Gerstner and son: Czech engineers and railway pioneers 'worth their salt'


Homer called it a "divine substance;" Plato held that it was "especially dear" to the gods. As essential to the human body as water, the earliest historical records show that the abundance or scarcity of salt could drastically affect the health of entire populations. It was the quest for a cheaper way to transport salt that inspired the engineering Gerstners to build the first horse-drawn railway in continental Europe.

Salt Route
By the 15th century, salt was obtained by boiling brine from salt springs, but like much of Central Europe, Bohemia was not blessed with a natural abundance of salt springs, or salt-bearing rocks. And as they had for thousands of years, people in the Czech lands continued to rely almost exclusively on the salt mines of the Salzkammergut valley, in what is now Austria, for salt to flavour and preserve their food.

In the mid 16th Century, the King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand I, ordered that centuries-old trade routes be renovated to facilitate the import of Alpine salt.

Narrow forest mountain paths were slowly transformed into roads that could be traversed by donkeys and even horse-drawn wagons, laden with barrels of salt. Localised springs and mines along the Emperor's Salt Route grew into important commercial centres, often wielding great political power.

Among them was Linz, Upper Austria's sprawling capital, which sits along the banks of the Danube River and was a thriving port of call along the ancient Salt Route, which used to link the lake district of Salzkammergut (which roughly translates as "salt treasury") to Bohemia. Salzburg (or "salt city") grew rich on the profits of the trade because the district belonged to the prince-archbishopric and so all taxation passed into the coffers of the city.

Salt continued to play a large role in the politics of the region after 1600. Great salt warehouses were built in the southern Bohemia city of Ceske Budejovice from the salt was loaded onto rafts and barges on the Vltava River and taken on to Prague.

When the Austrian Empire grew to include Bohemia and Moravia, the salt-poor Czech lands became a captive market for the empire's salt producers. The Habsburgs would regularly use the income from the sale of salt as collateral for raising money quickly in times of military emergency, such as when Bohemia first revolted in 1618 in the Defenestration of Prague and Protestant forces besieged Vienna.

It was Ferdinand I's grandson, Emperor Ferdinand II, who mortgaged his salt revenues to pay for the Catholic army to save Vienna and which crushed the Bohemian Protestant nobles to win the decisive battle of White Mountain in 1620. That year, some 70,000 barrels of salt were brought across the Sumava Mountains in southern Bohemia and on to points on the Vltava River, before the Thirty Years' War reduced the import to a bare minimum.

A century and a half later, high taxes on salt were a contributing cause of the French Revolution which erupted in 1789. As soon as Napoleon became Emperor, however, he restored the tax, in order to finance his foreign wars.

It was in 1789 that an ambitious idea routed in the Middle Ages again took hold in Bohemia. Water transport was far faster and cheaper, but throughout much of Central Europe in the 1800s, salt and other goods had to be transported over land, and that could only be done economically over short distances. Even with improved roads, a 100-kilometre journey in a horse-drawn wagon still took days to complete.

And so engineers of the day set about to link the major rivers of Bohemia, a canal system that would join the Vltava River with the Dunabe. The idea went back to the time of Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, who, as King of Bohemia, concentrated his energies chiefly on the economic and intellectual development of the Czech lands.

Czech historian and archivist Dr Ivo Hajn explains.

Schwartzenberg Canal
"From the time of the Middle Ages there was a desire to build a waterway canal to connect the Vltava with the Danube. But it wasn't possible for them to traverse the massive Sumava Mountains. The idea went as far back as the 14th Century during the reign of Charles IV. And the only project along those lines that was realised was the Scwartzenberg Canal, which was actually to transport timber."

Construction on the Schwartzenberg Canal began in 1789, centuries after the reign of Charles IV. The canal enabled trees felled in the Sumava Mountains — at the source of the Vltava — to be transported by water from southern Bohemia to Vienna. Within two years, a 40-kilometre long navigational canal had been carved out of the mountains.

That was as far as the canal project got. The Napoleonic Wars wreaked havoc on the economy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and delayed the construction of many such grand projects, including the construction of a proposed public railway line in Bohemia.

But at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, it was the demand for salt — and the incredible drive of the Gerstners, a Czech father-and-son engineering team charged by royal decree with finding a faster and cheaper way to import the precious mineral — that revived the idea of a canal system.

That and jealousy, as Dr Hajn explains.

"At the beginning of the 19th century, a large-scale canal was built in Hungary, and it was a big success. The pride of the Czechs was wounded. The nobility here saw that it could be done in Hungary and so they wanted to build their own canal."

The Hungarian project had successfully linked the Danube River to other important waterways and the Scwartzenberg Canal proved it could be done in more mountainous terrain. So the Czech nobles and entrepreneurs again seized upon Charles IV's idea of a great canal. The man they chose to build it was engineer Frantisek Josef Gerstner, director and founder of a polytechnic school in Prague.

Horse-drawn railway
Professor Gerstner in 1807 dutifully carried out a feasibility study but concluded that it while it would be possible to build such a canal system it would prohibitively expensive.

Instead of the long-awaited waterway, he shocked the engineering community by proposing instead the construction of a railway, with carriages and trains to be drawn by horse. Although common in Britain, such a project was unheard of on continental Europe. The idea was met with great suspicion, and set aside.

The last Holy Roman Emperor, Franz I, was at the time quite distracted by the Napoleonic Wars. But with his daughter Marie Louise's marriage to Napoleon in 1810, Franz I bought himself time and a few peaceful years to replenish the Austrian army. He soon turned his attention to the campaign to bring about the downfall of his diminutive French son-in-law.

Professor Gerstner had in 1820 turned control of the unrealised horse-drawn railway project over to his son, Frantisek Antonin Gerstner, himself a professor of engineering in Vienna. The headstrong young Gerstner travelled overseas to see the horse-drawn railways in operation in England. He came back convinced of the value of project — and with a head full of ideas on how to improve upon the design of the rails and supporting embankments.

By September of 1824, Emperor Franz I had granted the younger Gerstner a charter for the construction and operation of a "wood and iron road" and the First Austrian Railway Company was formed.

Vendula Benesova, a construction engineer and a member of several historical preservation societies, is now restoring a 16th Century stable and roadhouse in Holkov, southern Bohemia. Holkov was situated along the Salt Route and became an integral part of the horse-drawn railway.

"Here, the main problem was how to transport salt in the fastest and cheapest way possible to Bohemia, to Ceske Budejovice, to the salt cellars and from there to cellars throughout the country."

"It was thanks to his tenacity, his persistence that Frantisek Antonin Gerstner managed to persuade the Emperor to build the horse-drawn railway. He built a model which he brought to the Royal Palace in Vienna and was granted the royal 'privilege' to start work. He actually started to lay the tracks here in Holkov. He started the first digging here."

Salt is an essential part of the diet of both humans and animals. It is a part of most animal fluids, such as blood, sweat, and tears — all of which were shed in the realisation of the horse-drawn railway project under Gerstner the younger.

Dr. Hajn has written a comprehensive history of the horse-drawn railway, which was born of the Salt Route, and, he says, was the direct result of F. A. Gerstner's uncompromising nature.

Horse-drawn railway
"Frantisek Antonin Gerstner was — no question about it — a very interesting personality. After studying related materials for many years, I came to the conclusion that this was a man who knew what he was doing. He knew that he was a pioneer and that he was involved in something that would change history. He was bursting with ideas and wouldn't let anyone stop him from realising them and overcame many obstacles in his path."

Historically, salt has been used as money; early Roman soldiers received an allowance of the mineral, called a "salarium", from which the English word "salary" is derived and from which stems the expression to be "worth his salt".

But Frantisek Antonin Gerstner cared little if his workers got their "salarium" or not. In one famous case, some subcontractors working under Gerstner's direction took off with the deposit on work they never completed — and never paid the workers for. Gerstner considered that to be the workers' problem, not his.

Dr Hajn says a near riot ensued.

Horse-drawn railway
"Gerstner didn't have a contract with the workers themselves, and it was all the same to him if the workers were paid their wages or not. And a couple of hundred people gathered on the square outside his house — it's hard to say exactly how many — and they were demonstrating and chanting and banging on the door of his house. Gerstner came out, brandishing a stick, grabbed two of the workers and dragged them inside and later took them to court! From this, I think we can say F. A. Gerstner had a strong physique. He was no weakling; he was no coward"

By 1827 the Bohemian line of the horse-drawn railway starting in Ceske Budejovice was open for testing; the Austrian side terminating in Linz was completed in 1830. The 129-kilometre journey could now be completed in 14 hours, instead of three days.

The remains of the horse-drawn railway
Gerstner's horse-drawn railway — the Bohemian side — could handle loads three-times heavier than could normal roads and was solid enough to be adapted for use by the steam-engine trains.

But Frantisek Antonin Gerstner had run well over budget on the project. Unwilling to compromise with the project financiers, he was sacked. Gerstner left for Russia, where he could build his railroads in relative peace.

The Austrian side of the horse-drawn railway, built by Gerstner's replacement, was hardly "worth its salt". It later had to be abandoned, unfit for use by steam locomotives.