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A century of pioneering railway achievement

Tourists of the early 20th century enjoy the view from the Eiger Wall Station

It is not everyday you are invited to a birthday party inside the north face of a mountain.

A special event this weekend marked the 100th anniversary of the conquest of the infamous Eiger peak by mechanical means.

When the dozens of prominent guests on Saturday got out of the train in the tunnel at the Eiger Wall Station, they were treated for nostalgic reasons to the sound of drilling.

It was the same sound the first tourists disembarking at this point would have heard 100 years ago.

Reaching the Eiger north face by tunnel was a breakthrough for the railway pioneers of the day, but it was intended as only a minor stop on the way to the top of the dazzling Jungfrau summit.

Dig and drill

As the first tourists in 1903 gazed over the railing of the Eiger’s observation window, Italian workers continued to dig, drill and blast their way through solid gneiss and limestone.

Their goal – the completion of a seven-kilometre-long tunnel running through the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains.

There were financial setbacks, labour disputes and technical hurdles to overcome. The miners worked round the clock the whole year.

Freezing dynamite

In summer, their food was placed in glacier crevasses at the start of the tunnel to keep from perishing. The challenge in winter was to prevent their dynamite from freezing.

There were accidental explosions, and in one incident, 30 tons of dynamite went off in a blast that was said to have echoed all the way to Germany’s Black Forest region.

The tunnel was completed, nine years later, to the Jungfraujoch – short of the summit, but nevertheless a great achievement at 3,454 metres above sea level.

The man given credit as the builder of the railway was Adolf Guyer-Zeller, even though he died in 1899, only three years after construction began.

Great-great granddaughter

“We were told about it when we were small children,” remembers Martina von Salis, a great-great granddaughter of Guyer-Zeller.

“We heard how our great-great-grandfather built the highest railway in the world,” she adds.

“He was only 60 when he died, probably because he was overworked,” says Wolfgang Wahl, who has edited Guyer-Zeller’s travel journals and is married to another direct descendant.

Wahl says Guyer-Zeller was inspired by the work ethic he was exposed to when he travelled to the United States as a young adult.

“He admired the self-made-man,” Wahl concludes.

The managing director of the Jungfrau Railways, Walter Steuri, says the pioneering railway builder was also impressed by the digging of the Suez Canal during a visit to Egypt.

“He studied how it was built and was able to apply some of what he learned to construct tunnels through the Alps.”

Piston-type lifts

Before Guyer-Zeller came along, there were ambitious plans to build pneumatic railways, funiculars and piston-type lifts to the Jungfrau summit.

The latter were to be blown to the top by compressed air in only 15 minutes.

Guyer-Zeller was more pragmatic. He envisioned a cog railway that would not have to be very steep due to its curvature through the mountains, and which could be opened in stages to help finance the continuing work.

About 15,000 passengers travelled to the Eiger Wall Station when it was opened in 1903.

500,000 passengers

Those figures are dwarfed by the half million people who now travel each year all the way to the Jungfraujoch station.

Historians have likened the construction of the railway line to the raping of virgin peaks (jungfrau=maiden).

But Steuri says mountaineers should not have the exclusive right to reach such heady heights.

He says the railway is a great leveller, giving “many people the opportunity to see the wonderful world of the high Alps”.

Top of Europe

If Steuri has his way, the number of tourists taking the railway to the “top of Europe”, as the line is promoted, will increase.

Even though business is down about 20 per cent so far this year due to the global economic downturn and the effect of Sars, Steuri is optimistic that next year figures will climb again.

To meet the demand, the company is increasing capacity by building more dual track on the lower part of the line above Grindelwald, and has purchased new rolling stock.

“During the journey through the tunnel, we will show videos on the new trains about the history of the railways, about mountaineering and glaciology,” he says.

Assault

Samuele Salm, the new tourist director of Grindelwald, says the assault, on the Eiger at least, will be stepped up, to take advantage of its high-recognition factor worldwide.

“We have to give it greater prominence in our marketing, ahead of the Jungfrau and Mönch.”

Lying at the foot of the Eiger, Salm stresses that “Grindelwald and the Eiger will need each other in future much more than ever before.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel at the Eiger Wall Station

Key facts

The Jungfrau railway took 16 years to build - more than twice as long as estimated – and SFr15 million which was SFr5 million over budget.
The seven-kilometre-long tunnel begins at the Eiger Glacier Station at 2,300 m, and ends at the Jungfraujoch at 3,454 m, billed as the highest railway station in Europe.
It was opened in stages, with the Eiger Wall Station being the first stop inside the tunnel.
Located at 2,865 m, the Eiger station has an observation deck (now covered by glass window panes).
About half a million people travel to the Jungfraujoch each year.
The railway runs year round, and a return journey from Grindelwald costs SFr150.
The Jungfraujoch station has restaurants, an ice cavern with ice sculptures, observation decks and a pedestrian tunnel leading out to a glacier.
The station is crowned by the “Sphinx” Observatory – a scientific research centre.

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