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Railway Giants: The Father of Norwegian Railways. Controversial at Home, Celebrated Abroad

Railway Giants: The Father of Norwegian Railways. Controversial at Home, Celebrated Abroad
photo: Wikimedia commons / Ludwik Szaciński / CC BY-SA 4.0/Carl Abraham Pihl
29 / 06 / 2024

Carl Abraham Pihl is undoubtedly the man who enabled the railway to develop in northern Europe, specifically in Norway. The story of the man who brought the railway from England to Norway but faced controversy for his concept at home while earning acclaim abroad is the subject of a new episode of Railway Giants.

It is the year 1825, and we are in the port city of Stavanger in southwest Norway. It is here that Thomas Bugge Pihl and Fredrice Wivicke Margrethe Løvold will welcome a boy named Carl Abraham. Norway has been part of the Swedish-Norwegian Union for 11 years, having come under Swedish rule in 1814 when it was taken from Denmark for supporting Napoleon Bonaparte during the Napoleonic Wars, a conflict in which Napoleonic France unsuccessfully tried to control Europe from Lisbon to Saint Petersburg. Norway will remain in this disadvantageous union with Sweden until 1905 when it will gain independence based on the results of a referendum.

But let's return to Carl. He leaves his family at a very young age. At his father's behest, he goes to sea to become a sailor like many of his peers. However, he does not stay at sea for long. In 1841, he returns to shore to pursue studies. Until 1844, he attends Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. Here, he partially fulfills his father's wishes by falling in love with transportation, though not the kind his father had in mind. He is captivated by the hot new topic of the time, railways.

To better understand it, he goes to the country where railways were born, Great Britain. He will change jobs, but his employment will have one common denominator: railways. He will work for one of the greatest railway experts of the time, Robert Stephenson, son of the legendary father of railways, George Stephenson. Here, he learns more about railways than most. His curiosity and intellect allow him to absorb new knowledge like a sponge. In addition to gaining many new insights, he also learns the art of photography in England. His photographic collections will become a unique part of Norway's railway heritage.

Wikimedia commons/Carl Abraham Pihl/ Public Domain

Despite receiving a very tempting job offer in India, Carl decides to return to his native Norway. He arrives there in 1850. After a year working at the road office, he is appointed an engineer on Norway's first railway, the main line between Christiania (now Oslo) and Eidsvoll in 1851. After its completion in 1854, Carl travels back to Great Britain, where he works on the construction of many railways and ports. In England, he also marries Catherine Ridley in Ipswich, with whom he will have an astonishing 11 children. In 1855, he returns home to Norway for the second time, where he works on the canal system in the town of Skien. He is subsequently appointed the county engineer for Akershus County, where he oversees the construction of several bridges over the river Vorm. In 1858, three new railway lines begin construction in Norway: Hamar-Grundset, Lillestrøm-Kongsvinger, and Trondheim-Støren. Carl is approached to help with their construction, an offer he gladly accepts, and he is appointed head of the newly established Directorate of Norwegian State Railways.

From this moment until his death, he will be a key figure in the construction of Norwegian railways. After the reorganization of Norwegian railways in 1865, Carl is appointed the general director of Norwegian State Railways. Although Carl was railway-educated in England, he does not simply transplant the English system to Norway. Instead, he advocates for a narrow-gauge system, which he believes is better suited to Norway's landscape and economy. The narrow-gauge railway in Norway will have a gauge of 1067 mm, while the main lines will use the standard gauge of 1435 mm, the same as in England. Carl makes this decision based in part on studies of narrow-gauge horse railways in Sweden. He realizes that narrow-gauge tracks can save a lot of money in construction and operation. The result could be a much faster expansion of the railway network than would otherwise be possible. By the turn of the century, most of Norway's railway lines will be built as narrow-gauge.

Wikimedia commons/Carl Abraham Pihl/Public Domain

Carl's strategy, however, becomes increasingly controversial. The debate over the gauge will take place almost everywhere. It will be discussed in professional circles, in newspapers, and the Norwegian parliament. The debate will gradually escalate into a sharp and painful battle involving technical, economic, political, and personal disputes. The left will fight for the standard gauge, while the right will defend the narrow gauge. The dispute will outlive its unwanted initiator and be resolved only a year after Carl died in 1897 when it is decided to build railways with a standard gauge. The final resolution will come with the conversion of narrow-gauge lines to standard gauge.

As mentioned, the father of Norwegian railways dies in 1897. He will not receive immediate recognition for his actions in his homeland, quite the opposite. He will be criticized for his narrow-gauge system. Carl himself responded to criticism during his lifetime by saying: "Either we built narrow-gauge and cheaply, or we did not build at all." Over time, Norwegians will come to see his point. Although Carl was a controversial figure at home, he was highly respected abroad. Narrow-gauge railways based on his model will be built in many countries worldwide, including Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, India, and several African countries.


Source: Norsk Biografisk Leksikon, RAILTARGET