Escher: The Founder of Modern Switzerland

Alfred Escher (1819–1882) recognized that the only way for Switzerland to avoid economic and cultural isolation was to build an extensive railroad network complete with a route traversing the Alps. The monument in front of Zurich's main station bears witness to the successful completion of his life's work, which paved the way for modern-day Switzerland.

Switzerland is truly the land of railways. On average, each inhabitant travelled 1,751 kilometers by rail in 2003. No other country comes near this figure. In neighboring France, the average is 1,203 kilometers, while in Austria it is 1,008, in Germany 842 and in Italy 811. Switzerland is also the land of tunnels and bridges: it has a total of 671 tunnels and over 6,000 bridges. The railway network extends to more than 5,000 kilometers. This means that Switzerland also has the densest network. Has this always been the case? There is a tendency not to look far enough into the past. In fact we have to go back only 150 years to see that Switzerland's transport systems lagged behind for decades, and that in the middle of the nineteenth century the country, which was then traditionally a land of emigration rather than immigration, narrowly escaped economic catastrophe. It's true that the line known as the "Spanish Bread Train" opened in 1847, covering the 23.3 kilometers between Baden and Zurich, while Basel had been linked to the Strasbourg line since 1844. Apart from that, however, there was much talk about building railways in Switzerland, but no action.

The New Main Railway Station

In 1847 Switzerland had managed to end the antagonism between Conservatives and Liberals in one of the shortest and least bloody civil wars in the history of the world, but the country's economy was in steep decline, and poor harvests only served to aggravate the situation. No improvement could be expected, however, until internal customs duties were abolished, a common currency introduced and a railway network built, particularly for goods transport. An ambitious young citizen of Zurich recognized this: Alfred Escher. Just as he had rather abruptly switched from natural sciences to law as a student, he now abandoned his academic career and decided to become a politician and entrepreneur, at the very moment that a strong federal state was being founded.

A young, ambitious man from Zurich: Alfred Escher

Of course, Escher had been involved in politics for some time by then. He had already ventured onto the political scene almost overnight, inspired by debates at the Zofingia student association and by the example of his admired cousin Ludwig Ferdinand Keller, a professor of law and political leader of the Radical Liberal party. In 1844 Escher was elected to the Cantonal Parliament of Zurich, and he was appointed to the Education Council one year later, while also serving as a member of the Federal Council of Cantonal Representatives. While others might have seen all this as a fulfilling career in itself, Escher was just getting started.

The Federal Polytechnic

It was not until 1848 that Escher revealed his true political powers: the citizens of Zurich elected him to the Cantonal Government, the Church Council and the Federal Council. At the same time he served as Federal Commissioner for Ticino, alongside all his other offices. In 1849 – now President of the National Council as well as the Cantonal Government and Education Council of Zurich – Alfred Escher began to take up appointments in the most important commissions: the Customs Commission, the Monetary Commission and the Railway Commission, of which he was Chairman.

1852: Decision to Build Private Railways

In late 1852 a momentous decision was made by the National Council, urged on by Escher: the railroads were to be built by the private sector rather than the state. Not only did this accord with Escher's liberal outlook, but it also allayed his fears that Zurich would be sidelined by its rival, the capital city, if a centralized solution were sought. Who better to implement this decision than Escher himself? His friend Johann Jakob Blumer, a citizen of Glarus, backed him up in this: "In the circumstances I could only support you in your idea of dedicating all your time and all your energy to the railway, as I, like you, am convinced that without your active participation Zurich would be left standing while Basel swept the board."

Credit Suisse main building in Zurich

Basel was indeed already taking active steps, having founded the Swiss Central Railway company which opened the short Basel – Liestal line at the end of 1854. Alfred Escher had acted in time, then. Moreover, the politician had turned into an entrepreneur: he founded the Zurich – Lake Constance Railway Company and then merged it with the Swiss Northern Railway (the Spanish Bread Train) to form the Northeastern Railway, which opened the Oerlikon– Winterthur–Romanshorn route in 1855. Five years later the private railroad network already covered over 1,000 kilometers, with continuous track right through from Lake Constance to Geneva.

A Reputation for Tenacity

Escher had demanded too much of himself. In 1839 he fell dangerously ill, as he had done in 1843 when he was a student in Berlin, so he had to give up the post of President of the National Council and stand down from the offices which were now of least use to him – the Church Council, Education Council and Cantonal Government of Zurich. He controlled the far-reaching "Escher System," which still went right up to the executive, from the legislature and the other important economic mandates he held.

What was the secret of Escher's success? Federal Councillor Jakob Dubs described him thus: "He is not a great creative thinker, and the products of his own imagination are of minor significance. However, once he has been seized by an idea he holds on to it like a bulldog and does not rest until he has brought it into being. Anything imprecise, tenuous or equivocal is repugnant to him; he always seeks to look deeply into a matter before he commits himself to it. He is a realist through and through."

The wish to restore the family reputation was no doubt one of the factors that drove him. The Eschers had been one of the most prominent families in Zurich for centuries. The Glas branch alone produced 5 mayors, 45 members of the lower house, 82 of the upper house, 2 town clerks, 34 magistrates and 29 public advocates. However, Alfred's great-grandfather, Hans Caspar Escher- Werdmüller, fathered an illegitimate child and ran off with a maid, thus propelling himself and his descendants into a downward spiral of emigration and bankruptcy. Alfred's father Heinrich did indeed make a new fortune in the United States, but he was unable to make his way back into Zurich society when he returned there in 1814. Even Alfred Escher's merits failed to restore happiness to the family: one of his two daughters, Hedwig, died at the age of two, and the other, Lydia, who married Emil Welti (the son of a Federal Councillor) committed suicide in 1891 in the wake of an unhappy love affair with the artist Karl Stauffer, leaving no children.

Whereas others would have slowed down following a serious illness, in 1856 Escher increased his workload still further. Now the Managing Director of the Northeastern Railway Company, as well as President of the National Council, Escher founded Schweizerische Kreditanstalt (later known as Credit Suisse) in order to obtain further financing for railroad construction, and as Chairman of the bank's Board for over 20 years he had a considerable say in its activities. One year later he founded Schweizerische Rentenanstalt (now Swiss Life)

Inside the banking hall of Credit Suisse main building in Zurich

Transalpine railway lines were opening relatively rapidly in Austria (Semmering 1854, Brenner 1867) and France (Mont Cenis 1871), so Switzerland was again threatened with economic isolation. A tunnel through the Alps was urgently needed, and time was running short. At that point Escher changed his position for strategic reasons and no longer supported construction at the Lukmanier Pass – instead, from 1863 onwards, he energetically promoted the Gotthard Tunnel.

Meanwhile, however, the political opposition had rallied. In 1868 the liberal "Escher System" was brought to an end after 20 years as the Democrats came to power in the Canton of Zurich. When the Gotthard Tunnel construction project overran its budget and schedule by amounts that would hardly seem momentous in today's terms, an important man's head had to roll – that of either Federal Councillor Welti or "Federal Baron" Escher. Alfred Escher's resignation as Managing Director provided a way out that did not require major cuts in the visionary project. The fact that he was not even invited to the opening ceremony of the Gotthard Railway shows just how much envy he had aroused. The memorial which stands in front of Zurich's main station nevertheless shows that his services were recognized at their full value shortly afterwards. Or were they? Don't we tend to amble heedlessly past the gentleman in the fountain without a backward glance? It hardly matters – his real memorial is the Gotthard Tunnel itself.

Author: Andreas Schiendorfer



Milestones of an active life


Born on February 20


Cantonal Parliament of Zurich, until 1882; President 1848, 1852, 1857, 1861, 1864, 1868


Federal Council of Cantonal Representatives


Education Council of Canton Zurich, until 1855; Chairman from 1849


Cantonal Government of Zurich, until 1855; President 1849, 1850, 1851, 1854


Federal Commissioner for Ticino


National Councillor, until 1882; President 1849/50, 1856/57, 1862/63 (stood down 1855)


Church Council of Zurich, until 1855


Northeastern Railway (NOB), Managing Director until 1872, Chairman of the Board 1879–1882


Federal Polytechnic (ETH Zurich), Vice-Chairman of the Education Council 1854–1882


Schweizerische Kreditanstalt (now known as Credit Suisse), Chairman of the Board 1856–1877 and 1880–1882


Marriage to Augusta Uebel (1838–1864)


Schweizerische Rentenanstalt (now known as Swiss Life), Member of the Board 1858–1874


Zurich City Council, until 1875


Chairman of the Schools Board, Zurich, until 1869


Managing Director of the Gotthard Railway Company, until 1878


Opening of the Gotthard Railway on May 22


Died on December 6


With the suicide of Lydia Welti-Escher, who had no children, Alfred Escher’s family died out.

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