Rhine transport was not an absolute condition for German industrialization. Railways proved to be efficient, and in the 1840–1870 period were essential for the industrialization of the Ruhr area. The key questions addressed in this article are: why did inland navigation not disappear from the Rhine region (as it did elsewhere), even recovering after the 1870s? And why did it have an unassailable competitive advantage from the 1890s onwards? Political developments leading to the liberalization of Rhine shipping and the canalization of the river created the opportunity to increase the scale of shipping. This gave it competitive advantages when it came to bulk transport. This article uses new data on freight rates in the Rhine delta to demonstrate the course of Rhine competitiveness. Furthermore, it identifies the institutional conditions, and the technological and organizational improvements, that were the basis of this growing competitiveness. The conclusion is that the element of German international trade that went by the Rhine correlated with the cost of Rhine shipping when compared to that of railway transport. As a consequence of the recovery of Rhine shipping, the port of Rotterdam became stronger than its Belgian neighbour, Antwerp.