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The Dream of an Alpine Waterway

A mountain pass complete with waterway: Caminada’s canal of parallel lock chambers up in the Alps.

A mountain pass complete with waterway: Caminada’s canal of parallel lock chambers up in the Alps. Image source: P. Caminada / Canaux De Montagne
Blog Schweizerisches Nationalmuseum. Musée national suisse. Museo nazionale svizzero. Museum naziunal svizzer

Pietro Caminada had a simple idea to turn the inconceivable into reality: huge cargo ships crossing the Alps without using self-propulsion. The stroke of genius by the engineer with Graubünden roots was a viable project – at least he thought so.

Helmut Stalder

Helmut Stalder is a historian, publicist and book author specialising in economic, transport and technical history.

The laws of physics apply in the mountains as much as anywhere else. Newton’s apple fell from the tree for the same reason as water flows downwards: gravity. Ships cannot ascend, people can’t work magic and there is no such thing as perpetual movement. Nonetheless, Swiss-Italian engineer Pietro Caminada thought otherwise. In 1907, he devised a system that seemed to defy the laws of physics – or at least to water them down enough to turn his fantasy of a ‘Via d’Acqua transalpina’, or navigable waterway over the Alps, into reality.
Between genius and madness: a portrait of Pietro Caminada from the 1920s.
Between genius and madness: a portrait of Pietro Caminada from the 1920s. Archiv Studio Polazzo, Rome
The Alps were made accessible to traffic around 1900. Drivable roads went over major passes. In 1882, the Gotthard was opened to rail transport with, at that time, the world’s longest tunnel. But Pietro Caminada had much more grandiose plans: to make the Alps navigable for shipping. He envisaged a canal from the port in Genoa over the Apennines and through the Po Valley to Milan and Lake Como. It would rise from Chiavenna up to the Splügen Pass. At 1,200 metres’ altitude near Isola village, it would go through a 15-kilometre summit tunnel under the pass to Roffla Gorge, then through Viamala Gorge down to Thusis and up the Rhine via Lake Constance to Schaffhausen and Basel from where it could link up with the North Sea.

The ships were to be led through a tunnel at Splügen Pass.

The ships were to be led through a tunnel at Splügen Pass. Image source: P. Caminada / Canaux De Montagne

Caminada also planned bridges for the ships. To cross Viamala Gorge, for example.

Caminada also planned bridges for the ships. To cross Viamala Gorge, for example. Image source: P. Caminada / Canaux De Montagne
His waterway measured 591 kilometres, 361 kilometres of canal and 43 kilometres through tunnels. 50-metre-long barges were to each bring 500 tonnes of freight from the Mediterranean to Central Europe – without mechanical propulsion, solely through their natural buoyancy. His stroke of genius: a lock chamber system in which the water propelled the ships forward and upwards at the same time.

The pioneer of Brazil

An experienced engineer, Pietro Caminada was no fantasist. He came from an old Graubünden family. His father Gion Antoni Caminada left Vrin in the Lumnezia Valley for Milan in the mid-19th century and married a lady from Milan. Pietro was born there in 1862. After completing his engineering studies, he emigrated to South America and built, among other things, South America’s first electric tramline on the former ‘Arcos da Lapa’ aqueduct in the Brazilian metropolis Rio de Janeiro. In 1907, he returned with his wife Luiza de Menezes and three daughters Itala, Stella and Alba and opened an engineering firm in Rome.
Caminada’s idea: tram line on the former Arcos de Lapa aqueduct in Rio de Janeiro, around 1900.
Caminada’s idea: tram line on the former Arcos de Lapa aqueduct in Rio de Janeiro, around 1900. Wikimedia
Upgrading the waterways was something of a political priority at the time. Inland shipping was considered efficient and the way forward. This was reflected in the number of plans for new canals. The canal network in France was already extensive. Austria had issued a call for tenders for a canal lift connecting the Danube and Oder rivers. Switzerland was also turning its attention more towards inland shipping projects. ETH engineer Rudolf Gelpke, an authority on the subject, had proven in 1903 with a screw steamer that the Rhine was navigable as far as Basel and he advocated a Rhine-Gotthard waterway with ports in Flüelen and Biasca, where the freight could be transferred to and from the Gotthard railway. Upgrading the waterways was also a perennial issue in Italy. The Po Valley was already connected to the Adriatic. In 1905, an international inland navigation conference in Milan posed the question as to whether a waterway could be created from the Ligurian Sea or the Adriatic to Central Europe. The experts considered such a project premature. Pietro Caminada, on the other hand, did not.

Communicating lock chambers

In 1907, he outlined his plans for a waterway from Genoa to Central Europe in the brochure ‘Canaux de montagne – Nouveau système de transport naturel par voie d’eau’ (mountain canals – new natural transport system by waterway). “Implementation will radically change current transport conditions”, he wrote in the foreword. Instead of conventional locks lifting or lowering a ship vertically, he envisaged a series of “inclined tubular locks” going up the mountainside. When one sector filled with water, the ship inside would be propelled forward and upwards, guided by grooved pulleys running along rails. This system would enable the ships to navigate great heights by proceeding from lock chamber to lock chamber. The plan was to have two parallel rows of tunnels. When going down to the valley, the water would flow from the descending ship’s chamber into the other chamber, where another ship would be going up the mountain, resulting in a simultaneous upward and downward movement in communicating lock chambers.
From Genoa to Basel by boat: Caminada’s vision was 591 kilometres long.
From Genoa to Basel by boat: Caminada’s vision was 591 kilometres long. Image source: P. Caminada / Canaux De Montagne
In patent number 955,317 submitted by Caminada in the US and awarded in 1910, he wrote: “This invention enables the uninterrupted and automatic forward movement of the ships, without requiring any mechanical towing.” The water requirement for an ascending or descending ship corresponds to the volume contained in a section. It was notable “that the transition from one section to the next never stops, the movement is continuous”. Caminada had apparently invented perpetual movement that could take ships over mountains – provided enough water kept flowing.
Pietro Caminada’s US patent, 1910.
Pietro Caminada’s US patent, 1910. US patent 955,317 / P. Caminada 1910

An audience with the king

Caminada was a charismatic figure. Famous people gravitated to him and he was able to win over people with the financial means to back him. One formidable fellow campaigner he recruited to his cause was 70-year-old senator Giuseppe Colombo, former minister of finance and founder of Politecnico di Milano. Towards the end of 1907, Colombo wrote in the newspaper Corriere della Sera that Caminada had proposed a solution, which would open up “a new, unexpected horizon for transalpine shipping”. “A series of lock chambers of varying lengths and gradients depending on the slope follows the contours of the terrain like the tracks of a train.” There was not one word of doubt regarding technical feasibility, cost or even the point of transalpine shipping.

The report did not go unnoticed. Five days later King Vittorio Emanuele III invited Pietro Caminada for a private audience in the Quirinal Palace. The monarch had him explain the project and praised the inventor. “When I am long forgotten, people will still be talking about you,” he predicted.

Neue Zürcher Zeitung was also impressed: “Caminada has managed to devise a system that Senator Colombo (…) considers practical and feasible. It is, as Colombo observes, as wonderfully simple as all great ideas.” A few days later Berliner Illustrierte lavished praise on the inventor, describing Caminada as “one of the most outstanding hydraulics engineers of our time”. The New York Times called Caminada “a man of genius”, who had given his assurance that a difficult problem had been solved by applying one of the fundamental principles of hydraulics.

Not only Pietro Caminada’s friends were excited about his project...

Not only Pietro Caminada’s friends were excited about his project… Archiv Studio Polazzo, Rome

King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy.

… King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy was also a fan. Wikimedia
Meanwhile in Caminada’s own canton of Graubünden, the response was more muted. The Splügen Pass came a distant second to the Gotthard rail tunnel. This made prominent politicians lobby for a revival of the plan for an east alpine railway. They saw the canal as a competitor. “We would prefer for the Italians to show some resolve and decide what they’re doing, we’re spending millions on the Splügenbahn anyway”, reported the Bündner Post.

“A technical fantasy”

The railway conquered the world, ocean steamers crossed the seas, telegraph cables connected continents, the Suez Canal had been completed soon to be followed by the Panama Canal – it was the age of technical euphoria and the can-do mentality. The experts did not question whether Caminada’s lock chambers would work. Their only doubts centred on the dimensions and costs involved, which Caminada estimated at CHF 400 million. As Schweizer Baublatt pointed out: the details were still missing, nonetheless the project “was declared to be entirely viable on the whole”.

One of the few sceptics was ETH engineer Rudolf Gelpke. “The idea is remarkable and it’s great that its feasibility will be proven through experiments”, he wrote in the Schweizerische Bauzeitung. Nonetheless, he also said he thought Caminada was a dreamer. “And up go the much vaunted lock chambers, at least on paper for now, from San Giacomo valley up to Isola, 1,247m above sea level.” The project was, argued Gelpke, economically a non-starter in every way, referring to it as a “technical fantasy”.

A fairytale for Gelpke, a vision for Caminada: ships going up and down mountains through chambers, basins and tunnels.
A fairytale for Gelpke, a vision for Caminada: ships going up and down mountains through chambers, basins and tunnels. Image source: P. Caminada / Canaux De Montagne
However, Caminada had the certainty of a visionary. He created models of his lock system and studied inclination, friction, propulsion and the finer technical points in his studio at Piazza di Pietra in Rome. He made a model on a scale of 1:10 for the exhibition of the Academy of Sciences in Milan in 1908.

The plan of transalpine shipping, however, turned out to be a pipe dream. Italy was mired in economic and social difficulties and opted for colonial expansion as a diversionary tactic. In 1911, Italian troops annexed two provinces in Libya. In 1915, the country joined in the First World War. Caminada turned his attention to urban development. Around 1916, he planned to upgrade the port at Genoa, and later he worked on expanding Civitavecchia port. He designed a new area for Milan to the south of Piazza del Duomo. In Rome, he conceived a “Città Giardino” in the Montesacro district around 1920.

Pietro Caminada remained a believer in transalpine shipping his whole life.
Pietro Caminada remained a believer in transalpine shipping his whole life. Image source: P. Caminada / Canaux De Montagne
However, Caminada never gave up on his canal project. Already seriously ill, he planned to visit the area around Splügen in 1923 to study conditions on the ground. The visit never happened as he died a few months earlier at the age of 60. He was “filled with a powerful idealism” wrote Christian Caminada, later to become Bishop of Chur, in an obituary about his relative. “He was a fiery character with a long white beard and hair down to his shoulders, a burning Vesuvius with snow on the summit.”

His ‘Via d’Acqua transalpina’ has faded into the mists of time. Now only ‘Via Pietro Caminada’ remains to remind us of the engineer. It’s a narrow country road with cracked asphalt between Rome and the Tyrrhenian Sea. It almost forms a full circle and doesn’t really lead anywhere.

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Group of workers in front of the completed south portal of the Hauenstein base tunnel.

Through the Jura

Andrej Abplanalp 05.01.2022 In 1853 efforts got under way to ‘break the stone’ that stood between the cantons of Basel-Landschaft and Solothurn. Five years later the Hauenstein, Switzerland’s first real railway tunnel, was opened.

The first real railway tunnel in Switzerland ran through the Jura and was opened in 1858. Illustration by Marco Heer.

The unifying element: ferries in Switzerland

Jean-Luc Rickenbacher 22.01.2020 In an age when bridges were still a rare sight in Switzerland, ferries carried not only goods, animals and people to the opposite shore, but even entire railway carriages. A glimpse into a little-known chapter of transport history.

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