The first aerial cableway in Switzerland was actually more of an elevator; it was planned that the vehicle would ascend to an altitude of 3,700 metres above sea level. Illustration by Marco Heer.
The first aerial cableway in Switzerland was actually more of an elevator; it was planned that the vehicle would ascend to an altitude of 3,700 metres above sea level. Illustration by Marco Heer.

The first aerial cableway

An elevator to the 3,700-metre summit of the Wetterhorn. At the beginning of the 20th century, this was one engineer’s dream. His dream did eventually come true, even if not in its entirety: in 1908 Switzerland welcomed its first aerial cableway for passenger transport.

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner is a self-employed journalist specialising in history and chronicler of Niederweningen.

The Wetterhorn Elevator at Grindelwald was inaugurated on 27 July 1908, and was the first public aerial cableway for passenger transport in Switzerland. It was actually only the first of four stages planned to ascend the 3,692-metre Wetterhorn, but the specialist community was abuzz. The journey over the Upper Grindelwald Glacier, which at that time still extended as far as the Hotel Wetterhorn, took around nine minutes and climbed 420 metres in altitude; the Baedeker travel guide described the ride as ‘interesting’. And a year after it opened, the journal Techniker Zeitung described the elevator as the ‘…world’s first modern aerial cableway system…’
Switzerland’s first aerial cableway for public transport on the Wetterhorn, 1909.
Switzerland’s first aerial cableway for public transport on the Wetterhorn, 1909. ETH Library Zurich
However, the idea for this innovation didn’t come from a Swiss person. It came from Wilhelm Feldmann, a German engineer who had moved to Bern with his family at the beginning of the 20th century. Prior to the move, Feldmann had worked with businessman Eugen Lange to complete an ambitious suspension railway project in Wuppertal in 1901. Feldmann has been described as tenacious. He needed every ounce of perseverance when designing the Wetterhorn cableway. He pondered how rails could be ‘replaced’ with steel cables. His plan was for a system that would pass above the Upper Grindelwald Glacier with no railway line or tracks, and no pylons. With a gradient of 116%, his railway was more of a elevator than an aerial cableway. Hence the name ‘Wetterhorn Elevator’. His vision overstretched the imagination of some of his contemporaries.
There were no forms yet for such a vehicle, so an automobile concession form served as an impromptu licence.
There were no forms yet for such a vehicle, so an automobile concession form served as an impromptu licence. Swiss Federal Archives
When it opened, the elevator was the first electric cableway in Switzerland designed exclusively for passenger transport. Among other things, it had two independent braking systems with on-board brakes, automatic power interruption if the speed exceeded safe levels, and 45-millimetre-thick steel cables. This also made the cableway one of the first with a sophisticated safety system, which Feldmann had registered for legal protection. The Municipality of Grindelwald saw the cableway as another superb tourist attraction and threw its support behind the German engineer, providing funding and making the land available. In 1905, construction began on the first stage covering the stretch up to Enge station, at 1,670 metres above sea level. In 1907, the cableway finally received its operating licence. In its first year of operation, up to September 1908, the Wetterhorn Elevator made 1,880 journeys. This remained the average annual number of journeys throughout the cableway’s six years of operation. A one-way journey cost CHF 3.50. Passengers with a good head for heights were required to shell out 5 francs for the round trip.
1908/09 timetable.
1908/09 timetable. Swiss Federal Archives
Wilhelm Feldmann didn’t live to see the inauguration of ‘his’ cableway. He died on 2 June 1905 – at just 52 years of age – of complications from a stroke. That may be why the planned three further stations were never built. Or perhaps the location of the Wetterhorn Elevator’s valley station at the Hotel Wetterhorn outside Grindelwald was too much of a drawback. The fact that the second stage was not to be connected directly to the first mountain station, but was to be built about 750 metres higher up, certainly didn’t help either – even if the concessionaires did try to gloss over this circumstance with flowery language such as the anticipated ‘bizarre rock carvings’ and the ‘delightful, ever-changing vista of glaciers and peaks’.
Postcards featuring Wilhelm Feldmann’s image were issued to mark the inauguration of the Elevator.
Postcards featuring Wilhelm Feldmann’s image were issued to mark the inauguration of the Elevator. Burgerbibliothek of Berne
The beginning of World War I marked the end of the Wetterhorn Elevator. The absence of tourists dealt the fatal blow to Switzerland’s first aerial cableway. The concession, which had been issued for 20 years, was never renewed. When a rockfall destroyed the cableway’s lower station, the chapter was finally closed on the Wetterhorn Elevator.

The first time…

There’s always a first time. In this series, we will be looking at historic Swiss firsts. The topics covered are very diverse: from the first zebra crossing to the first ever popular initiative. The articles have been produced in cooperation with the Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv (Swiss Federal Archives).

Further posts

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Swiss National Museum

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