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Francis Fox:

How the Swiss Built the Greatest Tunnel in the World, 1905

[Tappan Introduction]

There was no question that a tunnel through the Simplon would be a great advantage; but could it be made? It would have to go through the heart of a mountain from five to seven thousand feet in height; and this would involve difficult questions of ventilation, to say nothing of the heat in which the men would have to work. Some of the rocks were hard, and some were soft. And this tunnel must be twelve and one half miles in length. The Swiss are a careful people. They wanted the tunnel, but they did not want to undertake a plan that could not be carried out. Therefore they consulted three tunnel experts, from Italy, Austria, and England respectively. It was decided that the thing could be done, though with many difficulties to be surmounted. The following account of the making of this tunnel was written by Francis Fox, the tunnel expert named by England.

THE work went on steadily from both entrances, and consisted of one single line tunnel, with a parallel gallery for the second tunnel running alongside at a distance of about fifty-five feet; cross passages every two hundred and seventeen yards were provided both for purposes of ventilation and for taking in and out the various materials. Most praiseworthy arrangements were made for the care of the men with the view to their suffering no harm from the exposure to Alpine air after working in the heat of the galleries. A large building was fitted up near each entrance, provided with cubicles for dressing, and with hot and cold douche baths. At the top of the building steampipes were fixed, and each man was entitled to his own private rope and padlock; this rope passes over a pulley in the roof, and has a hook at the end to which he can attach his day clothes, with his watch, purse, and pipe, and pulling them up by the cord and padlocking it he secures the safety of his belongings. On returning from his work he at once enters this warmed building, has his bath, lowers his clothes, and, hanging his wet mining dress on the hook, raises it to the roof. Here it hangs until he again returns to work, when he finds his clothes dry and warm.

The adoption of the Brandt hydraulic drill not only enables the gallery to be driven at least three times the usual speed, but it avoids the creation of dust, which in mining is so productive of miner's phthisis. Not a single instance of this fell disease has occurred during the work, and although a well-appointed hospital was provided at each end of the tunnel, the beds were generally empty.

At a distance of two and one half miles from Iselle a great subterranean river was met with in September, 1901, which caused serious delay, and for a period of six months the total advance was only forty-six meters. The difficulties at this point were such as in the hands of men of less determination might have resulted in the abandonment of the undertaking. Not only was it necessary to close-timber the gallery on both sides, and also at the top and floor, with the heaviest baulks of square pitch pine twenty inches thick, but when these were crushed into splinters and the gallery completely blocked with their wreckage, steel girders were adopted, only in their turn to be distorted and bent out of shape. It seemed as if no available material could be found which would stand the enormous pressure of the rocks, until steel girders, forming a square placed side by side (the interstices being filled with cement concrete) resisted the load. Fortunately the "bad ground" only extended for a distance of about fifty yards, but it cost nearly £1000 per yard to overcome this difficulty, and required the encasement of the tunnel at this point on sides, floor, and arch with granite masonry, eight feet, six inches in thickness.

Meanwhile the progress at the Brigue side was good, and the miners reached the half-way boundary and then began to encounter great heat from both rock and springs. It was a curious experience to insert one's arm into a bore-hole in the rock and to find it so hot as to be unbearable; the maximum heat then encountered was 131º F. But now a fresh difficulty presented itself, as in order to save time it was desirable to commence driving down-hill to meet the miners coming up-hill from Italy, and thus the very problem which the ascending gradients had been provided to avoid had to be faced. As the gallery descended the hot springs followed, and the boring machines and the miners were standing in a sea of hot water; this for a time was pumped out by centrifugal pumps over the apex of the tunnel, but at last, and while there yet remained some three or four hundred yards to be penetrated, it was found impossible to continue going downhill.

Nevertheless time had to be saved, and as the height of the heading was only some seven feet while that of the finished tunnel was twenty-one feet, it was decided to continue to drive the gallery forward, on a slightly rising gradient, until it reached the top of the future tunnel. After seven hundred and two feet had thus been driven, the hot springs proved so copious that work had to cease, and an iron door, which had been fixed in the heading some two or three hundred yards back, was finally closed, and the gallery filled with hot water. Advance now could only be made from the Italian "face," but even there the difficulties from hot water were very great, so much so that for a time one of the galleries had to be abandoned and access obtained to it by driving the parallel gallery ahead and then returning and taking the hot springs in the rear. The only way in which these hot springs, sometimes as high as 125° F. could be grappled with was by throwing jets of cold water under high pressure into the fissures, and thus diluting them down to a temperature which the miners could stand.

At the right moment, at 7 A.M. on February 24, 1905, a heavy charge was exploded in the roof of the Italian heading, which blew a hole into the floor of the Swiss gallery and released the impounded hot water. It was here that a truly sad incident occurred; two visitors to the tunnel, who, it appears, had entered the gallery with a desire to witness the actual junction, were overcome by the heat and probably the carbonic-acid gas from the pent-up hot water, and died. By means of jets and spray of high-pressure cold water the air of the tunnel is reduced many degrees in temperature, and it is very noticeable how rapidly the heat of the rocks cools off when the gallery has been driven past them.

On April 2, 1905, the visitors and officials from the Italian side, traveling in a miner's train, arrived within two hundred and fifty yards of the "Porte de fer," in the middle of the mountain, six miles or more from either entrance, and completed their journey on foot up to that point. Meanwhile the officials and visitors from the Swiss entrance had traveled up to the other side of the door. At the right moment this was opened by Colonel Locher-Freuler, and the two parties met and fraternized, embracing one another. A religious dedication service, conducted by the Bishop of Sion, was then held on the spot, and the Divine blessing was invoked on the tunnel, the officials, the workmen, and the trains, and touching reference was made to those who had lost their lives in the execution of this great work---some forty or fifty in number. Thus was the "Fete de Percement" of the greatest tunnel in the world celebrated.



Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, 14 Vols., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VII: Germany, The Netherlands, and Switzerland, pp. 601-605.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998

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