History of the Oker in Wolfenbüttel

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General map of the Wolfenbüttel city area with Okerlauf

This section of the Great Canal in Wolfenbüttel’s inner city is known as Little Venice.

Atmosphere at the Ostgraben near Marktstraße

The Oker in Wolfenbüttel stretches from Halchter in the south to Groß Stöckheim in the north. Outside the core city of Wolfenbüttel, the Oker flows in the original floodplain, which is predominantly shaped by arable farming, while the man-made course in the core city dates back to various phases of urban development and bastion construction.

Two arms of the Oker enclose the historic city centre of Dammfeste and Heinrichstadt. From the southern arm a ditch branches off at the Schulwall, which branches off at the main lock to the castle and in the opposite direction to the Kommisse, where it crosses the city centre in a northerly direction as the Großer Kanal. This is the remains of a more extensive historical canal system from the 16th century, designed by Hans Vredeman de Vries during the expansion of Heinrichstadt. One of Wolfenbüttel’s most famous attractions can be seen along the Great Canal, the section called Little Venice, which is completely lined with houses.

The article deals with the present course of the Oker as well as the historical ditch system, to which the numerous information boards of the municipal project Wolfenbütteler Wasserwege refer.[1]

Today’s course of the Oker

The river meadow above the core city

The southern Oker floodplain near Halchter is formed by railway lines and their bridges.

The Oker reaches the present-day city boundary between Ohrum and Halchter at the height of the Bungenstedt Tower, where its original meandering course forms the border between Wolfenbüttel and the Elm-Asse joint municipality until the confluence with the Altenau. Between Halchter on the left and the Okertalsiedlung on the right, it flows through the floodplain, which is initially used for agriculture and later becomes rich in meadows and trees. It is crossed by steel railway bridges of the railway lines Braunschweig-Bad Harzburg and Wolfenbüttel-Schöppenstedt and further downstream by the Halberstädter Straße leading to Wendessen. Here, on the eastern bank, are the Lindenhalle, a sports facility and the district of Linden.

The further section is park-like, whereby the settlement on the eastern bank extends to the lower terrace, while the western bank is forested. The Oker divides into its eastern and southern branches, which flow around the core of the town.

Immediately behind the division, the arms enclose a park area, which contains the Okeraue municipal swimming pool, the former Wolfenbüttel waterworks with a historic water tower, the Stadtgraben (duck pond), and other recreational and restoration facilities. Parallel to the pond, a narrow ditch connects both arms between the former telecommunications office and the street Teichgarten. It is a remnant of the southern fortification ditch and runs partly along the street Harztorwall, which it crosses under at the southbound Lange Straße.[2]

Eastern and northern moat

The eastern moat was bridged by a road that led through the Kaisertor (imperial gate)

Fish ladder at the Marktstraße bridge, looking north downstream.

The Ostgraben is also called Stadtgraben or, from 1599, Alte Oker.
It essentially follows the last bastion extension, which can be seen in the angular sections near the prison. There was a bastion there as well as above the Stadtgraben pond. The remains of another bastion can still be seen south of the Rosenwall. The ravelin lying between the two bastions has been included in the development Am Herzogtore. The Herzogstor (Duke’s Gate), which gave the site its name, was located here from 1660 to 1820 and was demolished in the course of the demolition of the ramparts. It was replaced by the classical guard houses that still exist today and the roundel square on the street Am Herzogtore leading towards Braunschweig. The transformation of the fortifications into today’s ramparts took place – as in Braunschweig – under the direction of Peter Joseph Krahe.

Another town gate on the Ostgraben was the Kaisertor, today the Trinitatis Church, which has been handed down since 1580 and represented the eastern exit of Heinrichstadt, also in the direction of Braunschweig. The way across the Oker today leads via Wallstraße/Marktstraße to the Julius town.

The Oker is dammed under the Kenosha Bridge and the course of the ditch turns to the west, picks up the Great Canal coming from the city centre at the level of the Rosenwinkel and turns to the north to Friedrich-Ebert-Straße to the point of unification with the western bypass ditch.

Southern and western trench

The Stadtgraben, which runs south of the core city, also essentially follows the old bastion course, but does not enclose the Auguststadt to the west. Coming from the south, it runs west along the Harztorwall, is crossed by Bahnhofstraße and passes a barrage equipped with a fish pass. In Seeliger Park the inner city ditch branches off to the main lock, while the Umflut borders the park to the south, turns north and reaches the weir at Schleusenstraße. The Oker continues north along Friedrich-Ebert-Straße, whose side it changes, to the confluence with the Alte Oker.

Inner city ditches

The main lock opposite the Großer Zimmerhof. The Oker flows towards the viewer and to the right behind the Zimmerhof towards the castle.

The Great Canal is bridged by the houses of the Krambuden, on the right the town hall.

The end of the Great Canal in front of the Schünemann mill.

Main lock at the Schulwall

At Seeligerpark, a partial stream of the Oker flows to the main lock at Schulwall, which dates back to the construction period of the canals under Hans Vredeman de Vries in the 16th century and regulates the inflow of the Oker to the city centre. Immediately below the lock, the stream splits into two ditches: To the north turns the Burggraben, today Schloßgraben. To the south turns the Schleusengraben or Kommissegraben, which flows to the Harztor.

Opposite the lock is the Großer Zimmerhof, where all the timber that was floated down the Oker to Wolfenbüttel was landed from the Middle Ages until the railway was built.

Castle ditch and mill ditch

The Schloßgraben used to branch off from the Dammgraben to the west, approximately where it now crosses under the Schulwall and bends towards the castle. It flows around the castle, on the north side of which there was a horse-draining ditch, which has now been reconstructed. A few metres further on, it passes under Lessingplatz and passes a weir at the former Damm Mill, which was mentioned as early as 1462. From here on it is known as the Mühlengraben and today flows northwards to the western Stadtgraben. In former times it bent at the height of the library as Pulvergraben to the east in the direction of Dammgraben.

Lock Ditch and Grand Canal

The narrow watercourse called Schleusengraben branches off to the north at the Harztor to the Kommisse, where it runs in a canal walled with factory stones. While several canals used to branch off to the east, the Schleusengraben, also called Kommissegraben, merges into the Großer Kanal immediately behind the passage to the Stadtmarkt. This, too, flows in a stone channel, along the eastern bank of which is a narrow path and the town hall. The west bank is densely built up to the canal. A short distance downstream it is bridged by the street Krambuden, which is built on both sides. In the Krambuden the canal itself is not perceptible.

It emerges again in Klein Venedig, where the development reaches up to the canal bank. The view into this area is well possible from the bridge of Stobenstraße, on the other side of which the canal flows into the headwater of the weir of the Schünemann mill, designed as a large basin. The weir falls directly in the entrance area of the mill, which is used by the Federal Academy for Cultural Education as a guest house and event area. In the lower and upper waters there used to be a harbour each, which is still indicated by the name Schiffwall. From here it is only about 200 metres to the confluence of the canal with the northern moat at the street Am Rosenwinkel.

The river meadow north of the core city

The Oker floodplain north of Wolfenbüttel at high water, view towards the city centre 2007.

Both arms of the river, which encompass the city, pass under Friedrich-Ebert-Straße (Landesstraße 614) north of the Meeschestadion at the Sèvres Bridge, where they also join. The sewage treatment plant of the city of Wolfenbüttel is located directly behind the confluence on the east bank of the Oker. At Groß Stöckheim the Brückenbach flows in from the left in an area dominated by meadows. The river follows the original course of the valley, which is defined in the west by the foothills of the Thieder Lindenberg and in the east by the slate mountain at Lechlumer Holz. Some sections have been straightened, although the original meanders may well still be discernible in the map series by dead arms or pools. The section is used in the lower areas for meadows, but in the predominant part intensively agriculturally for wheat and beet cultivation.

The last prominent point on the Wolfenbüttel city area is the former Schwedendamm, of which hardly any remains are perceptible. At the A 36 motorway, the Oker leaves Wolfenbüttel and becomes the Oker in Braunschweig.

Use of the Oker and the Oker floodplain

Outside the core town, agricultural use predominates, but there are walking and cycling paths along the Oker in the Wolfenbüttel area.

In the core city, the parks are attractive local recreation areas and venues for cultural events. The historic Oker arms and, of course, the Schünemann mill are also integrated into cultural events. The historic canal system invites you to explore the half-timbered town, even if the flair of a canal town no longer exists to the original extent.

Historic ditches and canals

Site plan of the course of the Oker today (2015) and shaded dark blue the course of 1741 (without fortress ditches in front of the bastions).


The construction of a canal system took place from 1542 during the reign of Duke Julius in the course of the expansion and new construction of Heinrichstadt. The surrounding landscape was presumably a marshy Oker floodplain that had to be drained. In addition, there was a lasting need for a solid water supply. In addition, waterways used to be the preferred means of transport. Julius commissioned the Dutchman Hans Vredeman de Vries to plan the water engineering structures.

Dam Ditch

The location of the castle and its nearer buildings is historically also called Dammfeste. This was separated from the eastern Heinrichstadt by a wide river course called Dammgraben, which extended from the main lock to the Schünemann mill, which was then called Neue Mühle. Its length was 267 metres, and it was filled in 1806. In the town, which had previously been developed into a fortress, it also represented a clear separation of the two parts of the town, which were not united until 1747 with Auguststadt and Juliusstadt under the name Wolfenbüttel. Until 1803, the Dammtor stood at the crossing of the Dammgraben – approximately at today’s pedestrian crossing from Löwenstraße to Schloßplatz.

Lock Ditch/Great Canal

Steps on the bank of the Great Canal, presumably for drawing water.

The Schleusengraben (sluice ditch) and the Großer Kanal (large canal) were the central watercourses built from 1588 onwards parallel to the Dammgraben (dam ditch), from which the ditches running in a west-east direction branched off and which could be used independently of the Dammgraben. Little is known about their structural design, only stone bridges are known to have been built in 1602 over the Small Canal and in 1604 over the Large Canal in the course of the Krambuden.
The Great Canal was an important transport route between the headwater of the New Mill and the Harz Gate or the Zimmerhof as well as to Heinrichstadt.

Small channel

The Small Canal branched off to the east at the Kommisse, roughly at the passage to the Stadtmarkt, and ran between and parallel to Reichsstraße and Kornmarkt, i.e. in the middle of the undeveloped area. Its length was 214 meters. From 1754 onwards, the fortification of the banks with stones has been handed down. The width was 1.30 and the depth 1.60 meters, it was navigable. Brewers and butchers lived on its banks. Later it was also called Muddegraben, possibly it was heavily silted up. It was filled in before 1867.

Lazy Ditch

Before crossing under the Krambuden, i.e. on the north side of the Stadtmarkt, the Kanzleistraßen-Kanal branched off from the Großer Kanal and flowed parallel to Kanzleistraße and Langer Herzogstraße. It was probably narrower than the Small Canal and was called the Fauler Graben, possibly indicating its smell. It was already filled in between 1730 and 1796.

Bruchgraben and Old Gate

At the northern end of the Großer Kanal, i.e. at Stobenstraße, the Bruchgraben flowed in from the east, where mainly tanneries and dye works were located. As these caused a great deal of water pollution, in the Middle Ages they were located in the lower course of a river, while drinking water was taken from the upper course. The Bruchgraben merged with the Langer Graben in the east, approximately at today’s Okerstraße.

The canal was bridged at the street Am Alten Tor. A stone cobblestone bridge existed until 1910. The Old Gate itself was built before 1542 and was the most important entrance to Heinrichstadt until 1614. It was replaced by the Emperor’s Gate, which was built from 1589 onwards.

Long ditch and Harz gate

The west-east channels all ended at the Langer Graben (Long Ditch), which, coming from the Harztor, wound south around Heinrichstadt along Krummen Straße, bent north at Fischerstraße and led to the Bruchgraben. Presumably it was the fortification ditch for the Old Heinrichstadt.

At the Harz Gate, built in 1603, the sluice ditch branched off into the ditch leading towards Kommisse and the Long Ditch. The gate secured the important route to the south and was not demolished until 1834, when the railway connection to Harzburg was created.

Hygienic grievances

Almost all cities were faced with the problem that the drinking water supply came partly from deep wells, but to a large extent also from the open waters, i.e. the rivers. These were also used as sewers for faeces and tannery water. Even the pure use of service water for washing clothes could lead to the spread of germs and epidemics. In the 19th century at the latest, this became a life-threatening circumstance due to the cholera epidemics together with the exploding population growth. As in neighbouring Braunschweig, it was decided to either fill in or cover over as many open sewers as possible and to use them only as sewers. The drinking water supply in Wolfenbüttel was switched to groundwater, which was extracted from the gravel beds of the Oker river in front of the town.

In addition, the canals of Heinrichstadt already had a tendency to become extremely silted up in the past, which could be attributed to a low flow velocity and the heavy input of sedimentable substances such as excrement and dirt. As a result, there is not much left today of the canals and bridge structures, which were sometimes architecturally sophisticated.

“Wolfenbüttel Waterways”

In 2008, the Stadtmarketinggesellschaft Wolfenbüttel, together with a number of sponsors, had 19 bilingual information boards erected in the inner city area under the project name “Wolfenbütteler Wasserwege” (Wolfenbüttel Waterways), which point out points of historical interest. These are buildings and streets, but also sections of the canal system that have been filled in and are no longer visible today. The boards and the accompanying information flyer were enhanced with works by the illustrator Margret Rettich.

Literature and sources

  • Stadtmarketinggesellschaft Wolfenbüttel mbH & Co. KG (ed.): Kulturroute Wolfenbütteler Wasserwege. Wolfenbüttel, 2nd edition 2008, with texts by Hans-Henning Grote, Thomas Scheliga and Lore Schönberg and graphics by Margret Rettich. OCLC 248834201, download from the tourism page of the city of Wolfenbüttel. Retrieved 11 January 2015.
  • Dieter Matthes, Nds. Landesverwaltungsamt (ed.): Karte der Residenzstadt und Festung Wolfenbüttel mit Umgebung 1741. supplement to the map, Hannover 1994. available as download free of charge in the LGN internet shop.
  • Ludwig August Faber: PROPORTIONAL ground plan of the princely residence town and fortress Wolffenbüttel together with the district lying thereon. Scale 1:3000, Lower Saxony State Archives Wolfenbüttel K 170. The free download of a low-resolution image file is possible in the LGN Internet Shop.
  • Stadtmarketinggesellschaft Wolfenbüttel mbH & Co. KG: Informationstafel Wolfenbütteler Wasserwege. Plates 1 to 19, Wolfenbüttel, 2008.

Web links

Commons: Oker in Wolfenbüttel– Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual references

  1. Stadtmarketinggesellschaft Wolfenbüttel mbH & Co. KG (ed.): Kulturroute Wolfenbütteler Wasserwege, Wolfenbüttel, 2nd edition 2008. All figures are taken from these texts.
  2. AK on Navigator. LGLN, retrieved 1 October 2020. Therethe carriesthe designation Fauler Graben, which actually survives for the historic channel parallel to Lange Herzogstraße and Kanzleistraße.

Coordinates 52° 9′ 40″ N, 10° 31′ 58″ O