The Miraculous Jungfrau Railway
Adolf Guyer-Zeller was a man with a singular vision. The Zürich entrepreneur had inherited a spinning mill from his father and founded his own textile export business, but in later years he would set his sights on the lucrative pursuit of building railroads. Switzerland at the end of the 19th century was in the grip of “mountain railway fever”, and Guyer-Zeller was determined to create the most impressive and daring of them all.
Inspiration struck one summer’s day in 1893, while on a hike with his daughter in the Bernese Highlands. It was the sight of a train on the newly opened Wengernalp Railway that fueled Guyer-Zeller’s imagination. The savvy entrepreneur had seen passenger carriages traveling up to Kleine Scheidegg, a picturesque mountain pass in the shadow of Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau, a noble trio of snowcapped peaks roughly 4,000 meters high. Guyer-Zeller returned to his hotel room to sketch his proposal for an electrified cogwheel railway that would lead from Kleine Scheidegg through Eiger and Mönch, terminating in a station inside Jungfrau itself, where an elevator whisked tourists to an observation deck on the 4,158-meter (13,642-foot) summit.
Local authorities granted Guyer-Zeller a construction license at the close of 1894, and ground was broken in July 1896. The 9.3-kilometer railway required a great deal of manual labor. Only shovels and picks were used for the open-air section from Kleine Scheidegg to the Eiger Glacier, and laborers faced an even greater challenge in dynamiting a curved tunnel of more than seven kilometers through the solid rock of the Eiger and Mönch mountains. Roughly 90 percent of the workforce was Italian; they toiled all year round, living out of a purpose-built colony at the base of Eiger Glacier that had running water, electricity, and heating; not to mention a large structure housing a restaurant, a grocery shop stocked with winter supplies, and even a sick room.
A testament to Guyer-Zeller’s marketing genius, the Jungfrau Railway became a popular tourist attraction even before it was finished. The project’s opening in stages meant that visitors could marvel at the views from intermediate stations even as workers continued to excavate at the higher sections. Even today, a journey aboard the Jungfrau Railway includes a five-minute stop at Eismeer (literally “Sea of Ice”), a station named for the blocks of bluish ice that can be seen through windows carved out from the mountainside.
Tragically, Guyer-Zeller did not live long enough to see the completion of his visionary mountain railway; he died of a heart attack just three years after construction began. But the work continued in spite of financial difficulties, six workers’ strikes, and other challenges. Then there was the human cost of building the Jungfrau Railway: 30 men were killed and another 90 injured, mostly in blasting accidents. Finally, on August 1, 1912, some 16 years after the project broke ground, the first trainload of visitors arrived at Jungfraujoch station below the snow-covered saddle between Mönch and Jungfrau.
The original plan to reach the summit of Jungfrau via an elevator was never realized, though the final outcome remains a record-breaking feat. More than a century after its completion, the terminus at Jungfraujoch still holds the distinction of being the highest railway station in Europe, a whopping 3,454 meters (11,332 feet) above sea level.
Jungfraujoch makes for a worthwhile day trip from the nearby town of Interlaken, and not just because of its year-round snow cover. I am fortunate to have Sandra Kaiser from Jungfrau Railways as my guide throughout the journey – she explains the local history and how the mountains received their names (Jungfrau means “Virgin” and Mönch is “Monk”; the former refers to the pure white snow on its slopes, and the latter recalls the monks at Interlaken monastery who kept their horses at the mountain’s base).
As Sandra demonstrates, getting to Jungfraujoch is far easier than it sounds. We hop aboard a train from Interlaken Ost station to the steep-sided Lauterbrunnen valley, whose dream-like scenery and 72 waterfalls inspired Rivendell in Lord of the Rings, and change at Lauterbrunnen for the Wengernalp Railway to Kleine Scheidegg. We’re joined by a contingent of Swiss students and a motley of visitors from farther afield. Just 48 minutes after boarding the train at Kleine Scheidegg, Sandra and I disembark into a cavern at Jungfraujoch.
A miracle of extreme engineering, the Jungfrau Railway has opened up an otherwise inaccessible snow- and ice-bound world to the ordinary tourist. Its presence means that the Bernese Alps are no longer the preserve of hardy mountaineers, rock climbers, and serious trekkers. From Jungfraujoch, the adventure-minded can opt for a two-day guided trek on the 23-kilometer-long Aletsch Glacier, the largest and longest in the Alps. It’s a memorable way to soak up the surrounding high-altitude landscape, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
Not far from the rail terminus, a high-speed elevator takes visitors to the outdoor observation deck at the foot of the Sphinx Observatory, an atmospheric research station perched on its namesake rock formation. The views from Jungfraujoch are sublime, and thanks to the more than 3,000-meter elevation difference with nearby Interlaken, breathtaking in more ways than one. Less so is the place’s mass-market appeal: shops here sell wooden handicrafts and other knickknacks, Victorinox Swiss army knives, and even spray cans of pure mountain air. Shoppers at the in-house Lindt Swiss Chocolate Heaven can try their hand at using a vintage-style chocolate mixer, then stock up on Lindt classics at cheaper prices compared to stores in the valleys below.
Sandra and I troop past glowing larger-than-life edelweiss flowers and a giant snow globe into the Ice Palace, the creation of mountain guides who carved out passageways from the Jungfraufirn glacier in the 1930s. Maintained at a temperature of -3° Celsius (26 Fahrenheit), the niches here are adorned with ice carvings of local wildlife. Our next stop is the Plateau, an area that is the starting point for glacier and mountain treks. Sandra is visibly shocked when she sees a large number of tourists straying beyond the safety perimeter marked with orange and yellow ropes. They seem blissfully unaware of the risk of falling into hidden crevasses. As at any major tourism site, we witness the narcissism of 21st-century travel that has become increasingly apparent with the rise of social media and the selfie. Among a boisterous Thai-speaking group, a man pulls off his shirt to strike a pose atop a mound of snow. “The Americans are worse,” Sandra quips. “Sometimes they come here and strip naked.”
We settle down for lunch at one of Jungfraujoch’s three restaurants, dipping cubed pieces of bread into a pot of fondue as Sandra tells me about life in modern-day Switzerland. I can see why more than 900,000 visitors arrive at Jungfraujoch each year to take in the views and the fresh Alpine air. Were he to come back today and inspect the high-altitude destination made possible by his railway, Adolf Guyer-Zeller would certainly be proud. ◊