulpo "on a junk for Seoul with a 'general' Chinese cargo. The following day at 4 p.m. about two miles below Mapo a Korean junk hove in sight and hailed the Chinese to stop. The latter refusing to lower their sails the Koreans fired on them wounding three. Matters were beginning to look serious for the Chinese when another Korean junk came in sight and the would-be pirate made his escape. The Chinese then returned to Chemulpo and were placed under the doctor's care. The slugs having been extracted, all are doing well."

The writer went on to note that "piracy on the rivers and high seas had not been heard of for centuries," but observed that "this kind of work seems to be reviving as of old." Indeed it had. Over the next decade or two, piracy sporadically posed a threat to small-vessel shipping in the Chemulpo and Han River region. According to the author of an article published in The Independent in 1898, "piracy is rife in the waters adjacent to the port [Chemulpo] and several cases have been called to my attention."

But piracy was not only limited to Koreans. Even though the foreigners did not rob from the Korean junks, they did illegally commandeer them. In August 1891, a small number of foreigners, including a couple of English officers, took a steam launch operated by Japanese from Chemulpo to Seoul. After several hours of travel the steam launch became lodged upon a sandbar and the Japanese decided to take measures to lighten the load:

"The Japanese in charge of the launch, seeing some Koreans in a small boat towing a junk down-stream, put off in their skiff and seized the boat, not without a lengthy altercation with the owners and some blows with a bamboo. Returning in triumph, they made some of our Korean passengers get into the boat, with the object of lightening the launch, but she had so much cargo on board that this was in vain."

When it became apparent that they would be stranded for the night, the western passengers followed the example given to them by the Japanese " as there was no accommodation of any kind and we wanted our dinner, we prevailed on a Korean junk, which was gaily sailing up the river, to take us on board; but no sooner had we boarded her, than the owners said the current was too strong and they must anchor. We would not allow this, and took charge of the junk; but we were not enough to hoist and work the huge unwieldy sail and likewise steer, so we put the master of the junk to do the latter while we did the former." Eventually they were forced to spend the night along the river and did not arrive in Seoul until the following day.

Other dangers lay upon the banks themselves. In November 1892, a Chinese merchant from Chefoo, China, was attacked and killed by a gang of Korean thieves on the sand near the ferry crossing on the road to Chemulpo. The Chinese Minister to Korea, Yuan Shi-Kai, offered a reward of 500,000 cash [about 155 yen] for the apprehension of the gang. In December 1897, another incident took place after two Chinese merchants stopped their boat at ferry station to spend the night. "One of the Chinamen went on shore for refreshments while the other was sleeping in the boat with a Korean ferryman. A number of robbers boarded the junk and carried away the goods and threw the sleeping Chinaman overboard after inflicting fatal injuries upon him. The Korean ferryman gave an alarm and the men from other junks came to the rescue, but it was too late to capture the robbers."

But not all crimes committed were against foreigners. At Mapo ferry landing, "brokers, peddlers and hustlers, and the crowds of 'shrewd people' (gangsters), would take by force the goods of naive traders coming up from the countryside or take advantage of them, buying their goods at dirt cheap prices."

The Railroad and Modernization

In late 1896 negotiations between American businessmen and the Korean government for the construction of a railroad from Seoul to Chemulpo were completed. The news was received with great pleasure and anticipation by travelers between the two cities.

"Some gentlemen started last Saturday at 12 o'clock, noon, from Chemulpo and came up the river on a Japanese steamer arriving in Seoul at seven o'clock Sunday morning. It will be a glad day when a man can go by rail between these points instead of being at the mercy of these poor crafts," wrote The Independent.

Construction of the railroad began on March 22, 1897, just outside of Chemulpo. A ceremony was held to honor the beginnings of the railroad's construction and was attended by a great number of Korean officials, western diplomats and leading businessmen, along with the western employees of the railroad. The atmosphere was exuberant in anticipation that the capital would soon be linked to the crucial port of Chemulpo, and no longer would travelers be at the fickle mercy of the river steamers, or forced to endure the thirteen or fourteen hour journey on foot.

Some feared that the railroad's introduction would destroy traffic along the river, but a report by the British legation in Korea expressed the opinion that the profitable river trade would continue: "The opening of the railway may possibly interfere with this traffic, but the number of passengers who travel between Soul and different points on the river will probably be sufficient to justify its continuance even should it lose the carriage of cargo from Chemulpo."

His assessment was correct. After the completion of the Seoul-Chemulpo Railroad and the subsequent lines that linked not only distant parts of Korea with the capital, but with Russia and China as well, transport on the Han River was admittedly affected, but not eliminated. When the Hangang Railroad Bridge was built in 1900 it seriously affected the ferry service in that immediate area. In 1910, a boat bridge was built at Mapo ferry crossing by Ueda, a Japanese businessman. This threatened the livelihood of the ferrymen in the area and more than 10,000 people were said to have taken part in the riot.

Despite the damage done to the river ferry industry, vessels continued to ply the river and, as evidenced by Horace H. Underwood's claim of having "counted [along the Han River] 200 boats aground till the spring tides should float them," fall victims to its treacherously shifting sandbanks.

Even today there is vibrant traffic on the river. Large tour boats filled with tourist (mainly Koreans), an occasional barge, speedboats towing water-skiers intent on perfecting their skills while dazzling shore-bound onlookers, young students in rafts learning seamanship, young lovers on swan-shaped boats stealing a minute of solitude away from the watching eyes of their parents and peers, and even water taxis that speed commuters from one side of Seoul to the other. The Han River is still the heart of Seoul.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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