Friday, October 25, 2013

Stresa History: The Mottarone Railway

At 12.55 on the 13th May 1963 the Stresa to Mottarone Railway trains rolled into the depot for the last time. Ever since I first saw the beautiful posters advertising the railway I've been fascinated by it. As any of you that have chatted with Luca in the office will know, he's a bit of a railway geek, and I guess some of that has rubbed off on me! So I thought I'd share some of the history of the railway with you, along with some old photos of Stresa, which I always find interesting.

So why the need for a railway?
Mottarone was already becoming popular with writers and travellers at the end of the 1800's and was mentioned in the 1869 Baedeker Guide. However, it was difficult to reach the summit and was a tricky 4 hour hike up from Stresa. By 1885 there were already discussions about how it could be made easier for all visitors to reach the top and enjoy the panoramic views.

The brains behind the railway and early planning
The first plans for a railway were presented by local engineer Tommaso Tadini at the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées in 1888 and people loved it. Despite the banking crisis of 1890, Tadini persevered and a chance meeting with engineer Alessandro Scotti at the Caffe Bolongaro in Stresa pushed forward his plans. Scotti was director of the first electric power plant in Europe in Milan and together they discussed funding, logistics and the engineering challenges of the railway.

The depot at Stresa Railway Station with the Stresa - Mottarone train
Final approval and construction
The final project, based on Tadini's original plans, was approved in 1905. The railway would be a combination of rack and pinion and adhesion and in 1908 the "Società Ferrovie del Mottarone" was formed. The Borromean family, who own land at the top of Mottarone, made it available for tracks to be laid and stations to be built. In 1909 everyone signed on the dotted line and 20 years after the first project was presented, construction got under way.

Stresa ferry station square where the train started (left of photo)
The Inauguration
Construction was quite fast and the first train took journalists and railway workers from the ferry station square in Stresa to the summit of Mottarone on 11th July 1911. The first public services started the next day with a big four day long inauguration held in September. Inaugural celebrations included concerts, gala dinners and lunches, a swimming competition, a regatta and a football match.

The station at Mottarone (when you walk out of the cable car station the building is still there, on the left, opposite Hotel Eden)
Facts, figures and curiosities
  • The railway ran on a one metre gauge track
  • The climb from Stresa to Mottarone was 1,182 metres (3,878 feet) and the difference in temperature used to ruin the paint work on the carriages
  • The first return ticket in 1911 cost 9 Lire
  • In its heyday in 1945 the train carried 108,000 passengers in a single year, due to the high amount of Milanese evacuees living in Alpino
  • The train was used to transport snow from Mottarone to use in ice-boxes in Stresa
  • When the snow conditions were right you could ski almost all the way down into Stresa and in 1935 Mottarone had a ski jump built and hosted the first ever grand slalom
  • To make way for the train to run through the centre of Stresa, the River Crée was bricked over, so remember, when you walk up Via Roma (from Hotel Milan Speranza up past the supermarket) there's a river running beneath your feet!
  • The stops were Stresa Ferry Station - Stresa Train Station (where you can still see the remains of the depot) - Vedasco - Vezzo/Carpugnino - Gignese/Levo - Alpino - Borromeo Saint Eurosio Church - Mottarone
  • The journey was 9.9km (6.2 miles) and took 65 minutes
  • You can see one of the original carriages at the Transport Museum in Ranco

1921 The train coming up Via Principe Tomaso (view looking down towards the lakefront, the train is between where Hotels Milan Speranza and Au Lac now stand )
So why did it all end?
There's no doubt that a narrow gauge railway heading up Mottarone would be a huge attraction today, but in the post war years infrastructure was improved and the road between Alpino and Mottarone was tarmacked. More and more people owned cars and passenger numbers on the railway dwindled. In 1959 the Minister for Transport declared that the railway was losing too much money and that a cable car should be built. So the railway was dismantled, a replacement bus service introduced and, in 1970 the current cable car started service.  

A little help from our friends
I'd like to give a big thank to Andrea Lazzarini, local historian and owner of publishers, Scenari Editoria & Communicazione for the use of his images in this post. I also got a lot of the background from his book 1911-2011 Ferrovia Elettrica Stresa - Mottarone . His books about Stresa, Baveno and the local area, including one in English, are available at the online store. His books are also available at the Leone bookshop in Piazza Cadorna, Stresa. All photos remain his property and permission for use is requested.

Sarah, Viaggi Tomassucci

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