The Schöllenen Gorge with the Devil's Bridge is the historical landmark at the entrance of the Ursern valley and hence into the Gotthard region as well. Spend a little time amidst the steep rock faces and sense the Gotthard myth up close.
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The "Stiebender Steg", later called Devil’s or Hell’s Bridge, was first mentioned in 1306. A daring stone bridge, the legend-steeped Devil’s Bridge, was built at the same location in 1595. The bridge, which was replaced with a new one in 1830, collapsed in 1888. The newest Devil’s Bridge was opened in 1956.
The legend of the Devil's Bridge
The narrow rock bar above Göschenen had always blocked access to the Gotthard and thus the transition to the South as it proved to be extremely difficult to build a bridge there.
The legend, which tells of the futile efforts of the people of Uri to build a mule track through the narrow Schöllenen Gorge and a stone bridge at the point where the young Reuss river pushes through vertical rock walls, shows how difficult the situation was. In his despair, the "Landammann" shouted: "Shall the Devil build a bridge". Then the Devil appeared and said, "I will build a bridge for you. But the first soul to go over it shall be mine".
The people of Uri agreed to the trade and after three days a bridge arched over the Reuss. On the other side the Devil sat and waited for his reward. Instead of a human, however, the people of Uri sent a billy goat over. "You may keep it" they shouted, "here you have the first soul that crosses the bridge!".
Full of anger the Devil tore the billy goat apart and found a huge stone to destroy the bridge again. However an elderly women passed by, recognized him and carved a cross into the stone. When the Devil saw this he missed his target and the stone landed in the valley below, not far from Göschenen where it has been lying ever since. For the construction of the motorway the "Devil's Stone", as it is called, was simply moved to a new location.
Opening up the Schöllenen Gorge
For a long time the Ursern valley was an important starting point for the crossing of the Alps. It connected northern and southern Europe via the Gotthard Pass, to the West via the Furka Pass and the East via the Oberalp Pass. The importance of this region is shown by the fact that the Gotthard Pass is the only alpine crossing in the region where travellers moving north or south only have to cross one pass instead of several. This advantage has been of great importance in all epochs.
As early as 1200, the Schöllenen Gorge, which was extremely difficult to pass through, was opened up with two wooden bridges, the "Twärren" Bridge and the Devil's Bridge and the technical skills required most probably came from the Walser people. Finally, the Schöllenen Gorge no longer had to be bypassed with difficulty.
The first stone bridge was built around 1585 and the first documents with the name “Devil's Bridge” appeared at this time. The first stone bridge lasted just 60 years before, in 1640, a big storm destroyed the bridge and flooded the whole valley. Until the damage was repaired the gorge had to again be bypassed over the difficult Bäzberg route or through the Riental via Gütsch. The repair costs were covered within a few years by increasing customs duties. Nevertheless, it was clear that the infrastructure of the Schöllenen had to be improved and made safer.
In 1707 the first project to bypass the Kirchenbergfels and thus the "Twärren" Bridge was presented. Pietro Morettini, an experienced fortress builder from the Maggia Valley, dared to break through the cliff rock and took over the tunnel construction. He managed this in only eleven months and is considered today to be the builder of the first alpine tunnel ever. The original dimensions of the tunnel (Urnerloch) were 2.1 m in width, 2.4 m in height and approx. 60 m in length. Morettini was so mistaken about the costs that he was bankrupt after the completion of the tunnel. However, the people of Ursern and Uri recognized the unbelievable benefits of the tunnel and decided to increase customs duties once again. The improved connection ensured many more goods and people could be transported. In addition, the local goods, such as the famous "Ursener Käs" or the crystals of the valley, were now traded throughout Europe. By increasing customs duties, Morettini was also made debt-free and even received a bonus.
The whole infrastructure suffered again and again from the intensive transit and trade traffic. Bridges and roads were also badly affected by the forces of nature and the warlike actions around the Gotthard Pass even threatened to interrupt the entire pass connection. Economic interests in the South as well as to the North of the Gotthard Pass formed the base for investments to finally make the Gotthard connection a viable and all-weather route. After a few delays, the expansion was carried out in two stages between 1818 to 1826 and 1826 to 1830.
Now the mule trail had become a road for carriages and sledges, however this era did not last long either. The 15-kilometer Gotthard railway tunnel from Göschenen to Airolo opened in 1882. This tunnel was a pioneering achievement and was considered the longest tunnel in the world until 1905. At the same time, it meant the end of the stagecoach and the busy pass traffic over the Gotthard Pass. After a long tradition of mule-tiring , the journey over the Gotthard finally shortened from several days to several hours in around 100 years. During the heyday of the drovers, a journey from Lucerne to the Italian border took a good 5 to 7 days. The same distance could be covered in 24 hours with the introduction of the stagecoach and the opening of the railway line shortened the journey again to about 9 hours. This shows the fast change which the local population, at the centre of transit traffic, had to adapt to time and again.
Schöllenen circuit – in the Devil's footsteps at your own pace
If you want to catch a spine-tingling glimpse of the Schöllenen Gorge, you should try the Schöllenen circular trail during the summer months. It is an easy walk, takes no more than 30 minutes at a comfortable pace. The vertical rock faces and rushing Reuss river offer a fascinating view. The Devil's Bridge restaurant is located right next to the bridge of the same name. During summer, visitors can let the Gotthard myth work its magic on them as they drink and dine.
Please note: The circular trail is not accessible to pedestrians in winter (November to May).