Wuppertal: German Engineering at its Best

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The year is 1900, and a certain Kaiser is visiting Elberfeld.  What exactly was the highest authority in Germany doing in this working-class city near the Rhine?  Well, he was inaugurating the world’s newest form of transportation, one that would put Elberfeld and Barmen on the map. Except that it didn’t, and most likely you have never heard of either city because since 1930 they’ve simply gone by the name of Wuppertal.

Wuppertal still maintains a counterculture vibe

Not that Wuppertal is exactly a household name these days either unless you’re a communist pilgrim or pharmaceutical history fanatic (more on that later).  But in the late 19th century, the stretch of land that comprised the Wupper Valley was strewn with factories. This was the industrial heartland of Germany, home to a thriving and often radical proletariat. A hundred years ago, one could almost smell the class conflict in the air if it wasn’t for the stench of burning coal and horse dung.

Yet, Germany is also a paternal society, and this paternalism extended to its underclasses.  Hence it wasn’t long before the towns in the Wupper decided that what the workers really needed was a top-class mass transit system that could take them from their modest abodes to the factories and back in a most Prussian manner (i.e., efficient).  So like all good Germans, they formed a commission.  And then they talked…and talked…and talked….and eventually decided upon a name: the Anlage einer elektrischen Hochbahn (Schwebebahn), System Eugen Langen or suspended railway.

A postcard celebrating Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visit in 1900

As the name suggests, this ingenious invention was the brainchild of engineer and entrepreneur Eugen Langen, who was contracted by the commission in 1894 to build an electric elevated railway connecting Vohwinkel with Oberbarmen, running through the principal cities of Elberfeld and Barmen.  Construction finally began in 1898 with 13.3KM of track running roughly suspended above the Wupper River.

While the Kaiser’s inaugural run took place on October 24, 1900, the first section of rail did not become operational until March 1901 with the full line completed in 1903.  At the time, the monorail cost 16 million gold marks, roughly $220 million, today; quite a steal considering 6KM of track in Las Vegas cost over $650 million.  But not everyone was impressed.  Many of the towns’ people initially found the steel frame hanging over the Wupper an eyesore.

The steel track was not well loved at first

As it turns out, Wuppertal’s monorail was not the future of public transportation, largely because while having a train suspended in the air may look cool, it’s kind of expensive (think of all the money spent on maintenance ladders).  But it did seem to mark the end of a golden age for the Wupper Valley.  Several years after the introduction of the monorail, Bayer, the inventor of aspirin, moved most of its facilities to Leverkusen.  And, of course, Barmen favorite son, Friedrich Engels, never got his post humorous worker’s revolution.  Indeed, besides a curious publicity stunt that went horribly wrong in 1950 when an elephant broke through a carriage of the Schwebebahn and jumped into the Wupper (miraculously without injury), Wuppertal has quietly faded from worldview, and so too has its monorail.

19th-century working class houses in Wuppertal

But this is not all bad.  In truth, the lack of interest in Wuppertal has left the city in a state of unspoiled suspension.  Today it is a perfectly preserved 19th-century industrial town, practically unchanged from those bygone years in which industrialists would roam the city canning street urchins for having stepped on their monocles. The collection of densely packed row houses and idle factories, some of which have been repurposed, has a special charm now that soot longer falls from the air like black snow. And while the usefulness of maintaining such an intricate form of transportation when cheaper alternatives exist is questionable, there is no doubt that the Schwebebahn is Supergeil!

Getting There

Visiting Wuppertal and the Schwebebahn is quite easy from Koln or Dusseldorf, and makes for a nice relaxing day trip.  The train ride takes anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes and costs between EUR 5 and EUR 15 depending on the train type.  It should be noted that most of Wuppertal’s museums are currently undergoing restoration; however, the monorail is fully operational and costs EUR 2.7 to ride.

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