A pioneer on the Gotthard: Alfred Escher (part 1).

Tunnelling on the Gotthard goes back a long way. We are profiling a few of the visionaries in a short series of blog posts. Alfred Escher (1819–1882) is probably the most controversial pioneer of the first-ever rail link through the Gotthard.

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Even while he was still alive, Alfred Escher – who was born in Zurich on 20 February 1819 and died there on 6 December 1882 – bore the popular nickname “King of Switzerland”. Not only was this a sign of the admiration he instilled, it was also a slight on the power he wielded. The lawyer from the venerable and influential Escher vom Glas family of Zurich was elected to the highest offices before he had even reached the age of 30: cantonal chancellor, member of the National Council and, later, member of Zurich’s cantonal government.

And he was soon also to enjoy success as an entrepreneur, setting up his own rail company, the first major bank in Switzerland – which went on to become Credit Suisse – and several insurance firms. He also played a key role in founding the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH).

“More and more railway tracks are heading towards Switzerland from all sides. Plans are being drawn up for routing the lines around the country. Switzerland is thus running the risk of being bypassed completely, turning it into the hermitage of Europe – a very sorry state of affairs.”

With these words, spoken in late 1849, Alfred Escher warned that the country could miss out on its link to the modern age. His was not an unfounded fear, either: whereas other countries were constantly expanding their rail networks, Switzerland lagged well behind.

The rail project that Escher was promoting thus became an issue that would determine the very future of the new Swiss state, which had been established in 1848. Although there was general agreement on the need for a railway system, disputes raged over how exactly one was to be built.

In 1852, Escher helped push through the Railways Act, which mirrored his own ideas perfectly: private companies would be called upon to build and run the rail network. This sparked railway mania in Switzerland. Several competing rail companies sprang up within no time at all, including the Swiss Northeastern Railway, with Escher at the helm, in around 1852–53.

This meant that Switzerland could soon close the gap on other countries in terms of its rail infrastructure. One thing still missing, however, was a north-south link. Having initially favoured a main line that crossed the Alps through the Lukmanier Pass, Escher would go on to change his mind and back the nascent Gotthard project.

He brought all his commercial and political clout to bear in a bid to make this ambitious scheme a reality. He consulted engineers and other experts and negotiated with Swiss and foreign authorities. At the International Gotthard Conference in autumn 1869, the final decision was made in favour of the Gotthard line. The Gotthard Railway Company was then set up in 1871, chaired by Escher himself.

The workaholic put all his energy into realising the venture that would define his career – at great personal cost. His zeal for his work ruined his health and his friendships, while his family life was also beset by misfortune.

In the end, what was then the longest tunnel in the world was indeed built through the Gotthard. Yet the man who had been the driving force behind this once-in-a-generation project was not even invited to the opening ceremony in Lucerne.

At the beginning of July, the Alfred Escher Foundation published an electronic edition of his letters, providing new insights into the visionary’s highly contradictory life.

 

This post by Wolfgang Müller appeared in the SBB Cargo blog in October 2015. There you can find a gripping set of articles entitled “The Fascinating World of the Gotthard”, which will tell you all you need to know about the construction of the Gotthard Base Tunnel (only in German, French and Italian).

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