Postcard of the Righi in Genoa, early 20th century.
Postcard of the Righi in Genoa, early 20th century. Provided by the author

The men behind Genoa’s Righi funicular

What were two businessmen from Obwalden doing in Genoa at the end of the 19th century? Building a funicular railway and giving it a familiar name from home: the Righi.

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr is a cultural and media scientist and lives in Winterthur.

It doesn’t take long to find traces of Switzerland in Genoa: the Confiserie Klainguti is located right in the heart of the city centre. Its founders were three brothers from Graubünden who came to this bustling port on the Ligurian Sea in the early 19th century and opened their first pastry shop there in 1825. Genoa lies at the foot of steep hills, on one of which stands the Forte Castellaccio, an old fortress that gave its name to the surrounding neighbourhood. That is, until 1893 when two businessmen from Obwalden, Franz Josef Bucher and Josef Durrer, built a funicular railway connecting the city to those very slopes. Since then, the district has been known as Righi ‒ like the Rigi mountain in central Switzerland, but written with an extra ‘h’.
Contemporary postcard showing the Righi funicular in Genoa.
Contemporary postcard showing the Righi funicular in Genoa. Provided by the author
Just like the Klainguti brothers, the two entrepreneurs and manufacturers from Obwalden had gone to Genoa to seek their fortune. They were able to acquire a stake in the Hotel Méditerranée in nearby Pegli in 1883, before later buying it outright. And in 1890, they took part in a tender for the construction of Genoa’s tramways and were awarded the contract. However, they were given the concession for the trickiest, steepest section of the network, requiring them to build tunnels. It almost ruined them. Franz Josef Bucher and Josef Durrer had known each other since early childhood. Both were from Kerns near Sarnen in the canton of Obwalden, and the two men eventually became brothers-in-law. The farmer and woodworker teamed up in 1864 to found their own company: Bucher & Durrer. With a flair for spotting new business opportunities, they opened the first parquet flooring factory in Switzerland in nearby Kägiswil a few years later. Their wood flooring was highly sought after, and their domestic sources of timber soon began to run out. Bucher & Durrer expanded into Eastern Europe in 1881, buying a sawmill in Transylvania, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. In 1885, they opened another parquet flooring factory in the Romanian capital Bucharest.
Josef Durrer (left) and Franz Josef Bucher enjoying lunch on the Stanserhorn. The two men had ceased working together almost ten years before this photo was taken in 1904.
Josef Durrer (left) and Franz Josef Bucher enjoying lunch on the Stanserhorn. The two men had ceased working together almost ten years before this photo was taken in 1904. Obwalden Staatsarchiv
Franz Josef Bucher was a hard-nosed businessman; some of his contemporaries even described him as ‘uncouth’. Apparently, the only word he knew in Italian was ‘subito’, meaning ‘right away’ or ‘at once’. Bucher wanted to be taken seriously. Whatever the cost. His business partner Josef Durrer, a skilled artisan, was the exact opposite: diplomatic, level-headed and reserved. No wonder, then, that differences soon arose between the two, such as when they became involved in a dispute with the cantonal authorities over water rights for their factory in Obwalden that dragged on for years. In 1877, these differences of opinion led to a parting of the ways, but the split proved only temporary. Re-united, the two men tried to find ways of rubbing along together. The duo ploughed the money they earned from timber and parquet flooring into the up-and-coming hotel business, building their first establishment in 1870: the Sonnenberg in Engelberg, where they were able to show off their fancy flooring to a wider public. The hotel was sold on at a profit just twelve months later, and the money used to acquire the Trittalp, an area of land high above Lake Lucerne. The previous owner, Korporation Luzern, a local body that administered long-established common heritable property, had deemed the land not suitable for agricultural use. But Durrer and Bucher had other ideas. They gave the alpine meadow a new name: Bürgenstock. The Grand Hotel Bürgenstock opened its doors in 1873, and a funicular was built in 1888. Other hotels were to follow: the Hotel de l’Europe in Lucerne in 1883, and the Hotel Quirinale in Rome in 1893.
The Hotel Bürgenstock, circa 1877.
The Hotel Bürgenstock, circa 1877. ETH Library Zurich

Funicular railways a second string to their bow

As a company, Bucher & Durrer’s second mainstay was mountain railways. The two partners were keen to be involved in the construction of the Pilatus rack railway that began in 1886, but personal animosities stood in their way. They fared better on the nearby Stanserhorn, where they built a railway track to the summit quickly and economically. Driven by a need to make cost-savings, the entrepreneurs searched around for a cheaper alternative to the rack and pinion brake system customary at the time. Durrer consequently used his technical skills to develop caliper brakes, with which even the concession-awarding authorities were impressed. An audacious demonstration of the new system’s effectiveness was staged especially for them on the steepest section of track – with Franz Josef Bucher, as you would expect, in the director’s chair. Bucher would naturally immediately take credit for the invention himself, despite the fact it was all the other man’s work. Durrer – undoubtedly not wishing to disturb the fragile peace between them – stayed discreetly in the background.
The Stanserhorn funicular, pictured at the end of the 19th century.
The Stanserhorn funicular, pictured at the end of the 19th century. Swiss National Museum
Bucher & Durrer had built other funicular railways before that, including the one connecting Lugano city centre to the mainline station in 1886. And the Obwalden-based company somehow also found the time to set up an electric power plant in Maroggia just outside Lugano. The tension between the two entrepreneurs did not dissipate over the years. Things came to a head in 1892 when they sold the tramlines in Genoa for one million Swiss francs. Franz Josef Bucher insisted on having the money paid out in cash. He then returned to Kerns and posed in his garden alongside the pile of thousand franc notes for a photograph showing him as Obwalden’s first millionaire. By rights, some of that cash actually belonged to his partner, but Bucher didn’t care for such details, even though Durrer demanded his share.
Franz Josef Bucher with his famous Genoa millions. His wife Josefina Durrer and two sons Ernst and Werner can be seen in the background. 1894.
Franz Josef Bucher with his famous Genoa millions. His wife Josefina Durrer and two sons Ernst and Werner can be seen in the background. 1894. Obwalden Staatsarchiv
The two business magnates finally went their own ways in 1895, but the company continued to trade under the same name, with Franz Josef Bucher now at the helm. Durrer retained the parquet flooring factory and the hotels went to Bucher, who would go on to build the luxurious Hotel Palace in Lucerne and the Hotel Semiramis in faraway Cairo, which he fitted out with Schindler elevators, a Sulzer power generator and Swiss tableware and linen. Franz Josef Bucher died in 1906 and thus did not live to see the hotel’s grand opening in 1907. Josef Durrer, preferring to remain in his native Switzerland, passed away in Sarnen in 1919. Unlike the Klainguti brothers, who made a new life for themselves in Genoa at the start of the 19th century – their café still exists today – Bucher and Durrer were not emigrants. They were entrepreneurs ready to seize whatever opportunities presented themselves. Which was almost certainly the case in Genoa, where one transaction led to another. Investing in hotels required having a finger in many pies. And so the two men extended their sphere of influence during the course of their lives, even though it was ultimately Franz Josef Bucher who oversaw the expansion of the hotel business.

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