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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
Italy—Turin and Savona Railway, 1862-6

IT was not until the year 1862 that he was called upon to execute any engineering scheme of importance in foreign countries, but during the next four years the scene of his principal work shifted to Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Egypt. The project of the Turin and Savona Railway originated in Italy, and the route had already been carefully selected and surveyed by M. Peyron, and an influential Italian Council of Administration formed, with Signor Rarratri, a Member of the Chamber of Deputies, as Chairman . It was to England, however, that the promoters looked for the raising of the requisite capital, and with the many distinguished names which appeared on the Italian Council, their expectations were in a short time realized and operations commenced. Raising the capital in England naturally involved the formation of an English Committee of Shareholders, and several gentlemen of good position were selected. Previous to the formation of the English Committee, however, the Italian Council had entered into a contract with certain Italian bankers, Messrs. Guastalla, to construct the line for the sum of 2,408.000, a premature arrangement which led to great pecuniary difficulties before the railway had been completed.

The length of the proposed line, the construction of which was entrusted to Mr. Abernethy as Engineer-in-Chief ' 1 September, 1862, was 120 miles, traversing some of the most fertile districts in Piedmont. Commencing by a junction with the line from Turin and Carmagnola, it shortly formed further junction with the lines leading to Alessandria, Milan, and by a new proposed branch, to Acqui, in Lombardy. Proceeding in a southward direction the new main line passed near Millesimo, the valley of the Bormida, La Sella; to the Port of Savona, on the Mediterranean, where it formed a junction with the littoral line leading to Genoa and Nice, and which was improved and deepened with a view to meeting the increase of traffic upon the completion of the railroad. There were numerous works of art along the route of the line, comprising viaducts, some thirty in number, which were built of wrought iron girders, and nine short tunnels of a total length of 988 yards, and other works of a like nature on the branch line from Carcari to Acqui, all of which, however, admitted of easy construction, and call for no special mention, but the two principal works of art of engineering interest were piercing the two long tunnels, La Sella, 4 miles in length, commencing at a point distant some ten miles from Savona, and the Belbo tunnel, exceeding 2 miles. That of La Sella in the inner range of the Apennines was driven through blue schist clay and soft rock from ten pits sunk at intervals, under the superintendence of Mr. Cay, C.E., the resident engineer on that section, the headings from each pit being driven right and left. This tunnel had originally been designed in the form of a double curve by M. Peyron, but at Mr. Abernethy’s suggestion the curve was entirely abolished, which shortened the work by some 570 metres and lessened the difficulty of correctly carrying the planimetrical course which would have attended the original design.

The Belbo tunnel was pierced principally through soft sandstone rock, and it was anticipated from the nature of the formation, previously ascertained by borings, that the expense of the greater length of drilling compared with the La Sella tunnel would be largely compensated by the absence of water, which as expected had in the latter work impeded operations to a serious extent. This sanguine hope, however, proved to have been built up on a false character frequently given to sandstone, and much difficulty was experienced and delay and expense involved, owing to the frequent appearance of water, but the work was very energetically pushed forward and successfully completed by an old pupil and assistant, Mr. Samuel Brown, C.E., who afterwards, in 1878, became the Government engineer in Cyprus, and thence was appointed by Lord Knutsford Surveyor-General at Hong Kong in 1889, a post which he held at the time of his death in 1891.

The journey from London to Turin during the years 1862-66 occupied three days and three nights, the railroad communication being at that time completed as far only as Culoz in Savoy, and the route from this Paint onwards had to be continued by diligence via Aix-les-Bains, Chambery, Modane, and over Mont Cenis, a distance of about 106 miles. Diaries kept during this period afford evidence that visits to the scene of work were frequently paid during the winter months, and when the road was deeply covered with snow. Entries of date February 13th and 14th, 1863, record one such experience, and others of January 16th, 19th and 20th in the preceding year an even more difficult journey, when sledges had to be requisitioned in place of the diligence, These, however, became embedded in a snow drift near the summit of the pass, and were extracated after considerable delay only to get into a worse position near No. 5 Casine on the road to Susa, where shortly afterwards the sledge capsized in a snowdrift, and the travellers were compelled to seek shelter for thirty-six hours in the Casine, leaving the vehicle and baggage behind to be speedily buried in the drifting snow. While in shelter, in the hut they were joined by other refugees from the storm, making up the number of the inmates to sixteen. The second party included some ladies, who were accommodated for the night in a small room usually occupied by the resident cantonnie and his wife, while the other apartment of some fifteen feet square was littered with straw as a makeshift for the gentlemen. With the outer door closed the air inside this limited space soon became insufferable, a condition of things which led to some exciting scenes at the time, and afforded amusement on subsequent reflection. Among the row of uncomfortable sleepers was a Scotchman of the name of Dairy, who during the night, strongly advocated a replenishing of the heated air by the colder atmosphere from outside. “Man,” he said, addressing his compatriot from Aberdeen, “I canna stand the heat, gae and open the door a wee bittie;” and the latter being the reclining form nearest to the door, complied with the behest and unfastened the bolt. The door only too readily opened with the pressure of the gale against it, and a shower of snow was forthwith admitted, besprinkling the entire recumbent company. This was naturally followed by a general outcry in French and Italian accents, and the door was again with considerable exertion closed and bolted, but the effect of the sudden inrush of cold air into the overheated room was to produce a condensation which certainly did not make the apartment any more comfortable. When all had fully expressed their disapproval of the ill-considered act, and sleep again taken possession of their limbs, the Scotchman quietly arose, and stepping lightly over the prostrate malcontents, soliloquised as he made his way towards the bolt, “I'll hae that steeked door open again,” which he did with the same consequences as in the first essay, but on this occasion the exclamations and gesticulations were redoubled, and he wisely abstained from risking the consequences of a third attempt to obtain fresh air, and returned to his allotted space on the floor.

On the morning of January 20th, the storm had to some extent abated, and a chief cantonnier with a gang of men arrived, and cut a passage through the drift and the party reached Susa at eight o’clock in the evening.

During several of the many visits to inspect the line of railway in progress of construction, the diaries also point to the hospitality of Mons. Fortunatus Prandi, at whose house he not unfrequently used to stay for one or two days at a time. This house was situated on high land among the Alps, and from the drawing-room windows commanded a glorious view of the Alpine range, with Monte Viso towering into the clouds capped with snow. But reaching the drawing-room, although on the first floor only, was by no means an easy matter, for on each of the three landings which broke the monotony of the broad wooden staircase, a bull-dog was chained as a sentry, with full command (as each of the animals seemed to be well aware), of the entire range of floor opposite to his kennel, and these sentries never failed to challenge any stranger who attempted to pass by.

Mons. Prandi’s career had been somewhat remarkable. At the age of seventeen he entered the army, but having taken a somewhat prominent part in some insubordinate conduct displayed by students at his military college at Alessandria, he made a timely escape to Savona, and there found shelter on an English collier, which eventually brought him to London. He continued to reside for some years in London, earning a livelihood by teaching Italian, and being a man of good birth and address, succeeded in making friends with several persons of good social position, among whom Lord Brougham, treated him very kindly. In 1860 Mons. Prandi returned to his home, where he died in 1870, and was buried in the chapel close by his house, in which his brother officiated as priest.

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