CZ/SK verze

Railway Giants: From Horses to Steam Engines - Mathias Schönerer's Unexpected Railway Transformation

Railway Giants: From Horses to Steam Engines - Mathias Schönerer's Unexpected Railway Transformation
photo: Wikimedia commons/ Public Domain/Horse-drawn carriageway České Budějovice - Linz - Gmunden
13 / 04 / 2024

Mathias Schönerer is born at a time when the European scene is struggling with the consequences of war. How did this son of a master painter become a key figure in Austrian railway history and the continent's transport system?

Austria is one of the countries where rail transport began to develop very early. In addition to the Czech father and son duo of Gerstner, it also owes this to Mathias Schönerer, whose life story we will now look at.

Born at the Right Time

The year is 1807 and we are in the Austrian Empire, specifically in its capital city of Vienna. It is in this city that the son of a master painter and decorator, Mathias Schönerer, is born. His ancestors had made their living for many years as unremarkable peasants and small craftsmen in Styria. It is thus easy to conclude that at the beginning of our story, there is a boy who shows no sign of making an indelible mark on railway history.

The times in which we find ourselves do not favor ordinary people either. We are at the beginning of a period that will change the way most Europeans live. In time, it will also provide many of them with a significant improvement in their standard of living. We are talking about the industrial revolution. Europe is in the midst of a huge war, one of the greatest in its history. The beginning of the 19th century is marked by the Napoleonic Wars, in which the French emperor is trying to take over the whole of Europe.

The war would end in French defeat in 1815, but Europe, led by France, would continue to recover from its horrors and disastrous economic consequences for several years to come. This would also apply to the Austrian Empire we are looking at, which would be part of several anti-Napoleonic coalitions. Only the end of the terrible wars will allow Austria to light the fire in the engine of the Industrial Revolution. It is during this period that the Mathias already known to us will also be studied diligently.

Wikimedia commons/ Public Domain

Mathias would be the first member of the Schönerer family to receive a higher education. He will acquire it after graduating from the Vienna Polytechnic, where he will study between 1822 and 1824. At the Polytechnic, Mathias will mainly study physics, mathematics, and, last but not least, geometry. At the school he also meets the Czech transport engineer František Antonín Gerstner, who likes him so much that he chooses him as a collaborator in the construction of the first horse-drawn railway in Austria.

First Projects

This was a long-standing project designed by Franz Antonin's father, Franz Josef Gerstner. The Emperor authorizes the construction of the railway to connect the Danube with the Vltava. This will create a link that will greatly improve the efficiency of freight transport throughout the monarchy until 1825, when Franz Joseph feels too old to take on the exhausting role of leading its construction. This role is eventually entrusted to his aforementioned son, Franz Antonin. He will lead the construction exactly according to his father's plan, whose main principle is not to lose the height meters he has gained. This would make the construction prohibitively expensive, which would lead to the dismissal of Franz Antonin in 1828.

Coincidentally, a young, promising engineer, Mathias Schönerer, was appointed as his successor. While the nod to this offer destroys Mathias' friendly relationship with Franz Antonin, it offers him an opportunity that most young engineers cannot even dream of. He rises to the occasion. The more than 100 km long line is put into operation in 1832. Because of how well Mathias proves himself, he is soon offered by the investors to lead the construction of the newly approved Linz-Gmünd section. The project will be completed in 1835.

Even though Mathias's first projects are horse-drawn railways, he soon realizes the potential of steam railways, which he begins to specialize in building almost exclusively in the following years. Soon he would become one of the greatest railway experts in the whole of Austria, helped by the experience he gained abroad. He will study railway engineering in the United States. From there he will return home to Vienna in 1838. But he will not come alone; he will bring a new friend, a Philadelphia-type steam locomotive, which will become the model for the production of Austrian locomotives. Mike Fitzpatrick/ Public Domain

The End of a Successful Life

Realizing the huge hole in the domestic market, he sets up a factory to manufacture steam locomotives and wagons. This frees Austria from its dependence on foreign suppliers. Given the contacts he made during his studies, Mathias has little trouble finding American instructors to help train Austrian trainers. In the years to come, in addition to funding, he will also gain the favor of many investors who will generally consider him to be extremely capable and reliable. They will not hesitate to provide funding for Mathias' projects. Among these will be the line from Vienna to Gloggnitz, the construction of which he will manage.

His lifelong contribution to Austria is duly recognized in 1860 when he receives a state decoration from Emperor Franz Joseph I himself on the occasion of the inauguration of the Empress Elisabeth Railway from Vienna to Salzburg. Based on this, he applies for knighthood, which he receives just two months later. He decorated his coat of arms with a winged wheel, the symbol of the railway, which thanks to him became an integral part of domestic transport in Austria.

He retired in 1870. One of Austria's most important railway engineers leaves this earthly world in 1881 at the age of 74. He leaves behind 2 children in addition to many railway kilometers and 10,000 gold pieces for charity. A daughter, Alexandrine, who would become an actress, and a son, Georg, who would become a prominent Austrian landowner but also an anti-Semitic and nationalist politician.