In 1950 American photojournalist Jack Birns crossed the Swiss Alps to document one of the last stagecoach services in Europe, running between towns along the Simplon Pass. He had first encountered this survival from an earlier age of transportation six months earlier while photographing a journey on the Orient Express.
Stagecoaches served a vital function for the remote Alpine towns carrying passengers, mail, and supplies as similar coaches had done for centuries. Birns’s report was published in LIFE magazine in 1951. Shortly thereafter the service was discontinued, the horse-drawn coaches replaced by motor-buses.
Photographs in the series capture the scenic, often perilous, journey over mountains, through villages, towns and cities, but they also capture the lives of the coachmen and their passengers.
The journey begins at Brig in Switzerland. Coaches would depart from there at 7:20 each morning and were due to arrive at Iselle in Italy by 6 o’clock in the evening. Passengers paid 7 Swiss francs and 40 centimes for passage, about two U.S. dollars in 1951, or twenty dollars today.
At certain points along the route sleighs were used instead of coaches to cross otherwise impassible snow. Pictured below: coachman Anton Bruchi (center) hands over the mail to sleigh driver Johann Zenklusen.
The road over the Simplon Pass was constructed by Napoleon’s engineer Nicolas Céard between 1801 and 1805. One of the four short tunnels built at the time has an arched extension for use when heavy snow interferes with travel along the main road.
Napoleon’s memory looms large on the Simplon Pass. Pictured below: Coach driver Edouard Theiler and a barmaid pose with a milk cup used by the Emperor at a hotel in Gstein-Gabi and the coin which he used to pay for it. Theiler had been driving coaches for thirty years when Birns met him.
Hospitality in the towns along the route was rustic and simple but no doubt much appreciated by passengers and coachmen alike.
End of the line: the coach crosses the Italian border and Theiler enjoys a well-deserved drink at a café in Iselle.
James Howard Kunstler on getting around in upstate New York at the turn of the twentieth century:
There was a time just before the First World War when a person could get around this part of the world by train, trolley, boat, automobile, horse, or on foot, and in fact each mode of transportation had its place. This rich variety of possibilities is hard to imagine in our age, when the failure to own a car is tantamount to a failure in citizenship, and our present transportation system is as much of a monoculture as our way of housing or farming. Factory workers walked or took the trolley across the Hudson. Shoppers walked to market. Stores delivered orders too big to carry. Freight moved long distance by rail or boat, and by truck or wagon only locally. Anybody who had urgent business with the greater world at large could hop on a train and get to Albany in an hour or New York City inside of five.
In 1950 LIFE magazine published a photo-essay by Jack Birns on the Orient Express railway line—then past its prime but still wonderfully romantic. Birns traveled the classic route from London to Istanbul, detailing the entire journey. The vintage travel blog Retours has a multipart retrospective on Birns’s article including previously unpublished photographs.
The Orient Express was a favorite of royalty, diplomats, and spies—Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, King Leopold II of Belgium, T.E. Lawrence, Tolstoy, and Mata Hari were among the noted passengers at the turn of the twentieth century. The train entered popular culture through novels like Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train and of course Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
The first leg of the journey was the shortest—from Victoria Station in London to Folkestone in Kent, and from there by ferry across the English Channel to Calais.
At Calais passengers boarded a train with the distinctive blue livery of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Arjan den Boer writes at Retours:
Wagons-Lits sleeping cars had a daytime and a nighttime setup. During the day passengers were seated on a comfortable couch, which was converted by the conductor into a regular-sized bed at night.
First-class travellers had their own sink cabinet with hot and cold running water. There were no showers and toilets had to be shared…
In addition to its sleeping cars, Wagons-Lits was renowned for its dining cars which were every bit as good as fine restaurants. Although the luxury of the interwar period had faded, in 1950 full meals with good wines were still served at fully-set tables. This was accomplished by a seven man brigade, with three of them working in the kitchen.
Naturally, the journey through France, Switzerland, Italy, and the Balkans afforded views of beautiful scenery. And also a way of life that had survived both World Wars but was now disappearing. Arjan den Boer writes:
Until 1951, a stagecoach or sleigh ran over the Simplon Pass from November to June to transport passengers, mail and supplies to the villages on the pass. The difference with the train in the Simplon tunnel was huge: a journey of 20 minutes versus 10 hours over the snow-filled pass.
Jack Birns was intrigued by the coach and the coachman he photographed in the border village of Gondo. Six months later he returned to make a separate photo report on the Simplon coach, which shortly afterwards was replaced by a mail bus.