The first real railway tunnel in Switzerland ran through the Jura and was opened in 1858. Illustration by Marco Heer.
The first real railway tunnel in Switzerland ran through the Jura and was opened in 1858. Illustration by Marco Heer.

Through the Jura

In 1853 efforts got under way to ‘break the stone’ that stood between the cantons of Basel-Landschaft and Solothurn. Five years later the Hauenstein, Switzerland’s first real railway tunnel, was opened.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

Not the Gotthard, not the Simplon, and certainly not the Lötschberg – no, the Hauenstein was the first true railway tunnel in Switzerland. Officially opened in 1858, the tunnel was built by the Basel-based Schweizerische Centralbahn (SCB). The SCB was established in February 1853 with the objective of connecting the Lucerne and Bern regions, and western Switzerland, with the Rhine city of Basel. To do this, however, the obstacle of the Jura mountains had to be overcome. Work on the Hauenstein tunnel began in July 1853. At 2,495 metres in length, it was the first railway tunnel in Switzerland to go through a mountain. Only the Schlossberg tunnel in Baden, opened in 1847, was built earlier, but at a length of 80 metres it was no comparison to the Hauenstein tunnel.
The Hauenstein tunnel in a print dating from 1857.
The Hauenstein tunnel in a print dating from 1857. ETH Library Zurich
The building of the tunnel between Läufelfingen (Canton of Basel-Landschaft) and Trimbach (Canton of Solothurn) involved extremely difficult manual labour and claimed scores of lives. One particularly tragic incident was a shaft fire in May 1857, in which 52 workers and 11 rescuers lost their lives. To improve the stale air in the tunnel a forge had been set up which, by creating different temperatures inside and outside, started air circulating. This worked until one day a spark caused a shaft fire, and rocks and debris caved in on part of a drift. It took rescue workers several days to clear an opening. Too late for the trapped labourers.
Illustration of the disaster in the German magazine ‘Die Gartenlaube’, 1857.
Illustration of the disaster in the German magazine ‘Die Gartenlaube’, 1857. Wikimedia
In addition to that disaster, repeated flooding delayed completion of the building work, which was actually planned for 1857. The tunnel was eventually officially opened on 1 May 1858, a year late. Two Federal Councillors were among those on the guest list: Wilhelm Matthias Naeff and Giovanni Battista Pioda. For Switzerland as an aspiring railway nation, tunnelling through the Jura was a momentous achievement, but it plunged the government into a dilemma. Should they send a delegation, even though similar invitations had been turned down in the past? Yes, and no. That is, yes, but not as an official mission. A compromise in the good old Swiss style, still only nascent though it was in those days. The invitation from the SCB was therefore politely and tactfully declined: ‘It behoves us to inform you that we have never availed ourselves of similar invitations in the past and that we therefore deem it appropriate in the present case also to continue our existing practice which, however, does not preclude individual members of our office being permitted to take part, when possible, in festivities of such patriotic significance.’ Reading between the lines, however, the message was that the Centralbahn should anticipate the attendance of at least one Federal Councillor.
Invitation from the ‘Schweizerische Centralbahn’ to the Federal Council to attend the official opening of the Hauenstein Tunnel, 1858.
Invitation from the ‘Schweizerische Centralbahn’ to the Federal Council to attend the official opening of the Hauenstein Tunnel, 1858. Swiss Federal Archives
Letter from the Federal Council declining the invitation to officially attend the opening of the Hauenstein Tunnel, 1858. But that’s another story, coming up soon…
Letter from the Federal Council declining the invitation to officially attend the opening of the Hauenstein Tunnel, 1858. But that’s another story, coming up soon… Swiss Federal Archives
The Hauenstein wasn’t given the official honour of being inaugurated by a member of the state government until 1916. Or rather, it should have been given the honour, because it didn’t happen then either. With World War I raging on the nation’s doorstep, the first base tunnel in Switzerland, with a length of around eight kilometres, was opened without any ceremony. Even so, both tunnels were masterpieces and milestones of their age. Honour and Federal Councillors notwithstanding.
Federal Councillor Wilhelm Mathias Naeff was the superior of Postmaster General Benedikt La Roche.
Unofficial guests of honour: Federal Councillors Giovanni Battista Pioda (left) and Wilhelm Matthias Naeff. Swiss National Museum

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

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).