We are telling the stories of some of the visionaries behind the construction of the Gotthard tunnel in a short series of blog posts. Next in the series is Louis Favre (1826-1879), a builder from Geneva for whom the Gotthard tunnel of 1882 (the mountain route) brought little joy.
His greatest triumph was also his greatest defeat: when what was then the world’s longest tunnel broke through the Gotthard Massif on 29 February 1880, Louis Favre had already been dead for several months and his company had long since gone bankrupt. A carpenter and builder by trade, the Genevan won the bid for this mammoth project against six competing companies on 7 August 1872, promising eight rather than nine years of construction and costs of 56 million Swiss francs – 12.5 million francs less than the next bidder.
If construction took less time, he would be awarded a bonus of 5,000 francs a day but, if completion was delayed, the engineer would have to pay the same amount in fines. A delay of more than six months would push the fine up to as much as 10,000 francs a day.
The masterpiece overran by a staggering ten months. The delay had been caused by technical and geological problems, by legal disputes with the lender bank and the construction department of the Gotthard Railway Company, and by a brutally suppressed strike of Italian tunnel workers.
Paying the set fine drove Favre’s family to financial ruin. Favre himself had died from a tear in his abdominal aorta just a few months earlier during a tunnel inspection. At least 177 people lost their lives on the enormous construction site when large volumes of water broke into the tunnel and the ceiling collapsed several times.
Plans for the 15-kilometre-long Gotthard tunnel, which officially came into service in 1882, had already been in the pipeline for many years. In 1869, Italy and Germany agreed to contribute financially to the mammoth project in a treaty signed with Switzerland and the international call for tenders could begin, prompting the ambitious Louis Favre to make his bid.
“Hold my lamp,” are said to have been his last words as he collapsed in the tunnel and died. Seven months later, a tin canister was pushed through a small gap between the two ends of the tunnel bearing a picture of the engineer who has gone down in history as the “railway pioneer on the Gotthard”. Written in French on the back of the can were the words: “Who else would deserve to be first to go through? He was our champion, friend and father. Long live the Gotthard!”
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).