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The lighthouse of Zeebrugge

Our story begins in Bruges (Brugge in Flemish). There was Roman activity in the area in the Second century and the name "Brugge" would appear for the first time between 850 and 875. In the 9th to 12th century it became a very important international trade center and between 1280 and 1480 it was one of the most important ports in the world! However, geography would soon interfere ... due to human activity the known as "Het Zwin" began to fill up with sand and the port of Bruges lost its access to the sea. Fast forward to 2022 and the Port of Zeebrugge is now the second largest port of Belgium and the area of "Het Zwin" is a nature reserve open to the public. So ... how did this happen?


In 1877 an idea was born to reconnect the old city of Bruges with the sea again, even the King of Belgium, Leopold II was a fan! In 1891 a Commission was set up and by 1894 a plan was ready to begin construction of 3 important parts:

  1. An outer port at the sea next to Heist, what was to become Zeebrugge.

  2. A canal connecting that outer port to Bruges.

  3. An inner port in the area North of the old city.

Work began in 1896 and went on until 1907, the result was a modern outer harbour protected by a mole with a lighthouse at the end to guide ships safely into port, aided by

the upper and lower lighthouses of Heist. The port of Zeebrugge became instantly important and went on to grow over the years, the outer port, although not much more than a protective mole was of a strategic importance and the loss of both Zeebrugge and Oostende in World War 1 was a big blow to the allied forces, as the Germans could now use both ports for their own ships, mainly submarines! Both ports were eventually raided by the British and blocked with so-called block ships to prevent the Germans from using them (some info about the Zeebrugge raid can be found here). In the Second World War the ports were not particularly attacked as the Belgians had blown up the lock gates and sunk block ships before retreating, the Germans destroyed what was left by the end of the war and the port needed to be rebuilt after the war, surprisingly the lighthouse on the mole survived both conflicts rather well. The Belgian Navy in relation with NATO started building the new Naval Base in Zeebrugge in 1969 and by then it was clear that Zeebrugge was bursting and a plan to vastly expand the port was started. Between 1972 and 1985 the port was heavily rebuilt in 2 phases.

  1. The new outer port was built right in the sea outside the existing mole.

  2. The new extremely large Pierre Vandamme lock of 500m long, 57m wide and 18.50m deep was built to accommodate the largest ships, even today.

The mole and lighthouse were kept in place but since the channel had changed, the lighthouse could no longer fulfill its original role to guide ships into the port together with both lighthouses of Heist so these were both deactivated in 1983, being replaced by new structures lined up with the new channel.

The old upper lighthouse of Heist


The lighthouse on the mole however, remained in use, although in a slightly different role, external lights were also fitted to it to guide traffic within the port. The 2 new outer moles were therefore fitted with new lighthouses to indicate the new entrance to the port of Zeebrugge, both were concrete towers capped with a green lamp room on one side and a red one on the other side, both of these towers are still in use to this day. The upper and lower lighthouses of Heist were neglected for a long time, however in the early 2000's they were refurbished and are now protected monuments.

The new green lighthouse


The new red lighthouse with cruise ship Berlin passing by


I often visit Zeebrugge for its interesting history, some interesting elements around the area, and visiting cruise ships as Zeebrugge has become the number one deep water port for cruise ships visiting Belgium because Antwerp has limited space and depth on the river, so the larger ships can't actually get up to the Antwerp cruise terminal and therefore will dock at Zeebrugge instead.


Various postcards in my personal collection show the lighthouse of Zeebrugge throughout time:

Before the expansion of Zeebrugge


Interestingly with some defensive guns, not sure from what era


With a Townsend Thoresen ferry coming into Zeebrugge


And on my many visits to Zeebrugge I usually end up with at least a few photos of the lighthouse, unfortunately it is not accessible anymore as the area has been taken over by container terminals, the P&O ferry to Hull used to be just alongside the old mole that is now the Leopoldkaai. Below some photos where the lighthouse is clearly visible in its current role.

And here are the small models of both the Zeebrugge lighthouse and the old upper lighthouse of Heist, this one is accessible but the tower itself is not open to the public.


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