The Jungfrau Railway - a vision becomes reality
The first ascent of the Jungfrau
Earlier Jungfrau Railway projects
Idea for the Jungfrau Railway
First cut in the soil
Eigerwand und Eismeer stations
Opening of the Jungfrau Railway
Two summit stormers conquer the Jungfrau
Many poets, painters and academics travelled to the Jungfrau Region to admire, document and compose verse on the glaciers and waterfalls close to the famous trio of summits, the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau. To quote a text on the 4158-metre-high Jungfrau summit from 1577/78: “The Jungckfrau is a very high, gigantic mountain of eternal snow and ice and thus totally impregnable”. Hence no team of climbers dared to venture the ascent for a very long time. This changed in 1811, when two brothers, Johann Rudolf and Hieronymus Meyer, became the first to reach the summit. The men from Aarau started their journey to the Jungfrau on 29 July 1811, travelling over the Grimsel Pass into the Rhone Valley and from Fiesch to the Aletsch Glacier. On 2 August, the brothers set out on their first attempt to reach the Jungfrau summit. They were accompanied by two chamois hunters, Alois Volker und Joseph Bortis, who they had hired in Lötschental. However, the onset of the warm föhn wind forced them to turn back. Their second attempt the following day was successful. The four men reached the Jungfrau from the south, via the Lötschenlücke and Konkordiaplatz. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the travellers stood on the summit. As a sign of their achievement, they made a flag from a black linen sheet fixed to a stick, which they stuck into the virgin snow.
By railway or cableway up the Jungfrau
At the end of the 19th century, the whole of Switzerland was in the grip of railway fever. A whole series of cogwheel railways were constructed. However, the climax of this building frenzy involved the Jungfrau Railway. On 16 October 1889, Zurich engineer Maurice Köchlin was the first to submit to the Federal Council a project for a railway to the Jungfrau summit. This was to be split into five sections and powered by electricity. Six days later, engineer Alexander Trautweiler from Aargau submitted a plan to the Federal Council for four independently operated aerial cableways that would lead to the summit. As the Federal Council wanted to grant a single concession, it first attempted to get the two applicants to reach an agreement – in vain. In the early spring of 1891, Köchlin’s project was awarded the concession but failed to be realized because of a shortage of funds. A project for a cogwheel railway through a tunnel to the Eiger summit suffered the same fate.
"Now I've got it!"
Sunday, 27 August 1893. The 54-year-old industrial magnate and finance expert Adolf Guyer-Zeller was hiking from Schilthorn to Mürren with his daughter. Suddenly he stopped and said, “Now I’ve got it!” As he saw a train of the Wengernalp Railway travelling up to Kleine Scheidegg, he hit on the idea of building a railway from there to the Jungfrau. That night he sketched his idea on a sheet of paper. This shows the Eiger, Mönch und Jungfrau as well as the route he planned for the Jungfrau Railway. He attached such great importance to this pencil sketch that he added the following note: “11-1 ½ at night, Room No. 42, Kurhaus, 27/28 August 1893. G.Z.”
From sketched theory to practice
On 20 December 1893, just under four months after his hike in August, Guyer-Zeller submitted his concession application to the Federal Council. This stated that the station on the Jungfrau summit would be reached four years after the start of construction. His brainwave, which he had recorded as a sketch in his notebook, served as the basis for his concrete proposal. He also combined earlier Jungfrau Railway projects. His idea was for the construction of the Jungfrau Railway to begin not in Lauterbrunnen but on Kleine Scheidegg . From there, the electrically-driven cogwheel railway would travel up over open terrain to the first station, the Eigergletscher, and then enter a tunnel. It would stop at three stations on its way to the Jungfrau summit. Each station would have its own special appeal with different vantage points and be a touristic destination in itself, meaning that the railway could be opened in stages. On 21 December 1894, Guyer-Zeller received the concession for his project.
The start of a bold project
Attitudes to the Jungfrau Railway project were mixed. Members of the Swiss Alpine Club were concerned about unobstructed access for mountain climbers. A few club members even wanted to lodge a petition against the building of the Jungfrau Railway and to call for a national protest movement. However, the criticism drew little response. The people of the valley saw excellent potential in the Jungfrau Railway, a means to guarantee tourism in the Oberland for all time, and so gave the project their backing. The big day arrived on 27 July 1896. Dr. Friedrich Wrubel, secretary of the Jungfrau Railway, made the first cut in the soil and construction began. At first, work was concentrated on the open-air section between Kleine Scheidegg and the Eigergletscher station. The two-kilometre section was tackled without the aid of machines: the only tools were picks, shovels and muscle power.
The first two kilometres opened
After over two years of back-breaking manual labour, the first section between Kleine Scheidegg and Eigergletscher was opened on 19 September 1898. An extravagant opening ceremony had taken place on the previous day, organized by Guyer-Zeller. He invited 450 distinguished guests, who were able to enjoy a festive production specially composed for the occasion. A short time later, during an appeal for the foundation of a Jungfrau Railway company, Guyer-Zeller declared that “This railway will achieve first place among all existing mountain railways and will retain that claim. It will be a memorable keystone in the development of the railway system that began in the first quarter of our century”. This appeal convinced investors. Within 18 months, over 4000 shares had been subscribed, so that the founding meeting of the company was able to be held on 17 December 1898.
The Eigerwand (Eiger Wall) station was opened on 28 June 1903, awarding travellers views over the abyss from the middle of the Eiger North Wall. The opening of the section to the Eismeer (Sea of Ice) station (3160m) followed two years later. A tourist centre was sited here until completion of the railway. The company had to raise new funds before construction could continue. Adolf Guyer-Zeller’s original plans were also modified by the construction management. It was decided to make the Jungfraujoch (3454m) the railway terminus instead of the Jungfrau summit, as originally planned.
The decisive blast
Construction of the final 3.6 kilometres from Eismeer to Jungfraujoch was considered easy to master, however, unexpected obstacles appeared. The rock put up resistance, in summer the focus was on income-generating passenger transport and in winter, the water supply in the valley, needed to generate electricity for the railway and machines, sometimes dried up. In addition, the tough working conditions took its toll on the stamina of the workforce. But things were different on 21 February 1912. The shift workers who should have been replaced were reluctant to leave their workplace. The shift that blasted through to daylight was to be rewarded with a special bonus and this incentive led to risk taking. The workers used as much dynamite as possible, more than was actually permitted, to ensure that they were the ones to make the breakthrough. The big moment came at 5.35 h. The team gazed at the morning sky through a hole in the rock on the Jungfraujoch. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported: “On 21 February 1912, an outstanding work, a triumph of modern engineering, was brought to fruition. The decisive blast took place at 5.35 in the early morning. Loud cheers of “Through!” echoed around the mighty walls and the workers sank into each other’s arms, overcome with emotion”. Shortly before midday on 1 August 1912, 16 years after construction began, the first festively decorated train carrying invited guests travelled the 9.34-km-long stretch. Once on the Jungfraujoch, guests walked through a 200-metre-long gallery, the last metres through eternal ice. Celebrations were held on the Jungfrau plateau and the Swiss flag was hoisted.
The Railway King
Adolf Guyer-Zeller was born on 1 May 1839, in Neuthal in the Zurich Oberland, where his father owned a successful cotton mill, one of the oldest in Switzerland. As the only son, he was destined to take over and expand the family business. For this reason, he attended the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich and the Geneva Academy. In addition to the subjects necessary for a career as a textile manufacturer, he also attended lectures on geology, essential for railway construction. After completing his studies, he worked in his father’s cotton mill. In 1859, at the age of 21, Guyer-Zeller set out on a world tour. His route included France, Great Britain, North America and Egypt. After 18 months of travel, he returned to his father’s business with plans for its expansion and also concrete plans for railway construction. At first he had no time for the latter, as the cotton mill and his political career as Zurich Cantonal Councilor took priority. Nevertheless, from 1880, Guyer-Zeller began to increasingly devote himself to his passion for railway building. He believed in the future of this means of transport and here also demonstrated sound business sense. He bought shares and bonds of the Gotthard Railway, which had been rated as worthless when the project hit financial problems during construction. By the time the Gotthard tunnel opened, Guyer-Zeller’s investment had quadrupled and he was given the nickname of “Railway King”. Years later, he took on the challenge of the Jungfrau Railway project but never saw the completion of his pioneering masterpiece. Adolf Guyer-Zeller died of pneumonia on 3 April 1899, at 60 years of age.