Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The canal across the Alps

The man with a plan to send barges sailing over high mountain passes

Caminada is the name to conjure with as you come down into Vrin. There are thirty-one of them in the phone book, which is a good number for a small village that sits high up in a southern valley of Switzerland’s Romansch-speaking region. And that doesn’t include an eponymous architect, also a native, who has designed a new charnel house for the churchyard.

The village of Vrin: a centre of the Caminada clan
Photo: Alpine Light & Structure

One skull the charnel house doesn’t contain is that of Pietro Caminada (1862-1923). Probably lacking a farm to inherit, his father left Vrin at an early age to seek his fortune in Milan. 

Pietro Caminada
In turn, Pietro left Milan as a young man to try his luck in Rio de Janeiro. During his decade and a half there, he made his name as an engineer – Leonardo da Vinci was an inspiration – putting a tramway across the city’s Arcos da Lapa aqueduct, remodelling its harbour and drawing up plans for what later became Brasilia. 

Returning to Milan in 1907, together with his wife and three daughters, he turned to an even more ambitious project – to build a canal across the Splügen Pass between southern Switzerland and Italy. 

By spanning the Alps, this waterway would allow barges to sail from the River Rhine, via Lake Constance, all the way to the river systems of northern Italy. The economic advantages were obvious: water transport was by far the cheapest way of moving bulk goods from one place to another, as it probably still is.

No less obvious was the challenge. The Splügen Pass tops out at over two kilometres above sea-level. If you push a modern-day car too hard up those ladders of hairpin bends, this is more than high enough to toast your engine (trust me on this). And even if a canal could be built there, you’d need a staggering number of conventional locks to gain the necessary height – making the passage far too laborious for economical use.

The transalpine canal, as it might have looked

Caminada was not the first to dream of building a transalpine canal – more than a century before, the Austrians had mused about linking up their far-flung territories by driving a waterway from the Inn Valley over Switzerland’s Maloja Pass as far as Lake Como. 

And as long ago as 1638, work had actually started on a canal between the Swiss lakes of Neuchâtel and Lake Geneva. Here too, the ultimate aim was to let barges float all the way from the Netherlands through to the Mediterranean, by linking up the Rhine and the Rhone Rivers. Vestiges of the uncompleted Canal d’Entreroches can still be seen today.

As one barge goes up, another comes down

But the Italian engineer was the first to think through the alpine lock problem. After each lock, Caminada envisaged, barges would enter a long sloping tunnel. As water was pumped in, they would float forwards and upwards along the tunnel until they reached the canal’s next level. To conserve water, the tunnels would be built in pairs, so that the water draining out of the “down” tunnel would help to fill the “up” tunnel.

His timing too was perfect: the Splügen proposal burst into public awareness between the openings of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the one across Panama in 1914. So the plan met with an enthusiastic reception. The Corriere della Sera, Italy’s top newspaper, put it on the front page (below), Leipzig’s Weltrundschau enthused about a canal that could climb mountains, and even the New York Times put in a good word.

The Corriere puts the question: can a canal cross the Alps?
Front page of the 29 December 1907 edition

Galvanised by the economic potential – might Genoa become Europe’s largest seaport? – the Italian parliament got as far as discussing the price tag. About 500 million lira might do it, or perhaps two billion Swiss francs in today’s terms. To salute the ingenuity of his subject, King Vittorio Emmanuel III even invited Caminada for an audience.

Not all were convinced. In the Swiss canton of Graubünden, some projectors still hoped to build a railway through or over the Splügen Pass, as a rival to the Gotthard tunnel route opened in 1882. Naturally, they saw the proposed canal as a distraction or rival.

Others, though wowed by the idea of a waterway, wanted to change its route. Some of these critics lived in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino. Instead of the canal ending at Italy’s Lake Como, they suggested, the destination should be Lake Maggiore, which lies partly in Switzerland. In that case, instead of the Splügen, the canal might carve its way through or under the altiplano of La Greina, before descending to a tributary of the Rhine.

In the end, the First World War did for all these deliberations. And by the time that Pietro Caminada died in Rome, aged sixty in 1923, railways had firmly established themselves as the best way to take goods and people across the Alps.

Plaun la Greina, still without a canal 
Photo: Alpine Light & Structure

But still one wonders whether five hundred-ton barges really could have sailed among the clouds, as the ingenious engineer once envisaged. Next time that the Sensei and I hike across the high plateau of La Greina, perhaps starting out from nearby Vrin, the village of the Caminada clan, I will try to sketch out the scene for her. But already I know what she’ll say: La Greina looks much better the way it is…


Marco Guetg, “Ein Wasserweg durch die Rätischen Alpen”, piz - Magazin für das Engadin und die Bündner Südtäler, no 62, December 2022.

Kurt Wanner, “Pietro Caminada und seine via d’acqua transalpina – ein wenig bekanntes Kapitel in der Geschichte des Splügenpasses”, Bündner Monatsblatt, 2/2005.

Ivan Cenzi, “Sailing on top of the mountains”, Bizzarro Bazar blog, October 2016.