Paul Camille von Denis (1795–1872)

Paul Camille Denis was a Franco-German engineer who pioneered railway building in Germany. He designed the country’s first main-line railway, between Nürnberg and Fürth, opened in 1835. By the time that he retired in 1866 he had built nearly 1,000 km of railways.

He was born in north-eastern France in 1795. At around the age of 6 he moved with his family to Mainz on the River Rhine where his father was inspector of forestry and bought an estate. He studied at the École Polytechnique in Paris but his education was interrupted by the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He became a civil servant in the Rhineland and Bavarian Palatinates, where he worked on construction projects for roads and rivers. From 1826 to 1832 he was at Zweibrücken as a principal engineer of roads. However, with the political upheaval of 1832 he decided to travel overseas to learn about engineering for canals and railways. He spent two years touring Belgium, France, America and Britain, where he met the railway pioneer George Stephenson.

In 1834 he was appointed as the engineer of the Ludwig Railway for 6 km to link the important commercial centres of Nuremberg and Fürth in Bavaria. Completed the following year, this was the first steam-hauled railway for freight and passengers in Germany. It was a single-track line on Stephenson’s standard gauge of 1,435 mm. In its early years it was operated by both a Stephenson locomotive and by horses.

Denis designed many other railways after this famous success. In the next few years he built the 60-km Munich-Augsburg Railway in Bavaria and the Taunus Railway through three German states for 40 km from Frankfurt to Wiesbaden. In 1844, he began work on a railway that brought coal from Bexbach in the Saarland to the Rhine at Ludwigshafen. This was the first German railway to cross mountainous territory and needed many tunnels, viaducts and embankments. From 1850 he was responsible for the management of the Palatinate railways. One of his last projects before he retired was to chair the commission to build the Rhine bridge between Ludwigshafen and Mannheim. He was awarded the Légion d’honneur of France and the Order of Merit of the Bavarian Crown.