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Railway Giants: Alois Negrelli, Designer of the Iconic Czech Viaduct and the Suez Canal

Railway Giants: Alois Negrelli, Designer of the Iconic Czech Viaduct and the Suez Canal
photo: Josef Rybička, Karel Brantl - City of Prague Museum / Bulletin of the Club for Old Prague / Wikimedia Commmons/Negrelli Viaduct
08 / 12 / 2023

One of the landmarks of Prague is undoubtedly the Negrelli Viaduct. Few people are aware of the connection between this bridge and the Suez Canal. Its creator, Knight Negrelli von Moldelbe, is the focus of today's episode in the series 'Railway Giants.'

It is January 1799, and in the Tyrolean town of Fiera di Primiero, Luigi (Alois) Negrelli is born into an Italian-German family as the seventh of ten children. At that time, Tyrol is a very restless area, part of the Austrian Empire, but at the beginning of the 19th century, it is occupied by French and Bavarian troops due to the Napoleonic Wars, leading to uprisings.

This directly affects Alois's family, as his father actively supports the Tyrolean resistance and ends up in prison several times because of it. This complicates the economic situation of a large family. Everything changes definitively after Napoleon's defeat, turning the erstwhile outcasts and rebels into celebrated figures. Thanks to his father's merits, young Alois receives an Austrian scholarship, allowing him to study in the cities of Feltre, Padua, and Innsbruck.

Peter Geymayer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Alois begins his professional career in 1819 as a civil engineer in the service of the Austrian Empire, mainly in Tyrol and Vorarlberg. He demonstrates talent, intellect, and above all, creativity. Therefore, his appointment as assistant regional engineer in Bregenz, near the Austrian-Swiss border, comes as little surprise.

Dear Switzerland

Alois is attracted to nearby Switzerland, so in 1832, he decides to move there, finding a home in St. Gallen. However, he doesn't stay long. In 1836, he heads to Zurich with his colleague Ferdinand Stadler to build a bridge over the Limmat River.

Despite their beauty, these bridges do not satisfy Alois's desire for creativity. The Austrian builder decides to focus on transport structures, especially railways. He begins their construction in Switzerland, designing the first line to run solely through Swiss territory in 1836. It is set to connect Zurich with the spa town of Baden, 23 kilometers away. The construction, which includes excavating Switzerland's first-ever tunnel, lasts until 1847. Alois could hardly have guessed that in 175 years, Switzerland would have around a thousand such tunnels.

To Jump Behind Perner

Alois's imagination is noticed in Vienna, leading to his recall to become the general inspector of Emperor Ferdinand's Northern Railway, intended to connect Vienna with Bochní in Galicia. Interestingly, the brilliant Czech engineer Jan Perner is involved in the Czech sections of this railway. Meanwhile, Alois publishes several articles on how railways should cross mountains, receiving approval and admiration from the professional community.

This enhances Negrelli's reputation as a talented railroad builder. When in 1842 the state took over the construction of other railways, deciding to build a line from Vienna to Prague and Dresden, Alois was the obvious choice for the task. In cooperation with Austrian architect Carl von Gheg, Alois successfully completes this project, with the most important part soon to follow.

Between 1846-1849, the renowned Alois is entrusted with constructing a bridge in Prague over the Vltava River, necessary for connecting Prague to the railway to Dresden. This 1,100-meter-long bridge becomes the longest of its kind in Europe, a record it holds until 1910. In 2023, this bridge remains the longest of its kind in Central Europe and the second oldest over the Vltava River.

Jvs / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

This bridge, later bearing Negrelli's name, becomes an indisputable testament to his expertise. His fame is such that his vote is crucial in approving the construction of the Semmering Railway, designed by his friend and collaborator Carl von Gheg.

Success often brings more responsibilities, as is the case with Alois, who finds tasks pouring in from all sides. In 1849, he leaves for Lombardy and Veneta to supervise work on public buildings and lead a commission regulating water transport on the Po River.

In 1850, Alois Negrelli receives an extraordinary honor: knighthood for his services to the Imperial Crown. He chooses the title Ritter Negrelli von Moldelbe (Knight Negrelli of Moldelbe) in honor of his work on the Vltava (German Moldau) and Elbe (German Elbe). After returning to Vienna in 1855, he is appointed general inspector of the newly founded Austrian State Railways, a position he holds until 1857.

Through Africa

Approaching 60, Alois is still intrigued by a major question: whether and how a canal could be built to connect the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, saving ships from circumnavigating Africa. A member of several commissions on the canal, he sees significant progress in 1856 when the International Commission for the Suez Canal, which he is part of, prepares a report with plans for the canal. Negrelli plays a major role in this project, defending his work in his book "Transport and Communications of Egypt."

However, the project faces resistance, primarily from the British government, which controls existing routes to India and fears the canal might threaten its monopoly. Among the critics is Robert Stephenson, son of legendary builder George Stephenson. The debate over the Suez Canal construction fills periodical front pages.

Young Persons' Cyclopedia of Persons and Places / Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, Alois Negrelli, the project's author, does not live to see its resolution. In June 1858, returning home from a spa stay, he stops in Trieste to attend a professional conference on railway transport development. Despite poor health, he manages to publish a response to Robert Stephenson's criticism of the Suez Canal in September 1858, only to pass away on October 1, 1859, just weeks before work on the Suez Canal officially begins. The cause of death is determined to be food poisoning.

This concludes the story of the genius Tyrolean who helped railways overcome numerous challenges and constantly strived to invent and improve railway infrastructure. The life of this Renaissance man reached several peaks, the highest of which, the Suez Canal, remains indispensable for humanity today.