Author: Beat H. Haering

It was 22 June 1889 and, despite the rain and storms, a large crowd had gathered in front of Zurich´s main railway station. At 18 degrees Celsius it was much colder than normal for the time of the year. For so many people to congregate in the inclement weather something special must have been happening.

A foreigner walked across the square outside the station and wondered what was happening. He looked casual in comparison to the men in the crowd who, without exception, were in formal attire with top hats – the standard headdress for the time. The new arrival looked different sporting a bowler hat with a long black shabby coat. As he advanced, he noticed something very large, covered by a sheet in the middle of the crowd.

As the passerby reached the first attendees of the forthcoming event, he tapped a tall man on the shoulder. The man turned and asked with a cheerful sentiment in his voice: “May I help you?” The foreigner asked: “Please could you tell me what is happening here? I just arrived by train and wondered why so many people were gathering in such nasty weather.” “Of course,” was the answer “today Zurich remembers one of its greatest sons: Alfred Escher, who died in 1882. In a few moments a statue of him, sculpted by the well-known artist Richard Kissling, will be unveiled!”. “Oh, I see” the passerby said “but I have never heard of Alfred Escher. What did he do to get honoured by a monument at such prominent place?” The man with the top hat turned around and asked with an astonished almost shouting voice. “Where are YOU from?”

“Alfred Escher did so much for Switzerland! To erect a monument is the least the Swiss people can do to thank him! Switzerland would not be the country it is today without the foundations he laid and work he did throughout his life. Around 1850 Switzerland was one of the poorest countries in Europe with its development lagging far behind its neighbours. There was only one short railway line – compared to vast networks in England, France, Austria-Hungary and Germany – and it was Alfred Escher who was the driving force behind making a mountainous country like Switzerland accessible by rail, enabling the wealth we enjoy today!”

The discussion between the two men had attracted the attention of others in the crowd and so another man joined the conversation. “More than that: Switzerland was in danger of being completely cut off from the European railway system. Our neighbouring countries were already planning to bypass Switzerland with their railways and that would have been isolated us from European Trade”, he said.

“So, Alfred Escher should be named the ‘father of the Swiss Railway structure?’” the stranger asked. Another man continued: “Yes and no, because he was more than that, as he even built the Gotthard-Line with the longest rail tunnel in the world at 15 kilometers!” Then an elegant lady added: “And don’t forget the foundation of the Polytechnikum. It was the first University in our Country and was badly needed to train the engineers required for building the Gotthard tunnel! Even that was established by Alfred Escher.”

“And please remember: All this had to be financed, and at that time Switzerland was completely dependent on foreign money, mainly from France. So that’s why Alfred Escher founded Switzerland’s first large bank, the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt to secure the financing of the Gotthard tunnel and supporting train lines!”

Again, the man with the top hat rose to speak “That is true. But do not forget the first Life Insurance Company of Switzerland the Rentenanstalt, and the first Reinsurance-Company the Schweizerische Rückversicherunggesellschaft. In the foundation of both of those companies Escher was a driving force, too!”

The foreigner was impressed at what he had heard but still had his doubts: “How could all this have been realised without political support and an industrial network?” The man with the top hat replied proudly “I do agree with you my friend. That’s why Alfred Escher served as a member of our newly established parliament for 34 years from its inception in 1848 and was President of the Assembly four times!”. “All he did was for the benefit of Swiss society” one man said and all the crowd standing around the foreigner nodded to agree. The foreigner had no idea how to reply but the schedule of events rescued him: at that very moment the ceremony started and the monument was unveiled…

The monument of Alfred Escher still stands at Zurich central station, though it has been repositioned slightly over the years. Visitors can see him standing at the beginning of the famous Bahnhofstrasse in the city.

His work also lives on: Today trains still run on Escher´s rail guide and the Companies he founded are amongst the industry leaders worldwide though they have changed their names to better address their international client base: Kreditanstalt was renamed to Credit Suisse, Rentenanstalt is now named Swiss Life, Schweizerische Rückversicherung is now Swiss Re and the Polytechnikum is the well-known ETH Zurich.

Alfred Escher, whose 200th birthday was celebrated on 20 February 2019, built the structure on which Swiss Wealth was founded 150 years ago. With these structures, the then agricultural country of Switzerland was able to develop into one of the most developed, economically successfully and politically stable countries in today’s world.

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