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Alois de Negrelli remembered

Those contemplating a winter holiday in the Alps or central Europe may be interested in the career of Alois de Negrelli, the Italian engineer who died 150 years ago.

Born in 1799 in Fiera di Primiero in modern Trentino, northern Italy, Negrelli is today best known as the engineer behind the Suez Canal.

Celebration took place at Fiera on 7 November, organised by the local communities, and local engineering societies. At the time of his birth Fiera was in the heart of the Habsburg Empire’s South Tyrol mining area, and his family had lived there for generations.

His family home survives to this day, carrying a number of plaques in his memory. Educated in Innsbruck and Padua, he joined the Austrian engineering service and worked in the Tyrol on mountain roads and river projects. Then posted to Switzerland he designed Münster bridge and canalised along the Rhine near Lake Constance.

In 1836 he became involved with Swiss railways and visited Britain, looking at railways in London, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Liverpool and Manchester, as well as visiting the Thames Tunnel works.

Negrelli’s knowledge of railways led to his recall to the Habsburg Empire where he developed the lines from Vienna to Prag, Olmitz and Brno. He also planned lines in Baden and Württemberg. After the 1848–1849 revolutionary period Negrelli was transferred to Verona to develop the transport railway network in “Lombardo-Veneto” for the Habsburg Empire. This involved planning railways linking Milan with Palma and Trento, Padua, Venice, and Trieste.

The line north from Verona to Bolzanno was not completed until 1859, but there is a plaque on Trento station today celebrating his contribution.

Ironically, but no doubt with Negrelli’s approval, work has now begun on the Brennerbahn, a 60km tunnel intended to bypass much of Negrelli’s work.

Negrelli’s involvement in the Suez Canal project dated from around 1846 when he led the Austrian-Italian element of an international delegation to study the proposal for the “Societé d’etude pour le Canal du Suez”.

English interests were led by Robert Stephenson, and the French by Paul Talabot. Stephenson seems to have used the opportunity to persuade the Egyptian rulers to build a railway, and it was Negrelli’s proposal that was adopted in 1856 by the company. Unfortunately, he died on 1 October 1858, six months before work began.

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