unique. varied.

Adolf Guyer-Zeller.

PERSONALITIES – The railway baron and his unfinished business.
Jungfrau Region
Many Swiss people have done it already. And ever more foreigners are doing it now, too. Mostly they do it alone. In the train. They visit the Jungfraujoch-Top of Europe, Europe's highest-altitude train station. It becomes clear to many a guest, particularly on the «Sphinx», how extraordinary and nearly utopian the vision was of planning a railway all the way up here – and that was over 100 years ago.

A man dares to aim high and defies the sheer vertical drop of the Eiger north face.

What can anyone have against coaching untrained guests up to high mountain regions through rock massifs and glaciers and feeding and watering them at the top? Now, let's be honest: The odds don't look good. At the end of the 19th century, Switzerland is in a mountain railway craze and many trains are being built – but no one had dared to go so high. Until now... A 54-year old Zurich textile entrepreneur has an idea and takes the project on. A pioneer and visionary. His name: Adolf Guyer-Zeller.


No, Guyer-Zeller is not the German novelist Karl May's brother – although his nickel glasses and his beard don't exactly support this theory. The industrialist definitely didn't have anything to do with Winnetou, it's more the Jungfrau Railway which interests him.


There are already three projects to be developed, which all take the Lauterbrunnen Valley as the point of departure: the engineer Maurice Koechlin wants to reach the peak of the Jungfrau with a railway phased in five sections and build a rock face hotel. Alexander Trautweiler backs the idea of four independent cable cars in tunnels.

Bau der Jungfraubahn

The third project from Eduard Locher, who built the Pilatus Railway, was to transport train carriages 20 metres long through tubes in icy heights with compressed air. None of the three projects were realised.

How the project of the century is born of an April fool's day joke.

The plan packs a punch. An electric railway is to be built from the Lauterbrunnen Valley via the Rottal-Hut to the Jungfrau. Including a hotel at the top, you understand. And all that in two years. Not bad. In the summers of the future, according to the plans, it should be possible to see a light as bright as 85,000 candles in the engine room at the top, all the way from the Strassburg cathedral.
The editor Emil Frey writes these plans under the pseudonym S. Ch. Windler in the article «from the Jungfrau» in the second issue of the NZZ. The newspaper appears on 1st of April 1886. Joker.
Guyer-Zeller obviously hasn't seen the date of the article and begins with the construction of the Jungfrau Railway ten years later. Challenge accepted . Right at the beginning is a bit of a hike. It's no joke.

That's where the Jungfrau Railway must have had its beginning.

And there it is, steaming past. It's Sunday the 27th of August 1893. Guyer-Zeller is walking above Mürren with his daughter. Then he sees it: the Wengernalp Railway. Brainwave. Plan. Jungfrau Railway.

Alpine Sensation

It's still Sunday. In room 42 of the Kurhaus Mürren, Guyer-Zeller is sketching the tracks of the future Jungfrau Railway on a piece of paper. His brainwave just has to be documented.

Alpine Sensation

His plan is much larger and is cast in brass today, it's the centrepiece of the Alpine Sensation at the Jungfraujoch. This midnight sketch is the basis for the construction of the Jungfrau Railway. Non-essential changes were made afterwards unfortunately. Amazing achievement. Respect.

Alpine Sensation

What's his idea now? Quite simple: From the beginning, his railway is planned as a rack railway powered by electricity, which begins near the Kulmstation of the Wengernalp Railway on the Kleine Scheidegg, not in Lauterbrunnen. It is to remain above ground in the first part up to the Eiger Glacier. After that, it goes into a tunnel which runs through the Eiger and Mönch to the Jungfrau. Regardless of the weather. Brilliant.

Because we can. On 21st of December 1894, the Swiss National Council and Council of States grant the license for the Jungfrau Railway.

Who'd have thought it? There's some resistance against the project. It's not only the environmentalists but also doctors and professors who want to demonstrate their knowledge. And above all, the physiologist Hugo Kronecker. In order to test the reaction of the human body to the unfamiliar altitude, he suggests testing the subjects by having them ascend tethered to balloons. Compassionate medicine. The government rejects the idea – for cost reasons of course.


Do tell us, where's the practical use of a train connection to the peak of the Jungfrau? There isn't one. The critics will have to settle for that. I wonder whether Gustave Eiffel had to deal with similar critique? Because with his project, we're also looking for a similar practical use – however, his project and the Jungfrau Railway give people's fantasies wings. Technology has no more limits. And so: why are we doing it? Because we can.

Hugo Kronecker,
physiologist, on measures to take against high-altitude pul(myleg) monary edema

«With a touch of light heart failure, a couple of drops of peppermint alcohol and sugar or even a sip of cognac, or Montblanc's obligatory champagne will do.»
Bau der Geleise_Kleine Scheidegg

The construction of the Jungfrau Railway begins. It's 21st of July 1896. Not only the tracks are being laid. Something important is missing. The train is to be powered with electricity. Gone is the steam. We need power stations. In Lauterbrunnen and Burglauenen they get to work.


Guyer-Zeller splashed out here. With over 400 guests, the first trains travel to the pompous opening party for the Kleine Scheidegg – Eiger Glacier section. Of course an event like this puts a little change in the wallet. A good gamble. And this two years after the start of construction. He keeps his promise.

years is the time it takes to build the Jungfrau Railway, instead of the planned seven.

Gold digger atmosphere at the foot of the Eiger

Forza Italia. Up to 200 people live at the Eiger Glacier during the construction period, of these 160 Italians. The overground section is finished. The preparations for the tunnel construction are going full swing.

Guyer_Zeller mit Familie

Guyer-Zeller comes with his family to view the construction site on the Eiger Glacier. His family will have noticed that there's still no heavy equipment to be seen. Shovels, pickaxes and muscle power are the only pieces of work equipment.


A colony is born on the Eiger Glacier. Residential barracks, workshops, storage sheds, an admin building and not to forget the oven, which creates freshly-baked bread everyday. The Jungfrau Railway operations centre is still located there.

The Wengernalp Railway doesn't yet know about winter operation.

This definitely makes construction challenging. That means: Fill the storage shed before the snow falls. Food and building materials have to be stacked up on the Eiger Glacier. Oh yes, the workers need water too. No train, no water. But there's enough snow to melt. But how annoying, the melted water can only be used for cooking and washing. It's not for drinking


Well, there are still the reliable huskies to use for transport to Wengen and back. For this purpose, a colony of its own will be raised on the Eiger Glacier. Really cuddly.


Today, the Jungfrau Railway soldiers on through the snow without any problems.

Let the drilling begin

Let's build a tunnel. Meanwhile, the workers have got better equipment. Pure muscle power is partly replaced by electric drills. The Eismeer station was the Jungfrau Railway end station for seven whole years.

holes were made in total in the four-kilometre stretch through the Eiger: an opening by the glacier, the provisional stop in Rotstock, the hole caused by a huge dynamite explosion in the north face, the «stollenloch», a little lookout before the Eigerwand station and the two stations Eigerwand and Eismeer.

What is Guyer-Zeller doing actually?

He's quite busy taking care of the financing. To bridge financial bottlenecks, guests are to be transported to the Eigerwand and Eismeer stations (as soon as these are completed). The profits are to be used to continue building further up.
He also does his rounds and monitors progress. He tastes the soup, meat, vegetables, bread and wine himself. The workers' food has to be good and hearty. Digging a tunnel like that can be hard work. He likes to splash out at work. There should always be enough for a happy hour beer.

Less than a year has passed, and the Rotstock tunnel station can already begin operation. That's the way to go. The Rotstock can even be climbed along a mountain trail. The via ferrata on the Rotstock revives the experience again today.


The overland section was completed without problems. But working in a tunnel is another story. Drilling and locomotive operation is affected by periodic power cuts. Yes, geological problems are part of the agenda. We won't mention the financing. Hard working conditions. But Guyer-Zeller has the overview.

Dr. Friedrich Wrubel,
inspector of the Jungfrau Railway, on the breakthrough of the tunnel to Eigerwand

«It was done. When the opening was freed up, we crawled out of the tunnel into God's great outdoors. To our great joy, we realised that the tunnel had emerged exactly in the planned position.»
Arbeiter im Tunnel

A year to be forgotten. 1908. Workers only make 400 metres progress. That's quite modest. And then of course the dynamite storage with 30,000 kilos of dynamite has to explode. What a blast. Even Germany could share the experience.

After an interruption, his sons decide to continue the project.

On 3rd of April 1899, four weeks after the breakthrough of the Eiger wall tunnel, Guyer-Zeller dies suddenly. He's almost 60. He'll never see the Swiss flag flying on the top of the Jungfrau. What now? The construction of the Jungfrau Railway gets slower, but doesn't come to a standstill. The Italians carry on drilling. It takes four years. It's not until summer 1903 that the Eiger station is inaugurated. In between there's the hole in the tunnel where the rocks are disposed of. The miners dig the tunnel to the south side of the Eiger. In 1905, at 3,160 metres, the breakthrough to the Eismeer station is achieved.


The Eismeer station serves as the provisional end station and caters for hungry and thirst guests.


The first electric restaurant kitchen opens with the Eismeer station. It was in operation until 1924.

Post-Ablage Eismeer

There's not just a waiting room and a restaurant at the Eismeer, there are also rooms for tourists.

In felt cloaks and hats, brave men and women dare to walk along their own wooden walkway to the glacier. Below them the Eismeer awaits.

It is as if this exit point were especially created for skiing and sledging. This is where the legendary Eismeer ski runs begin. Due to the glacier retreat, the ski run is very difficult to master.

million Francs was the amount swallowed by the Jungfrau Railway.

So close to the peak. The attractive unfinished business.

The station at the Eismeer is opened. Money is used up. Construction comes to a halt. The original plans from Guyer-Zeller have to be changed. Inevitably. From the end station of the railway, the journey is to continue with a lift to the peak. It's planned to be 100 metres long. That's not going to happen now. It's no longer the Jungfrau peak which is envisioned as the end station, but the Jungfraujoch at 3,454 metres above sea level. The stretch is 9.3 kilometres long.

The building site managers try «almost» everything to improve the working atmosphere. Each worker gets a bottle of wine a day. Cheers.


To make matters worse, the rock is also offering considerable resistance.

The conditions are sapping the workers' energy and leading to conflicts. The construction management changes eight times and 30 workers paid the price of their lives – primarily due to blasting accidents. The Italian workers are not standing for this any more and – who'd have guessed it – strike no fewer than six times.

Through Hades into Elysium

Daylight. The breakthrough has been managed. On 1st of August 1912, the Swiss flag flies for the first time on the firn field between the Jungfrau and Mönch. The peak isn't reached. The railway remains unfinished. But: such an attractive railway doesn't need a peak to be the end station.

Additional information

Jungfraujoch-Top of Europe

More information

Photos: Jungfrau Region, Jungfrau Railways
Story: André Wellig
Spring 2018


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