One of the World's First Mountain Railways

The Semmering Railway, built in the 19th century in Austria, is a topographically challenging section of the line. It was a pioneering achievement in civil engineering.

Wagnergraben Viaduct (1880) by AnonymousUNESCO Memory of the World

Semmering Railway

The Semmering Railway, also known as a railroad, is a topographically challenging section of what is known as the Sudbahn or southern railway line. It made it possible to travel in comfort by rail from Vienna and reach the eastern foothills of the Alps in only two hours. 

Interior view of the Semmering main tunnel construction (1851) by Alois LahodaUNESCO Memory of the World

Historic Conditions and Project Execution

In the wake of the March Revolution of 1848, Carl Ghega construction plans were approved in a bid to alleviate unemployment and maintain control over potential revolutionary aspirations of Vienna’s labor force. Between 1848-1854 18,000 workers from many countries were employed. 

Picturesque atlas of the Semmering mountain ('Malerischer Atlas Semmering") 1 (1854) by Carl von GhegaUNESCO Memory of the World

Completion of the Sudbahn meant that there was now a continuous railway link between Vienna, the Imperial capital and Residence, and Trieste, the Habsburg monarchy’s most important seaport. 

Lateral view of wooden scaffolding for the Kalte Rinne Viaduct (1854) by Imre BenkertUNESCO Memory of the World

The laying of a railway line over the Semmering Pass represents a noted stage of development in civil engineering, resulting in the world’s first mountain railway. This pioneering achievement was acknowledged during construction as trend-setting for railway projects in the future.

Krauselklause Tunnel (1851) by Alois LahodaUNESCO Memory of the World

Importance of the Semmering Railway Documents

They’re one of the world’s oldest and most precious inventories, spanning 1844-1910, on the history of the railways. Its testimony to the importance attached to technical innovations in the 19th century as well as the growing awareness that technical projects require meticulous documentation.

Picturesque atlas of the Semmering mountain ('Malerischer Atlas Semmering") (1854) by Carl von GhegaUNESCO Memory of the World

10 Types of Documents of the Semmering Railway

Vindobona Locomotive (1851) by John HaswellUNESCO Memory of the World

1. Design Drawings

Design drawings for the locomotive competition in 1851 and for the first series-built mountain locomotives are a tribute to the engineers’ pioneering achievements, particularly since the use of railways on steep gradients had been highly controversial among international experts.

Weinzettelwand (1852) by Alois LahodaUNESCO Memory of the World

2. Panoramic Vistas and Photographic Views

Panoramic vistas and photographic views highlight the challenging route and illustrate the fascination which the mountain railway clearly exerted on its first passengers as it wound its way through the ruggedly romantic landscape of the Semmering. 

Marquee with guests (1904-05-28) by Edmund JelussichUNESCO Memory of the World

3. Anniversary Celebrations

The anniversary celebrations that were held on a grand scale in 1879 and 1904 show that the Semmering Railway was perceived as a milestone in railway engineering.

Tunnel portal to the Semmering (1854) by Imre BenkertUNESCO Memory of the World

4. Melchior von Schickh’s Travel Guide

Schickh’s guide in 1851: "Everything here is impressive in character, the region, the structures, and the sheer industry of these 18,000 workers concentrated on a small spot. All the nationalities from across the monarchy’s vast realm are represented here: Italian, Bohemians..."

Kalte Rinne Viaduct (1854) by Imre BenkertUNESCO Memory of the World

5. Large-Scale Building in the Mountain Wilderness

The Milanese firm of building contractors, Ferdinand Tallachini, commissioned artist Imre Benkert to record the large-scale building site as it evolved in the mountain wilderness, and Benkert proceeded to do so with a high level of artistry and technical detail.

Notebook about shaft VIII on the south side (1850) by AnonymousUNESCO Memory of the World

6. Engineers’ Notebooks, Drawings, and Watercolors

The project engineers documented the progress of the construction site in meticulous detail in their notebooks, drawings, and watercolors. 

Picturesque atlas of the Semmering mountain ('Malerischer Atlas Semmering") 3 (1854) by Carl von GhegaUNESCO Memory of the World

8. Picturesque Atlas of the Railway Line Over the Semmering

In 1854 Carl Ghega compiled a performance report entitled Picturesque Atlas of the Railway Line over the Semmering. It comprised topographical maps, views of the towns and villages along the route, and a 6.2 m fold-out panorama by Viennese artist Ludwig Czerny. 

Portrait of Carl von Ghega (1851) by Josef KriehuberUNESCO Memory of the World

7. Engineer to Knight Monument

In the 19th century the engineering profession gained a higher social standing. Carl Ghega, the chief engineer on the railway project, was knighted in 1851. In 1869 the Austrian Association of Engineers and Architects erected a monument in Ghega’s honor on the Semmering. 

Semmering panorama ("Panorama des Semmerings)" Detail 5 (1855) by Imre BenkertUNESCO Memory of the World

9. Panorama of the Semmering

The Panorama of the Semmering  by Artist Imre Benkert was a popular travel guide among the first passengers on the Semmering Railway line. it was reprinted no fewer than nine times between 1855-1873. 

Hotel on the Semmering (1898) by Auguste WimmerUNESCO Memory of the World

10. Exclusive, Mountain Spa Resorts

Exclusive, mountain spa resorts were developed along the railway.

Semmering Railway Today

The Semmering Railway line still shapes the Semmering landscape to this day and remains in use today due to the quality of its tunnels, viaducts, and other works. It’s the world’s first railway line to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

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UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme is an international initiative launched to safeguard the documentary heritage of humanity against collective amnesia, neglect, the ravages of time and climatic conditions, and willful and deliberate destruction.
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