The Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland is a very important transportation route for both trains and vehicles.
Spanning an incredible history, the Gotthard mountain massive has challenged numerous generations to overcome the rugged pathway between northern and southern Europe.
The massive European Alpine mountains have been a captivating aspect of that region’s history over many centuries, presenting each chapter in history the recurring challenge of massive rock mountains, fast flowing rivers, and harsh winter conditions.
The famous Alpine crossing by Carthaginian army commander Hannibal in 218 BC remains one of the notable military accomplishments, with men and animals, including elephants, enduring extreme conditions throughout their journey over the Alps, with the ultimate destination being Rome.
Honing in on more recent times, the story of the current Gotthard Tunnel, there are actually several, each distinct for either railway or vehicle travel, starts first with the Gotthard Pass, which remained for centuries an important channel to cross over from the north to the south, and vis-versa, enabling important trade routes and connectivity between the people living in those regions.
The historians have identified that the name of the Gotthard Pass dates back to Saint Gotthard of Hildesheim, sometime around 1236, dedicated to Saint Gotthard and his efforts at unifying the regions surrounding these massive alpine formations.
The Gotthard Pass, as such, was likely only made properly usable for more people to regularly travel, through the building of various bridges many centuries later.
The Gotthard Tunnel was first built to accommodate railway travel for people and goods, highlighting an important historical point in the growing importance of the Gotthard Tunnel accesway between northern and southern Europe, as it is known today. It was an immense project, launched by the Gotthard Railway Company in 1871, requiring considerable financing, materials, people, and engineering know-how; this undertaking also marked the first large-scale use of dynamite. The Swiss engineer Luis Favre won the contract to build the Gotthard Tunnel and began work on the project, which was to last some 10 years to complete, with the first passenger train passing through the tunnel in the summer months of 1882.
The Gotthard Tunnel mountain entrance started in Goeschenen and drew 100’s of people looking for work to build the tunnel. Miners from the Italian Piedmont were a large part of the early tunnel builders. A somewhat rough lifestyle ensued in the small town of Goeschenen and the inhabitants, with their single policeman to maintain order, were not really prepared for this activity. Rooms were few and had to be often shared by many of the former miners. Some of the engineers were able to live in homes, yet, most had to put up in barracks erected specifically for the tunnel building. Apparently, CHF 4 was the daily housing fee, with 0.40 cents required for lamp oil!
Inside the tunnel temperatures reached some 30 degrees Celsius the further inward the workmen dug into the mountain, whilst outside, there were sub-zero conditions during the winter. By early 1872, the tunnel had only been dug inwards for 120 meters.
By 1875, 1500 people were working on the tunnel for the Gotthard Railway Company. Sturdiness of the walls was put aside to keep moving forward. In 1874, 4 people died from the dynamite fumes and in 1875 there was a revolt by the workers, who wanted 1 CHF more salary and better ventilation conditions. The workers, who had put their equipment down for better conditions, took to the streets of Goeschenen. In July 1875, soldiers arrived in the town to support the town major to convince the workers to continue their progress on the Gotthard Tunnel. 5 workers died as the two sides confronted each other. The workers finally went back to work, yet, the harsh conditions remained the same. Many more workers died and were losing weight. A parasite worm was discovered as a major source of illness, living ideally in the warm conditions of the tunnel.
In the summer of 1879, there was still no sign of a breakthrough and Luis Favre only had 12 months left to fulfill the contract he had initiated with the Gotthard Railway Company. On 19 July 19th,1879, Favre undertook on of his many control walks; this was to be his last walk in the Gotthard Tunnel, as he collapsed while within, due to an apparent heart failure and passed away at 53 years of age – unable to see the completion of this great project.
On December 24, 1879, the sound of explosives was heard coming from the south end of the Gotthard Tunnel and on February 28, 1880, the two sides of workmen, who had been tunneling forward from each direction now for years, finally reached each other and the tunnel connection was complete.
The tunnel workers certainly honored Luis Favre at this great moment and, no doubt, celebrated what had been over 10 years of hard, arduous efforts, accompanied with great hardship and the unfortunate loss of over 170 men during the Gotthard Tunnel construction.
On the 1st July 1882, the tunnel officially opened for the new railway services, operating through the Gotthardbahn railway company.
In concluding, we hope this brief Gotthard Tunnel history overview has been informative and provides, at least, an introduction into the incredible history this tunnel and Alpine region has experienced.
As with all historical review, we have relied on numerous sources of information as referenced at the end of the article.
Perhaps on your next journey through the Gotthard Tunnel, some of its historical past will come to mind and you can further appreciate this grand engineering feat, which has continued over the years.
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Happy Holidays 2019!
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