CZ/SK verze

Railway Giants: The Unseen Legacy of ČKD's Founders - The Tale of Čeněk Daněk

Railway Giants: The Unseen Legacy of ČKD's Founders - The Tale of Čeněk Daněk
photo: Wikimedia commons / Svenkaj / CC BY-SA 4.0/Tomb of the Daňka family
18 / 03 / 2024

Few people can say they built an immortal brand that conquered the regional, let alone the world market. But even fewer can say they achieved it posthumously. One of the chosen few was entrepreneur and industrialist Čeněk Daněk, whose fate we will explore in the new episode of Railway Giants.

A Natural Talent

It is April 1826, and we are in the Austrian Empire, specifically in the East Bohemian village of Chotice, where a boy named Čeněk is born into the family of a farmer named Josef Daněk. After receiving his primary education without any major problems, he heads to the capital city of Vienna to study at the polytechnic there. After finishing his studies in Vienna, he goes to Prague, where he studies the same subject as before in Vienna.

Čeněk gains his first work experience as a designer at Breitfeld & Evans, a company owned by Prussian businessman Friedrich Breitfeld and his British colleague David Evans. He stays there for 2 years because, in 1854, he and his friend Josef Götzel decide to buy the A engineering plant, Meisner & Comp., which, under the new name Daněk & Co., begins to manufacture machinery for the sugar factories, experiencing an unprecedented boom at the time. It is undoubtedly a risky move, but Čeněk demonstrates his willingness to take risks and his talent for judging which industries are worth investing in.

However, not everything can be rosy. In his personal life, Čeněk goes through a challenging time. In January 1856, his wife Vilemína Bürgermeister dies at just 24, ending his first marriage. However, he does not remain alone for long, because in November of the same year, Čeněk marries a second time in Žatec to Augusta Hasmann, with whom he will have a total of 7 children, only 3 of whom will live to adulthood. This also reflects the shadow side of the times.

Wikidemia commons / Public domain

A Brilliant Strategist

Time will prove his guess right, as you can judge for yourself. By 1871, when the Daněk & Co. factory changes hands, it has contracted more than 100 sugar mills, making his company the dominant player in the industry. Thanks to his unexpected success, he begins to cooperate with the ambitious builder Václav Nekvasil, who constructs the buildings of the sugar mills, and Daněk then supplies them with machinery. This "tandem" further strengthens their market position and virtually scatters any hopes of potential competition. In this way, sugar factories are built in Vinoř, Opatovice nad Labem, Kostelec nad Orlicí, and many others.

In the meantime, Čeněk also manages to successfully run for the position of deputy in the Czech Provincial Assembly, where he serves between 1861 and 1864. For his services during the Prusso-Austrian War in 1866, he is awarded the Knight Order of Franz Josef. Subsequently, he is instrumental in the success of the World's Fair in Vienna in 1873.

On June 5, 1878, he is made a nobleman for his services to charity. With the diploma of 25 August 1878, he is awarded the coat of arms and the predicate of Edler von Esse.

Time to Say Goodbye But let's go back to 1871 when the Daněk & Co. factory is sold. Sale is perhaps a strong word, as the buyer is the newly established company Breitfeld, Daněk & Co., which Čeněk had recently founded with his former employers, the owners of Breitfeld & Evans.

The circle is thus essentially closed with only one small difference: Čeněk is no longer just a simple engineer but a co-owner of the company. However, he will not last long in the business world. Despite his relatively young age, he decides to retire in 1872, spending most of his time at Trnova Castle, one of the 3 aristocratic mansions he owns. His estates are partly deeded to his sons, Čeněk and Oskar. History will take care of the rest.

Čeněk dies in one of his Prague palaces in March 1893. At the time, he could hardly have any idea what fate awaited the empire he had built. His heirs decide to join forces with another major player in the engineering market, quite possibly the biggest. In 1927, Breitfeld, Daněk a spol. merged with the Českomoravská-Kolben concern to give birth to the legendary brand ČKD, or Českomoravská-Kolben-Daněk, which would become known worldwide. It is one of the great historical paradoxes that its founding fathers, Emil Kolben and Čeněk Daněk, probably never met in person.

Pawelll / Wikimedia commons / Public domain

But instead of eternal glory, there came a final decline. After the invasion of German troops into the territory of the future Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, one of Čeněk's descendants, Oskar Daněk von Esse, declared his German nationality. This declaration sealed the post-war fate of Čeněk Daněk's former industrial empire; all his assets were confiscated for collaboration, and three years later, they would be repurposed to build socialism.