| Naples: Life, Death & Miracles
|link to a Google search page
Period Postcards from Naples
Postcard from Naples 8 - The volcano is identified as Vesuvius on the card ("Inside the crater.") Now look at the postmark! It says Cook's Vesuvius Railway, mailed on July 24, 1917. Remarkable— a private foreign company with its own post office on a volcano in Italy. (Eremo means 'hermitage' - but I don't think there was actually one up there.) Well, Cook & Son deserved it. They really tried to make a go of Vesuvius. Vesuvius, of course, has been a tourist attraction for a long time. When the Grand Tour was in vogue, visitors were taken to the crater in mules and even sedan chairs. Mark Twain tells of just such a trip in the late 1860s.
Then a totally shady financier and speculator by the name of Ernesto Oblieght, involved in scandalous dealings most of his life, had the idea, and found the backing, to build the first funicular railway (cable car) up Vesuvius. Authorization was obtained from the province of Naples in 1879. Construction was contracted to the Alvino corporation and the facility was inaugurated on June 6, 1880. The whole thing got great press and even one great song—Funiculì-Funiculà (see that link). Real paying passengers started up two days later. You got to the bottom station (somehow!) and climbed aboard one of two open carriages, Vesuvio or Etna, each capable of carrying eight persons plus a conductor. Ten minutes later, after a trip of 750 meters, you were at the top. Not a problem. Originally the railway was, indeed, a funicolare; that is, it ran on a cable with the cars at each end counterbalancing each other and passing at mid-point on a short passing track. Because of the steep gradient, however, the system was changed to what is called a rack-and-pinion cog railway. (They left the song lyrics as they were because the Italian term would have been cremagliera not to mention the English mouthful. The song is in 6/8 time and by the time you get through singing cremagliera or 'rack and pinion' just once, you've used up most of that!) Small problem—if you came from Naples, it took hours just to get to the bottom station by coach. But it was probably worth it.
Bigger problem (see ==> ”totally shady financier...”, above). Oblieght then sold the whole shebang to a firm that promptly went bankrupt due to lack of customers. What? A chance to ride up world-famous Vesuvius in ten-minutes? Why, O why, would you not want to do that? Oh, let's see—ah, there it is...Vesuvius was, and still is, an active volcano! Oblieght had hornswoggled his backers into financing a difficult bit of engineering on the slopes of a volcano that just a few years earlier, in 1872, had burst out in a massive eruption classified as explosive/effusive, one of the most powerful since the 1600s (see this link to “Recent Eruptions of Vesuvius). Indeed, there had been other smaller eruptions earlier in the 1800s, and there would be others right around the corner.
Thomas Cook & Son poster from c. 1920
The bankrupt firm was auctioned off and bought by the travel agency of Thomas Cook & Son, a company that then started decades of dueling with this large chunk of explosive real estate. They put in larger cars, got the post office to issue the first “Vesuvio” stamps, started including the Vesuvius tour in their brochures, opened a grand office in Naples, and—the clincher—in 1903, Thomas Cook and Son actually built a secondary electric railway (poster, left, reads "Vesuvius, Train and Cable-Car") to get passengers from a station (Pugliano, near Herculaneum) on the regular train lines right to the bottom station. Forget the tedious ride out from Naples. Get off one train and get on another. It was an extraordinary effort by the company to put Mt. Vesuvius into the mainstream of the big-time tourist trade. [See this related link on abandoned railways.]
What could go wrong? (Spoiler alert! You already know.) Vesuvius erupted again on April 9, 1906, with a powerful explosive eruption. It destroyed local communities and killed over 200 persons (see this related link). It also burned or buried most of the new Cook railway as well as large sections of the Vesuvius cable-car line, itself. They decided to rebuild. By 1913 they had done it. New stations, new this, new that. Nevertheless, more geological hocus pocus later caused the top station to crumble and things were never the same. The bottom station was intact until 1944. You could still use Cook's railway to get to the bottom station.
If there was anything worse than Vesuvius erupting, it was WW2. Vesuvius erupted in April of 1944, a few months after the Allied invasion at nearby Salerno, destroying most of the railway again and also disabling all the Allied aircraft at Naples Capodichino airport. Cook finally decided to pack it in; they sold everything in 1945 to the company that runs the narrow-gauge Circumvesuviana railway. They actually put it all back in running order by 1947. They then decided to pave the road as far as the bottom station and then build a chair lift to the top. That was activated in 1953 (and lasted until 1984). They kept the old Cook railway going for a while, as well, and then dismantled it since they had now paved the road up to 1000 meters. That's pretty far. You can stagger up the rest, which is what you do.
to main index to history portal to portals & series