Reaching for the Sky:

The Growth of Mountain Tourism in Switzerland


Jennifer Truran Rothwell

The act of touring is so natural to people in modern industrialized societies that it can be difficult to grasp how unnatural, and even unimaginable, going beyond borders for pleasure and interest has been during most of history. While migration has been one of the great constants of human experience, travel most commonly was the result of an occupation—member of a royal entourage, soldier, trader, pilgrim or missionary, explorer, scholar, artist or entertainer. Tales of travel held endless fascination for people rooted in one place, while the act of travel was seen as fraught with peril. This was as true for those gazing upward at icy mountain peaks as for those standing on the shores of vast and unruly seas.

As mountain tourism grows in attraction and importance to economies throughout the world, it may be not only fun but instructive to look at the pioneering developments in mountain tourism that took place over time in the Swiss Alps. From early on, alpine tourism reflected the scientific interest in the environment that is critical in planning for mountain tourism today. It also reflected the revolutionary effects of industrialization—on technology in the forms of transportation and communications, and on society in the forms of growing democratization and the emergence of a middle class ready and able to pursue leisure far from home.


Beyond the Grand Tour

As early as 1574, Swiss traveller Josias Simler outlined some do’s and don’t’s for travelling in the Alps. He advised a party crossing a glacier to wear iron shoes fitted with sharp spikes and to avoid the danger of falling into a crevasse by tying themselves to a rope.1 The writings of Simler and other contemporaries show that knowledge of alpine passes was well advanced in the 16th century, though not yet directed at travel for pleasure.

The first wave of tourism in the Alps was by aristocrats making the “Grand Tour” of the European continent. The Grand Tour evolved from Queen Elizabeth I’s practice of sending young English diplomats abroad as part of their training, to become an expected part of any young nobleman’s education.2 The ultimate destination of the Grand Tour was Italy, with stops in the Low Countries, France, Germany, and Austria along the way. The forbidding nature of Switzerland’s terrain caused it to make a late entry into the itinerary.

Encounters with the Alps tended to elicit awe rather than liking. In the 18th century, the English journalist Joseph Addison described the Alps as this “awful and tremendous amphitheatre,” while the poet Thomas Gray said of Mt. Cenis (in the French Alps) that it carried “the permission mountains have of being frightful rather too far.”3 But one way or another, Grand Tourists had to cross the mountains to reach Italy. One common route was the St. Gotthard Pass and its “Valley of Trembling,” which gave the name tremolite to a mineral found in its granite walls.4

As the Grand Tour became part of the “liberal education” of young aristocrats, interest in the Alps also grew among the scientific community. This included Swiss naturalists and their counterparts in other European nations, especially England. The writings of some naturalists reveal both growing knowledge of the Alps, and continuing fear of what might lurk therein. Johann Jacob Scheuchzer, an 18th century Swiss botanist and mineralogist, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, made nine journeys in the Alps. As well as recording the elevations of mountains (in relation to the level of Lake Zurich), he included several hearsay reports of dragon sightings in his Itinera Alpina (1723). Although Scheuchzer dismissed some of these tales as fabulous, he concluded notwithstanding that “from the accounts of Swiss dragons and their comparison with those of other is clear that such animals really do exist.”5

One more draw for early travel in Switzerland was the therapeutic value of its hot springs. Most famous was Baden (meaning ‘baths”) in the plain of Switzerland. But some travellers chose spas in the mountains. A set of regulations for bathing at Pfäfers in 1619 appears aimed at keeping the peace between Protestants and Catholics as the Thirty Years War began. Among the rules:

Those who subscribe to the new faith must keep it to themselves, and the singing of psalms in German is expressly forbidden on penalty of a fine. Those, however, who feel an irresistible need to sing in their bath, may sing other holy or at least reputable songs, provided that the baths be not filled with din.6

The Romantic Movement of the early 19th century encouraged more foreign travel to Switzerland than ever before. German playwright Friedrich von Schiller had already elevated the legend of a medieval Swiss hero into a hymn to freedom in his play William Tell ( 1804). English poets—among them Byron and Wordsworth— now joined the chorus of praise for this small land’s untamed beauty and its citizens’ resistance to the French during the Napoleonic Wars.

Travel in the Alps was by foot, mule, or horseback until wheeled vehicles began ascending the mountain passes late in the 1700s. One historian dates this to 1775, when “Mr. Greville drove his phaeton up the St. Gotthard, to every one’s amazement.”7 By 1818, a Mr. B. Emery of Charing Cross, London, was organizing stagecoach tours of Switzerland.8 Then came the alpinists—mountain climbers from England and the continent joining Swiss climbers in an effort to scale every major peak in the Alps. This era culminated in the famed but tragic ascent of the Matterhorn on July 14, 1865.


Over the Alps by Rail

The stage was now set for the development of major tourism in Switzerland. But there were barriers—beyond the obvious one posed by geography. Another barrier was political: Switzerland is a confederation of cantons (states) that became joined together loosely over centuries. It was not until the nation adopted a more centralized federal system in 1848 that the way lay open for planning a modern transportation system. Still another barrier was economic: Switzerland at the time was a relatively poor country whose economy rested largely on farming and livestock, with some small industry. Much of the initial investment in its railway system would have to depend on funds from abroad.9

In 1852, the Swiss government passed a Federal Act that required the cantons to get approval from the federal government in granting concessions for railway construction. The first priority was the development of main-line railways connecting major centers of population and commerce. But Swiss engineers were soon occupied with more than how to route tracks around or through mountains; of equal interest was how to take locomotives up a mountainside to the top. As described by transportation historian Cecil J. Allen:

There is an essential difference between main-line and mountain-railway engineering. The engineer of a main line seeks a way through the mountains at the lowest possible altitude, whereas the engineer of a mountain line may aim directly at a mountain summit.10

A few decades later, American engineers would become occupied with connecting the new transcontinental railroads lines with branch lines into remote mountain areas of the West.11 The driving force behind the development of mountain railways in both countries was the same: tourism.

In 1869, a railway was opened to the summit of Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This “cogwheel railway” was the invention of Sylvester Marsh. Six years earlier, Swiss engineer Niklaus Riggenbach had patented a railway invention using “rack-and-pinion” propulsion. Now Riggenbach headed for the United States to see Marsh’s railway in operation, returning home to seek a place for his own rack-and-pinion railway in Switzerland. The choice fell on Mt. Rigi near the city of Lucerne.12

The rack-and-pinion, or cogwheel, railway is built on the principle of interlocking gears. In the original version, a ladder-type rack was laid between the rails of a train track and engaged the teeth of a pinion wheel projecting vertically from the underside of a locomotive. Most versions use a toothed rack that engages with pinions (cogs) that project horizontally from wheels on each side of the rack. The rack-and-pinion system enables a train to climb very steep grades, and helps keep it from rushing pellmell on the downhill journey. Such mountain railways in Switzerland can typically climb a grade of 1 in 4 (as compared with a main-line railway’s steepest grade of about 1 in 13, and the remarkable grade of near 1 in 2 on the Pilatus Railway).13

Hardly had the cog railway begun to deposit tourists in subalpine fields when a new interest in mountain tourism arose: winter sports. This interest reflected the same pursuit of leisure by an expanding middle class that propelled the bicycle and “back to nature” movements at the turn of the last century. It also represented a new challenge in transportation: how to carry people to the higher alpine meadows for skiing.

The Swiss answered this challenge with the funicular railway, an extended version of the cliff railways familiar at British seaside resorts. The funicular is essentially a pulley system that operates by creating a balance between two cars—one going up and one coming down the mountain. The cars are connected to a steel cable that winds around a large wheel at the upper end of the funicular, and they run on the same track except at midpoint, where a loop is added for passing. Many of the original funiculars ran the length of a mile or more; later versions doubled this length by creating way stations between two or three lines.14

The last major development in mountain rail transportation was to keep the cable and leave the tracks behind. In fact, the emergence of the aerial cable car took place over several decades. It first took the form of the téeacute;phérique (suspension line), a small car suspended by cable and running on tracks only when leaving or entering the station. The téeacute;phérique carried its passengers up steeper mountain slopes than ever before. Two 20th century inventions developed to serve the ski industry—the chair-lift and its enclosed form of the gondola—are related developments in the evolution of the aerial cable car. The German Swiss word for it is luftseilbahn, or sky-lift way.


Looking Forward

By 1911, the author of the Switzerland entry in that year’s famed Encyclopedia Britannica could write of his subject that principal among Swiss industries was the “entertainment of foreign visitors.”15 This development would not have been possible without the creation of an unparalleled transportation infrastructure. One major step in this process was the 1898 referendum by which the Swiss electorate voted to nationalize their main-line railway system. Another was the engineering of modern roads through the mountain passes, a feat little less astounding than the nation’s mountain railway development. Combining the various forms of transportation—main-line railways, roads, rack railways, funiculars, chair-lifts, aerial cable cars, lake steamers, and local transport—Switzerland now has 12,818 miles of what one observer calls “not only the finest public transport infrastructure in the world [but also] the most integrated, making it fully deserving of the term ‘system.’”16

Where the Swiss will take this system in the 21st century is the subject of growing controversy. Switzerland—like its neighboring countries—today is faced with environmental problems stemming from population growth, industrial development, and the growing volume of road traffic. Acid rain from cars and industry has damaged forests, leaving barren hillsides that add more danger from landslides to other problems arising from mountain tourism. Efforts by pro-environmental Green Party members to pass laws supporting railways and other transportation alternatives are being countered by the Automobile Party.

How the leading nation in mountain tourism solves its environmental challenges may hold importance far beyond its own borders. It could provide one model for developing nations that are just beginning to experience the impact of modern tourism on their own pristine mountain regions.



1. Gavin R. de Beer, Early Travellers in the Alps (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1930), 8-10.

2. Christopher Hibbert, The Grand Tour (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons), 10-11.

3. Ibid., 88-90.

4. Ian Robertson, Blue Guide: Switzerland, 5th edition (London: A&C Black, 1992), 303.

5. de Beer, 90.

6. Ibid., 46

7. Ibid., 12.

8. Robertson, 33.

9. Cecil J. Allen, Switzerland’s Amazing Railways (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1965), 1-3.

10. Ibid., 77.

11. Alfred Runte, Trains of Discovery: Western Railroads and the National Parks (Niwot, CO: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1990).

12. Allen, 78-79.

13. Ibid., 77-80.

14. Ibid., 82-83.

15. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition (Cambridge, England: University Press, 1911), Vol. XXVI, 262. The author of the Switzerland entry was the British alpinist W. A. B. Coolidge.

16. Anthony J. Lambert, Switzerland by Rail (Old Saybrook, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1996).


Jennifer Truran Rothwell is senior editor of Social Education.

Teaching Ideas

1. Read stories about two legendary heroes: Switzerland’s William Tell and England’s Robin Hood. When and where is each supposed to have lived? What caused each to become a rebel? Write about how their stories are alike and different.


2. Plan your tour of Switzerland in one of the following eras:

> Grand Tour era (late 16th-18th centuries)

> Romantic era (early 19th century)

> Alpinist era (mid-19th century mountain climbers)

> First winter sports era (end of the 19th century)

> Modern era

Where will you go and how will you travel? Use a map of Switzerland to locate mountain regions and alpine passes. Some travel guides are good resources for historical background as well as sights. Railway travellers can learn more about the modern Swiss Travel System on the web at


3. Draw a model that explains one of the following inventions developed to transport people higher in mountain regions:

> rack-and-pinion(cogwheel) railway

> funicular

> chair-lift

> gondola

> aerial cable car

Some good web sources are:

Pilatus: has explanations of a cogwheel railway, a gondola, and an aerial cable car, along with stories of mountain dragons [].

The Vitznau-Rigi Railway: tells the history of the first rack-and-pinion railway in Switzerland [].

Titlis: shows the first rotating cable car which carries passengers over glaciers [].

You can also link to the Swiss Transport Museum/Verkehrshaus in Lucerne via the WWW Virtual Library: Museums in Switzerland [


4. Hannibal of Carthage led his army—including armored elephants-over the French Alps to northern Italy for an attack on Rome in 218 B. C. Research and describe this expedition from the point of view of an elephant driver.


5. Choose one alpine pass and trace the history of travel over it. This could include early forms of travel, the engineering of the modern road (and any tunnels), and the access provided by railways. One good possibility is the St. Gotthard Pass, which has two famous tunnels—a railroad tunnel completed in 1882 and a new motorway tunnel opened in 1980.


6. In 1989, the Grand Canyon Railway was re-opened from Williams, Arizona, to the south rim of the canyon in a move applauded by environmentalists. Explore how the creation of national parks in the West—the so-called “Switzerland of America”—caused the extension of transcontinental railroad lines to several parks, and how this in turn affected tourism. Choose one national park and prepare a report on forms of transportation–past, present, and future.

A good source for the old Santa Fe Railroad line to the Grand Canyon is T. C. McLuhan’s Dream Tracks: The Railroad and the American Indian. For many national parks (including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Mt. Rainier, Zion and Bryce, and Denali), try Alfred Runte’s Trains of Discovery: Western Railroads and the National Parks (available from Roberts Rinehart Publishers, P. O. Box 666, Niwot, Colorado 80544). Or, try contacting the railroad companies that built the lines and produced dramatic posters and brochures to entice tourists westward.


7. The catastrophic truck fire in the Mont Blanc Tunnel in the French Alps on May 24, 1999, has prompted environmental Green Parties in several European countries to oppose any new transit roads and tunnels through the Alps. The “Alpine Greens” favor improving railway systems and other alternatives to automobiles. Countering their efforts in Switzerland are members of the Automobile Party. See what you can find out about this controversy (the position of the Alpine Greens can be found at www. Then hold a class discussion/debate on the pros and cons of rail vs. auto travel in mountain regions—in the Alps and/or national parks in the United States.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.