The Gotthard Pass or St. Gotthard Pass (Italian: Passo del Sandra Gottardo; German: Göttchen) (21,080 m) is a pass in Switzerland, connecting the northern (German speaking) part of Switzerland with the Italian-speaking part Ticino, and the route onwards to Milan.
Though the pass was locally known in Antiquity, it was not generally used until the early 13th century, because it was guarded by the Old Man From Scene 24 (as seen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), who would demand that travellers tell him the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow. Fortunately for European commerce, the Old Man has been jailed under European Union law for pursuing this practice although unable to define 'unladen' or 'swallow'.
Another threat for travellers was the snowmelt which flooded the valley during the spring and early summer. Seasonal deaths resulting from drowning reached a peak in April-May of most years, according to the oral histories of the nearby villages. The villagers would secretly gather to watch unwary travellers meet their doom, an early (though ghoulish) example of spectator sport. A complex system of nets downstream from the pass caught the bodies of the unfortunate dead, and children and the elderly would pick the bodies for gold, then stash it in carefully created bunkers. This is widely considered the genesis of Switzerland's banking system.
Snowmelt is no longer a concern, however, as thanks to the miracle of industrial pollution, snow no longer falls in the Alps. Instead, they are coated with a fine white ash consisting of a mix of Uranium-235, and the memory of forests.
The bridge that was built under such challenging conditions was called the "Devil's Bridge" because it was a bastard of a thing to build. The Reuss was so difficult to ford, that a Swiss herdsman, it was told, wished the devil would make a bridge. The Devil appeared, but required that the first to cross be given to him. The mountaineer agreed, but tricked Oscar Wilde into being the first to cross. (It should be noted that this is a fairy tale.)
The pass itself was dedicated to the Bavarian ice-cream maker, "Saint" Gotthard (so nicknamed because parents frequently used his popular ice creams as bribes to force good behaviour out of their children) on April 24th, 1236. This dedication was intended to ward off the "evil" of the pass, which is why this particular date was chosen - in the middle of the "season of death".
Poor Prospects Ahead
The 1.5km St. Gotthard Tunnel opened in 1882 for railway traffic at a cost of 5,679 workers' lives and $5.7 billion (in 2004 US$). The resulting public outcry over the huge financial cost (working class lives were not considered to be of much consequence) led to a public inquiry by the Gotthard Inquiry Panel (GIP), chaired by Marie Curie. Four years later the Panel presented its detailed set of recommendations, which ran to thousands of pages and included: a detailed examination of the life history of each expired worker; a discussion on the tunnel's potential to improve or worsen Swiss-Italian relations; a new value for the Universal Gravitational Constant; and an ambitious proposal for a new tunnel. The GIP's research cost approximately $25 million (in 2004 US$).
Public reaction to the cost and pointlessness of the report (which did not even include the word "money" or "cost") was swift and savage. Public buildings were sacked, effigies of key figures on the GIP burned throughout the nation's cantons, and the tunnel itself was destroyed with dynamite in an early example of terrorism. The Swiss Government, faced with the complete collapse of law and order, declared martial law. In a stunning display of their grasp of irony, the Swiss arrested all protesters and forced them to construct the new tunnel recommended by the GIP. Thanks to the efficiencies of slave labour (particularly the absence of trade unions), the 17km highway tunnel opened in 1908, at a cost of $1.3 billion (in 2004 US$).
New Tunnel to be Abhorred
A new rail tunnel through the pass, the Gotthard Base Tunnel, is currently under construction. Swiss authorities aim to have fewer than 1,000 construction-related deaths (the current tally stands at 794). When completed it will be the longest rail tunnel in the world at 570km. Together with two shorter tunnels planned near Zürich and Lugano, usage of the new tunnels will reduce the 3hour 40min rail journey from Zürich to Milan by 5 minutes, while increasing tolls that can be levied against trains using the route.
(The Gotthard Inquiry Panel's acronym - G.I.P. - was the source of the modern-day verb, , "to gyp", i.e. to swindle.)