The Grande Dame of the Alps
Oldest Operating Passenger Wire Ropeway Turns 90
In 1927, Bad Reichenhall, a picturesque German city known for healing waters and salt production, placed an order with Adolf Bleichert & Co.’s passenger wire ropeway division for a system to transport tourists to the peak of the Predigtstuhl, a 6,942-foot mountain that looms above the city. The Predigtstuhlbahn was inaugurated On July 1, 1928. Known as the ‘Grande Dame of the Alps’, the system celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2018, and continues to climb the Predigtstuhl in near-original condition.
by Peter von Bleichert, Ph.D., Published in the October Edition of Wire Rope News
Bad Reichenhall is located 1,552 feet above sea level and near the Austrian border, southwest of Salzburg. Inhabited since the Bronze Age, the area organized salt production around 450 B.C., and began exporting brine via an innovative pipeline in the early 1600s. In the 19th century, Reichenhall became known for its health resort and, from 1890, Bad (bath) was added to its name. Bad Reichenhall became the administrative center of the Berchtesgadener Land district of Upper Bavaria and, suffering under the hyperinflation of post-WWI Germany, sought to expand its tourism industry by offering hikers and outdoor adventurers’ access to the natural wonders that surrounded it.
On June 16, 1927, with financing from Alois Seethaler of the Hotel Axelmannstein and spa director Josef Niedermeier, Bad Reichenhall placed an order (No. 3060) with Adolf Bleichert & Co.’s passenger wire ropeway division. Bleichert’s engineers got to work. Adolf Bleichert & Co. of Saxony, Germany, was founded in 1874. Along with countless other industrial and transportation innovations, Adolf Bleichert (b. 1845) introduced the two-rope wire ropeway system that consisted of separate traction and carrying ropes. Utilizing Bleichert’s patented clutch and runner assembly systems, carriers could engage and disengage the traction rope as well as run freely along the carrying rope. Adolf Bleichert died in 1901 and left control of the company to his sons, Max and Paul.
By the 50th Anniversary in 1924, the company had constructed 3,000 miles of wire ropeway systems, including record holders for highest capacity (France, 500 tones per hour); longest and highest elevation (Argentina, 20.6 miles to an altitude of 13,940 feet), steepest (East Africa, 86% grade), length of system over water (New Caledonia, 0.6 miles); most northern (Norway, 79˚ latitude); and, most southern (Chile, 41˚ latitude). Dominating the materials transport business, Bleichert’s sons sought to expand to passenger systems. A dedicated division (Personen-Drahtseilbahnbau GmbH) was formed in 1924, and an alliance with engineer-industrialist Luis Zuegg was negotiated, combining designs and patents for improved passenger ropeways. The resulting system was designated Bleichert-Zuegg and permitted large spans between support towers as well as increased cabin weights and speed of travel.
Bleichert-Zuegg consists of two passenger cabins that act in pendulum to one another on a looped carrying rope. While one cabin is at the lower station, the other is at the upper station. Each cabin is attached to the other by the traction rope, and the weight of the descending gondola maximizes ascension energy for its counterpart. The system’s traction motor is located at the upper station and rope tensioning weights at the lower station. There is an auxiliary rope that can take over traction duty, though otherwise remains parked.
The Predigtstuhlbahn utilizes the Bleichert-Zuegg system to operate two gondolas between a Valley Station and a Mountain Station. The gondolas each have a capacity of 25 passengers and 1 conductor and can transport 300 passengers per hour over the 4.9-mile ropeway. Controlled by an operator located in the Mountain Station’s control room, the gondolas travel between 11.5 and 16.4 feet per second (an average of 11.2 miles per hour) and can move between stations in 9 minutes. The ropeway is supported by three steel-reinforced concrete pylon-shaped towers that jut from the steep mountain face.
Departing the Valley Station, the 75% slope of the line climbs over the Saalach River, a roadway on the opposite bank, and then over the mountain forest. Climbing the mountain, the gondola approaches Tower I.
Jutting from the mountainside, Tower I is 72 feet high. After clacking over the tower’s rails, the gondola leaps a 3,248-foot span to Tower II that is perched on the mountain’s shoulder.
Tower II is 105 feet high and, after a shorter span to the 30-foot-high Tower III, the gondola slows as it approaches the Mountain Station.
Though prime contractor Adolf Bleichert & Co. designed the Predigtstuhlbahn and manufactured the system’s gondolas, running gear, clutches, tower hardware, tensioning devices, control systems, and temporary construction ropeway, the core competencies of other German firms were enlisted for the project. Manufacture of the wire ropes was sub-contracted to Westfälische Drahtindustrie (Hamm) and would total some 113 tons of spiral (traction) and full-locked (carrying) types. Hochtief AG (Munich) was assigned the construction of the system’s three concrete and steel support towers as well as the Valley and Mountain Stations. Garbe-Lahmeyer AG (Aachen) provided the ropeway’s 150 horsepower electric traction motor and other electrical equipment, while Güldner-Motoren GmbH (Aschaffenburg) built the diesel engines and dynamos for generation of electricity. Baer & Derigs GmbH (Munich) designed and installed the hot water system for both stations, while Michael Brandner company (Bad Reichenhall) painted the stations and restaurant, and Georg Kammel company designed and built the custom furniture and other carpentry.
The manufacture of components and construction at the site of the Predigtstuhlbahn began in August of 1927. On the mountainside, 22 tons of dynamite blasted 141,000 cubic feet of rock, clearing and leveling the tower locations. A temporary construction ropeway was installed and began to move materiel and workers up the Predigtstuhl.
Built at Bleichert’s Leipzig-Gohlis factory, the Predigtstuhlbahn’s gondolas have iron wheel bogeys, hangers, and frames, lightweight aluminum body panels, and Perspex (cast acrylic sheet) windows. Innovative dampers minimize swinging of the gondola after passing a tower. The dodecagonal shape and signal red paint job of the gondolas have become iconic, and they have proven to be durable and well behaved in the wind. Bleichert named their unique gondolas ‘Pavilion’.
Both the Valley and Mountain Stations are designed in the style of “New Objectivity” (Neuen Sachlichkeit), an interwar neo-realistic school of architecture that broke with Art Nouveau and sought modern functional design. Further, the station design was influenced by Heimatstil; ‘Swiss chalet style’. The Valley Station houses the system’s tensioning system that consists of two 57-ton steel encased concrete weights suspended in 40-foot deep shafts. These weights maintain tension on the system’s looped carrying ropes and minimize slack in the traction rope.
The Mountain Station anchors the spring-cushioned flywheels of the carrying and traction ropes, a total anchorage load of 166 tons. The machine room houses the traction motor, water heater, generator, and electrical works, and the operators’ control room overlooks the gondola bay.
Ninety-five percent of the control room’s equipment is original and includes markers that indicate gondola positions on the ropeway, an important feature in fog, as well as a line speed shift with ten positions. Telephone calls and gondola commands are transmitted through the ropes.
Once at the Mountain Station, passengers step outside to a sweeping Alpine panorama and clean mountain air. An open-air café terrace invites one to lounge on sofas and chairs while aromas waft from the restaurant, hinting at local delicacies served on white linens and China. For the adventurous, trailheads beckon.
Walking along the main peak trail for some 15 minutes, passengers reach the rustic Schlegelmulde Alpine Hut, which offers a sun terrace, deck chairs, and warming room. Here, passengers can enjoy regional delicacies and Bavarian ambiance, absorbing the snow-covered winter landscape, the colorful flora of spring, the bright sunshine of summer, or the crisp chilly autumn breeze. From the hut, passengers can set off to discover more challenging trails that crisscross the Predigtstuhl and surrounding peaks.
The 90th Anniversary of the Predigtstuhlbahn was celebrated on July 1, 2018, with events at both the Valley and Mountain Stations, and a guest list that included local and national administrators, businesspeople, politicians, as well as descendants of Adolf Bleichert.
On the occasion of the anniversary, the Predigtstuhlbahn’s gondolas are estimated to have traveled over one million miles, all on the original wire ropes and using the original equipment. The Predigtstuhlbahn is a listed Historic Monument with respective protections, and continues its journey from the past into the future.
The author, Peter von Bleichert, is the great-great grandson of Adolf Bleichert.