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Railway Giants: Niklaus Riggenbach's Journey from Poverty to Pioneering Mountain Railways

Railway Giants: Niklaus Riggenbach's Journey from Poverty to Pioneering Mountain Railways
photo: Machopaul / Flickr/Rigi railway
10 / 12 / 2023

Almost everyone has ridden a "cogwheel" train at some point in their life. However, few know its origin and that the author of the first cog railway in Europe is the inventive Swiss of French origin, Niklaus Riggenbach. His path to the railroad was full of coincidences and fortunate decisions.

He Grew Up in Poverty

Our story begins in 1817 in Alsace, which had been a part of France for almost two centuries and was enduring hard times. Only two years had passed since the Napoleonic Wars ended and Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena. France, exhausted by wars and a long bloody revolution, was experiencing a period of restoration.

In these challenging times, a boy destined to help the railroad ascend high mountains is born. It is 1817 in Alsace, in the town of Guebwiller, where Niklaus is born to Niklaus Riggenbach, a sugar factory owner from Rünenberg, Switzerland, and Gertrude, née Landerer.

However, Niklaus's early life is marked by hardship. His father's business struggles amidst growing competition, leading to the brink of bankruptcy. His father then falls ill with a nervous disease and dies prematurely, leaving his wife and eight children destitute.

At age 10, Niklaus, the eldest son, goes to study in Basel, living with his grandmother. In his autobiography, he describes himself as an average student. Later, his mother Gertrud also moves to Basel, determined to care for her children. She opens the Witwe Riggenbach store, which she manages.

Meanwhile, at 16, Niklaus completes his studies in mechanics. He soon decides to return to France, against his mother's wishes. In 1836, he moves to Lyon, working as a turner, and later to Paris, where he attends night school to improve his skills in mathematics and physics.

Curbside Classic / Public domain

I Will Be a Railwayman

The turning point of his life occurs in Paris in 1839 at the inauguration of the Paris-St. Germain railway. Niklaus, deeply impressed by the event, resolves to manufacture locomotives.

In 1840, he moves to Karlsruhe, Germany, joining the Keßler machine shop. This pioneering engineering factory specializes in steam locomotive production. Niklaus quickly ascends the corporate ladder, showcasing exceptional talent. The company thrives, producing nearly 150 locomotives in the ensuing years.

Niklaus's life is not just professionally successful. In 1847, he marries Emma Socinová from Basel, seven years his junior. A year later, they welcome their only child, a son named Bernhard, who later becomes a university professor.

By 1853, at age 36, Niklaus is appointed director of the newly established "Schweizerischen Central-Bahn" workshop in Olten, Switzerland. Its inception is closely linked to the construction of a new line connecting Basel and Olten. The rapidly expanding workshop produces everything from locomotives and wagons to switches, signals, and railway bridges. Within a few years, it employs over 500 people, becoming one of Switzerland's largest workshops.

Up to the Heights

Only one thing keeps Riggenbach awake at night. He is increasingly fascinated by the question of how railways can reliably conquer the high mountains scattered across Swiss territory. Determined to solve this problem, Riggenbach decides to develop a cog railway. In 1863, he patents his own involute (cog) gear system in France. He then spends several years in the USA, which leaves a profound impression on him.

railbookers / Public domain

After returning to Switzerland, the time comes for his life project: the first mountain railway in Europe. Between 1869-1871, he and his associates build a cogwheel railway from the town of Vitznau to Staffelhöhe, which is later extended in 1872 to the 1798-meter-high Rigi mountain. The railway, spanning 6.85 kilometers, overcomes an incredible elevation of 1317 meters. Its "ladder" principle, proposed by Riggenbach himself, is essentially simple. It consists of two small steel rails in the middle of the track, connected by crossbars, in which the driven gear moves. Notably, Riggenbach was inspired by the American mountain railway on Mount Washington, built shortly before.

With his greatest life's work completed, Niklaus fulfills his main life goal and now focuses on further development. Alongside Oliver Zschokk, he is appointed director of the newly formed International Society for Mountain Railways in Aarau. Under his leadership, the society constructs other cog railways, including the one between Arth and Mount Rigi, known as the Rigibahn, which still functions as a tourist attraction. He also designs bridges and locomotives.

Nichlaus's plans are partially thwarted by the economic crisis that began in 1871 with the collapse of the Vienna Stock Exchange. This crisis, caused by overproduction similar to the Great Depression in 1929, leads to the dissolution of the International Society for Mountain Railways in 1880.

Now enlightened, Niklaus decides to work as a freelance engineer, leveraging his high reputation. This risky decision proves to be the right one. From his office in Olten, he plans railways on several continents, working in this capacity until his retirement in 1889. Three years earlier, he had published his autobiography, "Memories of an Old Mechanic." He passes away in 1899 at the age of 82.

This marks the end of the story of a man who fell in love with railways at an older age but did so with intense passion. His ingenuity led to the development of the cog railway, which significantly contributed to mountain tourism. The legacy of the man who scaled mountains on rails will never fade, and we continue to benefit from it today.