This is Geschenen, at the entrance of the great tunnel, the meeting place of the upper gorges of the Reuss, the valley of Urseren, of the Oberalp, and of the Furka. Geschenen has now the calm tranquility of old age. But during the nine years that it took to bore the great tunnel, what juvenile activity there was here, what feverish eagerness in this village, crowded, inundated, overflowed by workmen from Italy, from Tessin, from Germany and France ! One would have thought that out of that dark hole, dug out in the mountain, they were bringing nuggets of gold.
On all the roads nothing was to be seen but bands of workmen arriving, with miners’ lamps hung to their old soldier’s knapsacks. Nobody could tell how they were all to be lodged. One double bed was occupied in succession by twenty-four men in twenty-four hours. Some of the workmen set up their establishments in barns; in all directions movable canteens sprung up, built all awry and hardly holding together, and in mean sheds, doubtful, bad-looking places, the dishonest merchant hastened to sell his adulterated brandy.
The St. Gothard tunnel is about one and two-third miles longer than that of Mount Cenis, and more than three miles longer than that of Arlberg. While the train is passing with a dull rumbling sound under these gloomy vaults, let us explain how the great work of boring the Alps was accomplished.
The mechanical work of perforation was begun simultaneously on the north and south sides of the mountain, working toward the same point, so as to meet toward the middle of the boring. The waters of the Reuss and the Tessin supplied the necessary motive power for working the screws attached to machinery for compressing the air. The borers applied to the rock the piston of a cylinder made to rotate with great rapidity by the pressure of air reduced to one-twentieth of its ordinary volume; then when they had made holes sufficiently deep, they withdrew the machines and charged the mines with dynamite. Immediately after the explosion, streams of wholesome air were liberated which dissipated the smoke; then the debris was cleared away, and the borers returned to their place. The same work was thus carried on day and night, for nine years.
On the Geschenen side all went well; but on the other side, on the Italian slope, unforseen obstacles and difficulties had to be overcome. In-stead of having to encounter the solid rock, they found themselves among a moving soil formed by the deposit of glaciers and broken by streams of water. Springs burst out, like the jet of a fountain, under the stroke of the pick, flooding and driving away the workmen. For twelve months they seemed to be in the midst of a lake. But nothing could damp the ardor of the contractor, Favre.
His troubles were greater still when the under-taking had almost been suspended for want of money, when the workmen struck in 1875, and, when, two years later, the village of Arola was destroyed by fire. And how many times, again and again, the mason-work of the vaulted roof gave way and fell ! Certain “bad places,” as they were called, cost more than nine hundred pounds per yard.
In the interior of the mountain the thermometer marked 86 degrees (Fahr.), but so long as the tunnel was still not completely bored, the workmen were sustained by a kind of fever, and made re-doubled efforts. Discouragement and desertion did not appear among them till the goal was almost reached.
The great tunnel passed, we find ourselves fairly in Italy. The mulberry trees, with silky white bark and delicate, transparent leaves; the chest-nuts, with enormous trunks like cathedral columns; the vine, hanging to high trellises supported by granite pillars, its festoons as capricious as the feats of those who partake too freely of its fruits; the white tufty heads of the maize tossing in the breeze; all that strong and luxuriant vegetation through which waves of moist air are passing; those flowers of rare beauty, of a grace and brilliancy that belong only to privileged zones;all this indicates a more robust and fertile soil, and a more fervid sky than those of the upper villages which we have just left.