The History of the Gotthard Pass

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During the Roman era, the Gotthard Pass could only be crossed by foot or with mules. Despite it being the shortest transit way (North-South), travellers rather chose other ways because of its impracticability. In the 13th century and thanks to their remarkable technical skills, the Walser built the first bridge in the Schöllenen gorge, known as the devil’s bridge, and the Twärrenbrücke, to cross the Reuss River. With the realization of these constructions, for the first time the pass gained European importance, a determining turning point for the destiny of the populations of the two mountain faces. 

The Gotthard Pass is quoted in the Annales Stradenses (13th century), a guide for pilgrims who wanted to reach Rome or the Holy Land. In 1230 the chapel dedicated to St. Gotthard was consacrated and the hospice lead by the Humiliati order was built: the latter allow completed the assistance network for travellers. 

 

In 1595 a stone arch bridge was built in the Schöllenen gorge. The road was essentially still a mule track that only allowed for the transportation of goods by mule, up to the beginning of the 19th century. The Gotthard Pass is known as the “people’s route”, a name that fittingly illustrates its function in the past, namely that of comfortable route for people but a less comfortable one for goods.

In 1708 the road was improved considerably and in 1775 we find documentation of the first carriage crossing, realized by the English geologist Greville. In 1799, the Russian army led by Marshal Aleksandr Vasil'evič Suvorov crossed the pass and fought against the French, in the Reuss gorges. 

 

The situation only improved remarkably in the 19th century with, on the one hand, the construction of a real surfaced road – five meters wide throughout the whole route – and, on the other hand, a  new bridge in the devil’s gorge, which was completed in the 1830s. 

In 1850 a train trip from Milan to Basel required about 50 hours, by train from Milan and Camerlata and by boat between Flüelen and Lucerne.