Schöllenen Gorge with the Devil’s Bridge is the historical landmark at the entrance to the Ursern Valley and hence to the Gotthard region as well. Spend a little time amidst the steep rock faces and sense the Gotthard myth up close.
The first mention of the “Stiebende Steg”, later called Devil’s or Hell’s Bridge, was documented in 1306. A daring stone bridge, the legend-steeped Devil’s Bridge, was built at the same location in 1595. The bridge, which was replaced with a new one in 1830, collapsed in 1888. The latest Devil’s Bridge was opened in 1956.
The legend of the Teufelsbrücke
The narrow rocky plateau above Göschenen had been blocking access to the Gotthard and, as a result, progress towards the South since time immemorial. Building a bridge there thus proved to be an extremely difficult enterprise.
How difficult the situation was, is shown by the legend that tells of the thwarted efforts of the people of Uri to lay a mule trail through the narrow Schöllenen Gorge and build a stone bridge at the spot where the newly-sprung Reuss river pushes its way through vertical rock faces. In desperation, the Landammann cried: “The Devil build a bridge there!” Upon which the latter himself appeared, and said: “I want to build a bridge for you all. But the first one who walks across it is going to be mine.”
The Uri residents agreed to the deal. After three days, indeed, a bridge was spanning the Reuss. On other side sat the Devil, waiting for his reward. However, instead of a person, the Uri locals sent a billy goat across. “You can keep him”, they called, “you’ve got your first soul to cross the bridge!”
Full of anger, the Devil ripped the billy goat apart and picked up an enormous stone, intending to use it to destroy the bridge again. Along came a little old lady, who recognised him and etched a cross into the stone. When the Devil saw this, he missed his target and the stone landed in the valley, not far from Göschenen. It has lain there ever since – the Devil’s Stone.
Fancy catching a glimpse of the Schöllenen Gorge? Embark on the Schöllenen walking tour during the summer months. It is an easy walk, lasting a maximum of 30 minutes at a comfortable pace, and enables a fascinating view of the vertical rock faces and the roaring Reuss. The Teufelsbrücke restaurant is located right next to the bridge of the same name. During the summer, visitors can let the Gotthard myth work its magic on them as they drink and dine.
Opening up the Schöllenen Gorge
For a long time, the Ursern Valley was an important point of departure for crossing the Alps. It connected Northern Europe and Southern Europe via the Gotthard, the West via the Furka and the East via the Oberalp Pass. The region’s importance was above all demonstrated by the fact that the Gotthard is the only Alpine transition where travellers need to traverse just one pass. This advantage has lent the pass a great significance throughout the ages.
The Schöllenen Gorge, which is difficult to walk through, was opened up by two wooden bridges, the Twärrenbrücke and the Teufelsbrücke, way back in 1200. It is highly likely that the technical expertise was supplied by the Walser people. Finally, travellers had no more need to arduously bypass the Schöllenen Gorge.
The very first stone bridge was built in ca. 1585. The first documents bearing the name Devil’s Bridge (Teiffels Brucken) also date from this time. The first stone bridge endured just 60 years. A big storm in 1640 destroyed the bridge and flooded the whole valley. Travellers once again had to arduously bypass the gorge via the Bäzberg or through the Riental via Gütsch until the damage was repaired. These repair costs were refinanced within a few years by means of raising tolls. Nevertheless, it was clear that the Schöllenen infrastructure needed to be improved and made safer.
In 1707, the first project for bypassing the Kirchenberg rock, the Twärrenbrücke, was presented. Pietro Morettini, an experienced fort builder from the Maggia Valley, ventured a breakthrough through the rock and took on the tunnel construction. He managed this in just eleven months and is renowned as the builder of the very first Alpine tunnel to this day. The original dimensions of the tunnel (the Urnerloch) were 2.1 m in width, 2.4 m in height, and approx. 60 m in length.
Morettini so grossly underestimated the costs that he was bankrupt following the tunnel’s completion. However, the Uri residents recognised the tunnel’s incredible utility and once again decided to increase the tolls (customs duties), for the improved connection meant that many more goods and persons could be transported. Additionally, local goods, such as the famous “Ursener Käs” cheese or crystals from the valley, were now traded throughout Europe. The increase in tolls also cleared Morettini’s debt and he even received a bonus.
The whole infrastructure suffered continuously under the weight of passenger and commercial traffic. Bridges and roads were terribly afflicted by natural forces, and acts of war around the Gotthard even threatened to interrupt the entire pass connection. Economic interests for both the North and South sides of the Gotthard formed the basis for investments in order to make the Gotthard link drivable at last. After a number of false starts, the extension was performed in two stages from 1818 until 1826 and from 1826 until 1830.
The mule trail had now been turned into a road that was drivable for coaches and sleighs. However, this era did not last for long, for the 15 kilometre-long Gotthard railway tunnel from Göschenen to Airolo opened as early as 1882. This tunnel was a pioneering feat and was renowned as the world’s longest tunnel until 1905. At the same time, it signalled the end of the mail coach and the lively pass traffic across the Gotthard.
In the end, after a long tradition of muleteer trading on the Gotthard, the journey across the Gotthard was reduced from several days to several hours in the space of about 100 years. In the muleteers’ heyday a journey from Lucerne to the Italian border would last a good five to seven days. When the mail coach was introduced, the same route could be travelled in 24 hours. The opening of the railway line shortened the journey once again, to around nine hours. This demonstrates the swift change to which the population had to adapt over and over again.