Karl Ritter von Ghega (1802–60)

Karl Ritter von Ghega was engineer of the Semmeringbahn (the Semmering railway), generally regarded as the first main line railway to pass through a region of high mountains, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

He was born in Venice, then part of the Habsburg Empire, the son of Anton Ghega, an Albania who was an officer in the Imperial Navy. He undertook some military education, but was particularly talented in Mathematics, and received a doctorate from the University of Padua at the age of 18. He subsequently held posts with the government, working on water supply systems and roads in Veneto, including the construction of the road over the Cortina d’Ampezzo to Trevisco (Toblach).

Like almost every civil engineer in Europe in the 1830s, he was attracted to railway building, and served as a resident engineer on one of the Empire’s first strategic routes, the Emperor Ferdinand Nordbahn between Brno and Břechla (Lundenburg). In 1836-37 he studied railways in England and other countries, and in 1842, having been given responsibility for the strategic planning of the Empire’s railways he went to examine railways in the United States. On his return he began to plan the Sudbahn, the route linking Vienna to Graz and Ljubljana (Leibach) and ultimately to Trieste, the Empire’s principal port. He insisted that Austria’s mechanical engineering companies should provide steam locomotives sufficiently powerful to master the steep gradients of the proposed line.

The Semmeringbahn was built between 1848 and 1854 and is notable for the elegance of its 16 major viaducts. The UNESCO World Heritage Site covers a 41km section from Gloggnitz, 436m above sea level, to the summit at 895m and on to Mürzzuschlag at 677m.

After the completion of the line future projects were frustrated by the onset of the tuberculosis from which he ultimately died. Ghega was granted the status of ’Ritter’ (knight) in 1850. He has been commemorated by a monument set on a rocky hillside near Semmering station, on Austrian banknotes, and by a special issue of postage stamps that marked the 210th anniversary of his birth in 2012.