Dad’s big hands on my shoulders warmed them up and made me forget my cold toes in my heavy ski boots for a while. I lay my forehead against the window until the glass misted up and I could trace stars and dots on it. I imagined the cable car was a magic ship. A pitching, swaying ship that would simply carry on floating beyond the summit station, past the Furtschellas cliffs, on and on and on. The sea of white cloud below, the blue sky above – and us in between, light as a feather.
In former times, mountains were seen as rocky monsters to be avoided. The idea of floating up or over them was unimaginable – not only for technical reasons. With the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th Century, this perception changed gradually: fear gave way to awe. Now admired for their beauty, the Alps became a magnet for mountaineers in search of adventure and glory, as well as for travellers eager to marvel at the majesty of these wonders of nature. From the mid-19th Century, the Swiss Alps became the most-visited travel destination in Europe.
The arrival of the travellers prompted a desire within Switzerland for greater mobility and prosperity. New railways made remote valleys accessible and carried day-trippers up to mountaintops. By the time the Gotthard railway line opened in 1882, Switzerland’s pioneering spirit was world-famous. The crossing through the Alps not only connected German-speaking Switzerland with the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, but effectively linked northern Europe with India – as the historian Joseph Jung argues in his book “Das Laboratorium des Fortschritts. Die Schweiz im19. Jahrhundert” (“The laboratory of progress: Switzerland in the 19th Century”).
In hindsight, we can say that construction of the Gotthard railway also marked the birth of the Rhaetian Railway. When the Gotthard line opened, the volume of traffic transiting through Graubünden collapsed overnight, and the mountain canton plunged into an economic depression. A visitor from the Netherlands, Willem Jan Holsboer, believed that only construction of a railway could help the region out of stagnation.
Thanks to his initiative, the first section of the new narrow-gauge railway went into operation in 1889: the line from Landquart to Davos. Over the following years, the rail network was continually extended throughout the “canton of 150 valleys”. The first journey from Landquart to St.Moritz in 1904 took 12 hours – not really faster than with horses, but substantially more comfortable.
The sounds of these installations have remained the same for nearly five decades. The clanking of the doors as they close; the hum of the cables as the cabin starts moving; the clatter of the rollers as they ride over the supporting towers.
At the same time as the railways were developing rapidly in the second half of the 19th Century, engineers were searching for new ways to negotiate major climbs via the shortest possible route. The motto of the day: ever further, ever higher. During these decades, pioneers invented the technology behind the cog railway and the funicular railway, for example – and put these into operation in grand style.
These successes gave wings to attempts to carry passengers through the air – and in 1866, the world’s first passenger cable car went into operation. Located by the Rhine Falls near the Swiss town of Schaffhausen, this installation carried turbine attendants across the river to their workplace. In 1955, the first cable car in the Upper Engadin took to the skies. Gliding from Corviglia up to the Piz Nair, this was the first cable car open to the public to break the 3,000-metre altitude barrier.
Today, there are more than 1,700 cable car facilities throughout Switzerland; if the minor (and often nerve-tingling) installations are included, the total comes to more than 3,000. Many of these cableways are primarily for tourism; many, however, are also lifelines for precipitous and remote locations that are otherwise inaccessible. Together, these facilities embody a colourful diversity of uses and a remarkable variety of technology, with a fascinating cultural and historical significance. As a result, many are listed in the Swiss Cableway Inventory for cableways worthy of protection – the first of its kind in the world.
All the cableways, however, whether or not they are listed, tell of countless pioneering deeds that first enabled visitors to glide up to the peaks. Take the Furtschellas cable car, for example: the project was launched in 1971, and its anniversary is now being celebrated. That was the year that John Lennon’s “Imagine” hit the charts worldwide. In Switzerland, women finally won the right to vote in federal elections; in Great Britain, Queen Elisabeth II awarded Agatha Christie the honour of “Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire”.
The two cabins of the Furtschellas cable car not only connected permanently the valley with the mountain and the mountain with the valley: they also made Sils a coveted destination for winter sports enthusiasts.