On 20 August 1898, the first Gornergrat Railway train reached the former summit station (3,018 m.a.s.l.). With the rail connection, Zermatt consolidated its position as a world-famous holiday destination. News of mountaineering conquests – in particular the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 – and the transport connection of Zermatt in 1891 with the Visp-Zermatt Railway (VZ) contributed to this.
The “discovery” of the Gornergrat
The Swiss federal state was founded with the adoption of the Federal Constitution in 1848. Historians also date the “discovery” of the Gornergrat as being 1848 with the alleged first ascent by the Englishman James David Forbes. However, we can assume that people had been on the Gornergrat before that as it is technically easy to climb. In addition, several peaks around Zermatt had already been climbed in 1848, such as the Kleine Matterhorn in 1792 and various four-thousand-metre peaks, such as the Breithorn, the Vinzentpyramide, the Zumsteinspitze and the Ludwigshöhe, between 1813 and 1822.
As early as 1579, the “Purenzunft” (farmers’ guild) regulated how the Alps were used on Riffelberg and when the sheep could be left on the “Gorneren”. It is therefore obvious that locals were using the Gornergrat before the middle of the 19th century for agricultural reasons.
Tourist appeal of the Gornergrat
In 1838, the first hotel was opened in Zermatt – with three beds. Soon more and more guests from all over the world were wanting to stay in and on the majestic snow mountains. Early visitors were particularly fascinated by one peak: the Matterhorn at 4,478 m.a.s.l. Interest in climbing the Gornergrat was correspondingly high. In 1856, the Gornergrat panorama was first included in Karl Baedeker’s well-known travel guide on Switzerland. The Gornergrat has been listed on the Swiss Dufour map since 1862. From 1870 onwards, the Gornergrat became a lively tourist destination.
Switzerland’s first electric rack railway
What could be more obvious than to build a railway on the famous and popular viewing mountain? Completed in 1898, the Gornergrat Railwaywas the first electric rack railway in Switzerland and only the third in the world, after the “Chemin de fer du Salève” in France in 1892 and the “Barmer Bergbahn” in Germany in 1894. However, these two railways were dismantled in 1937 and 1959. This makes the Gornergrat Railwaythe oldest existing electric rack railway in the world today.
The opening of the Gornergrat Railway also meant that people could travel by train to over 3,000 m.a.s.l. for the very first time in Europe. The Gornergrat Railway thus replaced the “Brienzer Rothornbahn”, which up until that point had boasted the highest peak in Switzerland that could be reached by train at 2,252 m.a.s.l. The summit station of the Gornergrat Railway topped it by 766 metres. Worldwide, only the "Manitou and Pike’s Peak Railway" in Colorado was higher. Opened in 1891, the steam-operated railway started at 2,015 m.a.s.l. and ran to the summit station at 4,260 m.a.s.l.