THE RAILWAYS HERITAGE
At the dawn of the 20th century, the usefulness of the railways was no longer debatable. They were a part of daily life, and had already made many an appearance in the arts. At the end of the Exposition of 1900, Maurice Bixio, Director of the Compagnie Générale des Voitures in Paris came to the conclusion that France needed a “permanent museum” of means of transport. That statement, often believed by historians to be the starting point of the adventure of the French Railways Museum in Mulhouse, may also be considered to be a sign of the awareness of heritage from the very outset of the steam age.
“A small sketch
1835. For the first time, the Academy of Sciences published weekly minutes of its meetings. That publication, which was driven by François Arago, provided its readers with a precise review of current science news and debates. Eight years after the start of the line between Saint-Etienne and Andrézieux in 1827, these documents reveal the discussions within the scientific community. While treatises devoted to steam grew in number, they were however reserved for a select few.
Thus, in 1837, after the inauguration of the first French passenger line between Paris and Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a journalist writing for the Magasin Pittoresque lamented the continuing ignorance of the public when it came to the working of steam engines. To remedy that, he defended the use of “public explanation” sessions at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers.
A place in the
A railway in
French Act of 11 June 1842
Promulgated by King Louis-Philippe, the Act of 11 June 1842 redefined the map of France. In its nineteen articles, the law established the future railway network from a central point: Paris. Along with the confirmation of that configuration, which was called the ‘Legrand star’, the government set out a number of financial and policy arrangements. For example, if a company agreed to pay for the construction of a line, the government agreed to give it a monopoly on the operating area. While the law led to increased speculation and the coming of players such as Rothschild’s Bank, it also helped the growth of the main railway companies, which continued to operate till the SNCF was founded in 1938.
The emergence of a
Between wariness and fascination
It is ironic that a century later, the same city of Chalon would host the first trains that were conserved as heritage objects with a view to creating a French Railways Museum. From the very beginning of the railways adventure, the historical and political character of this mode of transport came to the fore in the press and literature. Defending railways amounted to defending a regime. That was so of the writer and critic Jules Janin, who was close to King Louis-Philippe, and went so far as to say in his Itinéraire du chemin de fer de Paris à Dieppe (1847) that “poetry in the 19th century is that of the steam engine”.
as a character
Five years later, in 1849, the judges’ report became even more precise, and now spoke of “Construction of locomotive machines, brake vans, parts and miscellaneous equipment”.
While Derosne et Cail displayed a Crampton system locomotive, other companies presented track components, workshop drawings, car buffers or machines that printed numbered tickets. The public could thus discover the diversity of railway heritage.
Behind the scenes in 1855
The London event had left a lasting effect on visitors. As a result, Paris had to do its best. Four years after the Crystal Palace success, France inaugurated its first universal exposition. The report drafted by Napoléon-Joseph-Charles-Paul Bonaparte, the Emperor’s cousin, was of importance against that background, as a remarkable testimonial of the Titanesque preparatory work required by such an event. Indeed, bringing together so many exhibitors is not easy, especially when their intention is to display large objects like railway rolling stock. The writer stressed that the organisation of the Gallery of Machines therefore led to a certain number of compromises. In particular, he pointed out that locomotives, which generated noise and smoke, could only be shown halted.
1867 and 1878:
Station and mechanics
tales and images
about the railways
Later on, tourist brochures and guide books published by rail companies turned these organisations into recommenders of cultural practices. Joanne Guides, which were already sold in the railway bookshops managed by Hachette, made people want to travel. In 1872, when the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits was founded, the picturesque was replaced by the need for a change in scenery.
At the foot of the Eiffel tower,
the internal railway
At the exhibition of 1889, class 61 dedicated to railway equipment was placed in two main galleries supplemented by four large spaces. Tracks and turn tables could be found there. Along the Avenue des Suresnes, part of the internal system known as the Decauville railway served restaurants and pavilions. With a three-kilometre length, this structure designed by Adolphe Alphand played a crucial part in the discovery of the exhibition. Engravings, postcards and photographs published in that year clearly shown the success of the narrow gauge system. The Decauville railway was used by foreign visitors, and thus demonstrated its efficiency and drove the fashion of the “mini train”, which is even today very popular with visitors to the Cité du Train.
Retrospective museum of 1900
The Vincennes annex
The wind cutter, an industrial fantasy
1900. Research in aerodynamics began to be applied to the world of railways. The wind-cutter nose of the C145 locomotives from PLM, was a sign of that movement.
In 1965, the tribute paid to it by the famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy in his book Never Leave Well Enough Alone raises these pieces to the status of true industrial design objects.
This Maurice Bixio quote is a reflection of heritage concerns from the very beginnings of the railways, and confirms a need: that of preserving and showcasing the railway heritage, a sign of technical progress, artistic inspiration and collective history. 75 years on, while the older members of society remember 1900, the young were dreaming of the year 2000.