CZ/SK verze

Railway Giants: Without Education, but with Vision! Ericson Protects Swedish Lines Against Sea Attacks

Railway Giants: Without Education, but with Vision! Ericson Protects Swedish Lines Against Sea Attacks
photo: Holger.Ellgaard / Wikimedia commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED/Statue of Nils Ericson
04 / 05 / 2024

The Swedish rail network is now undoubtedly a concept and a mark of quality. The question remains, why did it start decades later than, for instance, the Czech one? And who was its father, Nils Ericson, unblemished by school?

Educated by His Father

The year is 1802, and we are in the village of Långbanshyttan in western Sweden. Here, a boy named Nils is born into the family of the local mine manager, Olof Ericson. Nils and his family live in his hometown until 1810 when his father runs into financial problems as a result of money speculation. The family is forced to move to Forsvik in the south of the country. There, Nils' father secures a new job as the director of blasting operations for the Göta Canal, part of a system of water canals that connects the major Swedish city of Gothenburg with the port city of Söderköping on the Baltic Sea.

Source: Wikimedia commons / Johan Christian Berger / Public Domain

Although Nils' father holds a very important job, he does not provide his son with a formal education. Instead, he personally teaches him the basics of mechanics. In addition, he secures a job for the underage Nils in the drawing office that is creating the plans for the construction of the aforementioned Göta Canal. There, Nils learns to draw maps and mechanical drawings. The architect of the Göta Canal quickly notices his skills and arranges an internship for him directly with the canal construction company. Nils is also appointed a cadet in the Swedish Navy, allowing his star to rise to its full potential.

To the Army

At the age of 21, Nils decides to pursue a full military career. He joins the Engineer Corps but soon returns to the Mechanical Corps of the Navy in 1830. From this year onwards, he is no longer solely dedicated to the army but is chosen to manage the construction of several canals, partly aided by the reputation of his father, who had previously held this job with distinction. The second reason, of course, is his own skill, which will literally abound. In 1833, he marries Wendela, the daughter of Count von Schwerin, with whom he would have five children.

Between 1830 and 1850, Nils leads several important constructions. Among the most important are undoubtedly the canals in Stallbacka, Säffle, Karlstad, and Albrektsund. His skills are also noticed in neighboring countries, so it comes as little surprise when he is appointed as the head of the Saimaa Canal in neighboring Finland. Because of his excellent results, Nils is appointed to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1845.

Source: Wikimedia commons / BIL / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Father of the Swedish Railway

We are now in the period of the first railway boom in European countries. This is also the case in Sweden, where the first line designed to carry passengers opens in 1849. However, railway construction in Sweden begins in earnest somewhat later than in neighboring countries, mainly because of the high cost. After 1850, railways also become one of the main concerns of the ruling classes in Sweden. Who to put at the head of this enormous project is practically clear. Sweden could hardly have found anyone more suitable for the task within its own ranks than Nils.

In 1854, he is put in charge of the project to build Sweden's main railway lines. Furthermore, Sweden decides that the lines must not run along the coast for military reasons, lest the entire railway network be destroyed in the event of an attack from the sea. In addition to building railways, Nils does not abandon his favorite canals. He and his son, Werner, will build one of them, the Dalsland Canal.

Nils takes on his new task with the necessary vigor. He designs the first line between Gothenburg and Stockholm. The main junction is quite logically Stockholm, from where the line also goes south to Malmö. There will also be a line north from Stockholm, which will be joined by a line westward to Falköping. An important feature of Nils' work is that he aims to build the railway network as a whole, not as individual lines. Although this seems obvious today, many countries, especially in the early days of railways, did not address this issue at all. This led to duplication of many lines and prohibitive costs, or conversely to poor transport services to other cities. Another typical feature has been the attempt to route lines through channels other than waterways so that rail transport does not compete unnecessarily with shipping.

Nils' projects were gradually completed in the 1860s and 1870s. But he's no longer at the helm. He steps down from his position after the completion of the Western Main Line in 1862. His importance and the trust placed in him are evidenced by the fact that two whole authorities (Transport and Works) take over his powers. This would not change until 1888 when the Kungliga Järnvägsstyrelsen (Royal Railway Board) was established. But that's another story.

Source: Wikimedia commons / Sebbe / CC BY-SA 3.0

Our story writes its last lines in 1870 when the 68-year-old Nils Ericson breathes his last. This concludes the story of a boy who, with virtually no formal education, managed to build the foundations of the Swedish railway network. A man who was rightly nicknamed "the father of the Swedish railway."