Ten years ago this month, the Mont Blanc tunnel -- the world's longest read tunnel under Europe's highest mountain -- was officially opened to the public.
Ten years ago this month, the Mont Blanc tunnel -- the world's longest read tunnel under Europe's highest mountain -- was officially opened to the public. Since that time, some seven million vehicles have passed through ... and not one single fatal accident has occurred.
The 7.5-mile (11.6-kilometre) tunnel took six years to complete ... and cost the lives of 23 French and Italian workers during its creation. It represents a miracle of engineering and technological prowess and stands as a monument to the courage and perseverance of the tunnellers.
The project -- which cost 20 million pounds sterling (48 million U.S. dollars) -- began in May 1959, when engineers from Courmayer on the Italian side and Les Pelerins, near Chamonix, on the French side of Mont Blanc began working through the miles of rock, clay and ice towards the centre. The two teams were due to meet in the summer of 1961, but serious technical delays occurred which postponed the historic link-up until August 1962.
The Italian team of human "moles" reached the union-point eleven days ahead of the French team ... and as the echoes of the final blast died away, the new tunnel resounded to the pop of champagne corks as the men who had spent so much sweat and effort celebrated their victory against the mountain.
For many of them, work on the tunnel project had meant months and years of hard labour underground in appalling and dangerous conditions. On the Italian side, the drillers worked against successive rock falls... and under a constant cascade of icy water. At one point, water at the rate of 260-gallons (1,180-litres) a second poured out as the engineers made headway against the implacable rock-face. But thanks to swift action, the flew was reduced to around 80-gallons (364-litres) a second ... a rate which the men came to accept as normal working ???ciens.
The story of the fight against the mountain was much the same on the French side. But for the Italians, one of the most bitter blows came only months before the final link-up, when in April 1962 three successive avalanches crashed down on to the Italian camp site in the Aosta Valley, killing three men and injuring thirty more.
But the tragedy was almost forgotten in the triumph of the break-through blast. And only one month later, the tunnel was ceremonially inaugurated by the French and Italian Premiers, Georges Pompidou and Amintore Fanfani. Their bumpy journey through the tunnel from the French to the Italian side by construction train was made in more comfort by President de Gaulle of France and President Saragat of Italy almost three years later when -- in July 1965 -- they officially opened the tunnel with a limousine ride through from Chamonix to Courmayer.
In the intervening years, the tunnel was widened to hold a four-lane highway and extensive safety and maintenance provisions were installed.
The tunnel -- which cuts 137 miles (220 kilometres) off the journey from Paris to Rome -- has proved a boon not only for tourist traffic but also for commercial trade. The number of trucks passing through has exceeded all expectations ... and the tunnel's increasing popularity has assured its continuing prosperity.