1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Switzerland/Geography

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Physical Description.—Switzerland extends between the parallels 45° 49′ 2″ and 47°, 48′ 32″ lat. (Greenwich) and the meridians 5° 57′ 26″ and 10° 29′ 40″ long. (Greenwich). It forms an irregular quadrilateral, of which the greatest length from east to west is 2261/2 m., and the greatest breadth from north to south is nearly 137 m. (136.8). It has, however, no proper physical unity, as it consists of a number of small districts, differing from each other widely in language, religion, ethnology, customs, &c., but bound together in a political alliance, made originally for common defence against a common foe. It is therefore an artificial land, just as its inhabitants form an artificial nation, though nowadays it is becoming more homogeneous in both respects. Its political boundaries thus do not coincide with those of nature.

The entire canton of Ticino is south of the Alps, as are the valleys of Simplon (Valais), Mesocco, Bregaglia, Poschiavo and Münster (all in the Grisons); the whole canton of Schaffhausen and part of that of Basel are north of the Rhine, while a large part of the Grisons lies to the east of the Rhine basin, and Porrentruy is far down on the western slope of the Jura. But it is to be noted that all these exceptional cases were outside the limits of the Swiss Confederation up to 1798. Putting them aside, the physical geography of Switzerland may thus be described:—

1. On the south runs the main chain of the Alps (q.v.) which is joined, at the Mont Dolent (12,543 ft.) in the chain of Mont Blanc, by the lower ranges that rise south of the Lake of Geneva, and which continues partly Swiss till close to the Stelvio Pass on the east.

2. To the north of this main chain there is another great range of mountains (wholly Swiss) only slightly inferior in extent and height, which starts from the hills known as the Jorat range above Lausanne, and culminates in the great snowy summits of the Bernese Oberland and of the Todi group, before trending to the north near Coire,and, after rising once more in the Santis group, dies away on the southern shore of the Lake of Constance.

3. The Swiss portion of the main chain of the Alps and this great northern outher run. parallel to each other from the Mont Dolent to near Coire, while for a short distance they actually unite near the Pizzo Rotondo (west of the St Gotthard Pass), parting again near the Oberalp Pass (east of the St Gotthard). Between these two great snowclad ranges flow two of the mightiest European rivers, the Rhone towards the west and the Rhine towards the east, their headwaters being only separated by the tangled mountain mass between the Pizzo Rotondo and the Oberalp Pass, which sends the Reuss towards the north and the Ticino towards the south.

4. To the north of this great northern outher rises the Jura range (q.v.), really a huge spur of the Alps (with which it is connected by the Jorat range), while between the northern outher and the Jura extends what may be called the plains or "plateau" of Switzerland, consisting all but wholly of the undulating valley of the Aar (below Thun) with its numerous affluents. To that river valley, we must add the valley of the Thur (a direct affluent of the Rhine), that lies between the Aar basin and the Rhine basin (the Lake of Constance)

We may thus roughly describe Switzerland (as it exists at the present time) as consisting of three great river valleys (Rhone, Rhine and Aar) with the smaller one of the Thur, which all lie to the north of the main chain of the Alps and include the region between the Alps and the Jura. If we examine matters more carefully we note that the Rhone and Rhine valleys are shut off from that of the, Aar (and, of course, of the Thur) by the great northern outher of the Alps, which consists of the Bernese Oberland and Todi Alps. Two wide and undulating valleys (Aar and Thur) and two deeply cut trenches (Rhone and Rhine) thus lie on the northern slope of the Alps, to the north and south respectively of the great northern outher of the Alps. The main chain of the Alps rises in Swiss territory to the height of 15,217 ft. in the loftiest summit or Dufourspitze (wholly Swiss) of Monte Rosa, though the Dom (14,942 ft.), in the Mischabel range, between Zermatt and Saas, is the highest mountain mass which is entirely Swiss. The great northern outher attains a height of 14,026 ft. in the Finsteraarhorn (Bernese Oberland), while the lowest level (581 ft.) within the Confederation, is on the Lago Maggiore. The highest permanently inhabited village in Switzerland is Juf (6998 ft.), at the head of the Avers valley (a tributary of the Hinter Rhine, Grisons), while the lowest is Ascona (666 ft.), on the Lago Maggiore and just south-west of Locarno.

According to the most recent calculations, the total area of Switzerland is 15,951 sq. m. (some 2500 sq. m. less than that of Servia). Of this 11,927·5 sq. m. (or 74·8%) are reckoned as “productive,” forests occupying 3,390·9 sq. m. and vineyards 108·7 sq. m. of the remainder, or 8427·7 sq. m., consisting of arable and pasture land. Of the “unproductive” area of 4023·5 sq. m. (or 25·2%) much consists of lakes and rivers, while glaciers cover 709·7 sq. m. Approximately the Alps occupy one-sixtieth of this area, the Jura about one-tenth, and the “plateau” the rest. Of the entire area the great cantons of the Grisons, Bern and the Valais take up 7411·8 sq. m., or nearly one-half, while if to them be added Vaud, Ticino and St Gall the extent of these six (out of twenty-two) cantons is 10,527·6 sq. m., or almost two-thirds of the area of the Confederation. Not included in the total area of Switzerland are three small “enclaves” (4 sq. m. in all), Büsingen and Verenahof (both in Schaffhausen) belonging to Baden, while Campione (opposite Lugano) is Italian. Switzerland borders on many countries—France west and south-west, Italy south, Austria east (Tirol and Vorarlberg), and Germany north (Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Alsace). Switzerland sends its waters to four great river basins (which drain to three different seas) in the following proportions: Rhine basin, 11,159 sq. m.; Rhone basin, 2768 sq. m.; Po basin, 1361 sq. m.; and Inn basin, 663 sq. m.

The thirteen cantons which till 1798 formed the Confederation are all comprised in the Rhine basin, the ten oldest (i.e. all before 1500) being within that of the Aar, and it was only after 1798 that certain Romonsch-, French- and Italian-speaking “allies” and subject lands—with their river basins—were tacked on to them.

Most of the great Swiss rivers, being in their origin mere mountain torrents, tend to overflow their banks, and hence much is required and has been done to prevent this by embanking them, and regaining arable land from them. So the Rhine (between Ragatz and the Lake of Constance), the Rhone, the Aar, the Reuss; and in particular we may mention the great work on the Linth (1807–1816) carried out by Hans Konrad Escher, who earned by his success the surname of “Von der Linth,” and on the Zihl near the lakes of Neuchâtel and Bienne, while the diversion of the Kander from its junction with the Aar at Thierachern to a channel by which it flows into the Lake of Thun was effected as early as 1714.

There are very many lakes, large and small, in Switzerland. The two most extensive, those of Geneva and of Constance, balance each other, as it were, at the south-west and north-east corners of the land. But neither of these is wholly Swiss, this distinction being claimed by the next in size, that of Neuchâtel (92·4 sq. m.), the Lago Maggiore (partly Swiss only) coming next in the list, and being followed by the wholly Swiss lakes of Lucerne and of Zürich. Then come Lugano, Thun, Bienne, Zug, Brienz, Morat, the Walensee, and Sempach (51/2 sq. m.). These fourteen only are over 4 sq. m. in extent. Eleven of them are in the Rhine basin (also in that of the Aar), two (Maggiore and Lugano) in that of the Po, and one (Geneva) in that of the Rhone. There are no large lakes in the Swiss portion of the Inn basin, the most extensive being that of Sils (11/2 sq. m.). Of the smaller lakes those best known to travellers are the Daubensee (near the summit of the Gemmi), the Oeschinensee (at the foot of the Blümlis Alp range) and the Mürjelensee, formed by the damming up of the waters of the Great Aletsch glacier by a huge lateral moraine. Alpine tarns are innumerable.

Of the countless waterfalls in Switzerland those of the Rhine (near Schaffhausen) have volume but not height, while the reverse is the case in varying degrees with those of the Aar at the Handegg, of the Reichenbach, of Pissevache, and particularly of the Staubbach, a mere thread of water falling clear of a cliff of great height.

There are said to be 1077 glaciers in Switzerland, but it is really impossible to estimate the number accurately, as practically all are now in retreat, and it is not easy to say whether an isolated fragment of ice is or is not entitled to rank as an independent glacier. From them flow all the more important Swiss rivers and streams. Yet their distribution is very unequal, for eleven cantons (just one-half of the Confederation) have none. The Valais heads the list with 375 sq. m., then come the Grisons (138·6), Bern (111·3), Uri (44·3). Glarus (13·9) and Ticino (13·1). The five others (Unterwalden, Vaud, St Gall, Schwyz and Appenzell) boast of 15·3 all together. The three longest glacier in the Alps are all in the great northern outlier (not in the main chain)—the Great Aletsch (161/2 m.), the Fiescher and the Unteraar (each 10 m.). In the main chain the Gorner (91/4 m.) is the longest. Of glaciers covering an area of over 6 sq. m. no fewer than 17 are in Switzerland, as against two each in the French portion of the chain of Mont Blanc and in the Eastern Alps.

Forests cover 21·2% (3300·99 sq. m.) of the total area of Switzerland. Of the six most extensive cantons five are also at the head in the matter of forests: Bern (591 sq. m.), the Grisons (503), Vaud (320), the Valais (297·4) and Ticino (267·2). St Gall (157) ranks in this respect after Zurich (180·8) and Aargau (172), while the only other cantons with over l00 sq. m. are Lucerne (120·4), Fribourg (119) and Soleure (111·3), the lowest place being taken by Geneva (9·9). By far the greater part (67%) of the forest area belongs to the communes or private corporations, while 28·5% is in the hands of private individuals (much of this having become private property in the time of Napoleon I.), but only 4·5% is in the hands of the state, in consequence of the suppression of many monasteries. The communes own 94·3% of the forest area in the Valais, private individuals 78·8% in Lucerne, and the state 16% in Schaffhausen. Schaffhausen and the Jura cantons are the most wooded in proportion to their area, while at the other end of the scale are the towns of Geneva and Basel, and the barren canton of Uri. The great floods of 1834, 1852 and 1868 drew attention to the negligent administration of the forests, considered specially as a protection against damage due to the forces of nature. A forestry department was created in the polytechnic school in Zürich when it was opened in 1855. The Federal Constitution of 1874 (art. 24) handed over to the Confederation the oversight of the forests “in the high mountains,” this being interpreted to mean the Alps with their spurs, but not to include the Jura, and a law of 1876 was enacted to carry out this task. In 1897 the limitation mentioned above was struck out, so that the Confederation now has oversight of all forests within its territory, a law of 1902 regulating in detail the whole subject. Since 1876 much has been done, either directly by the Confederation or indirectly by subsidizing the efforts of the cantons, to reafforest districts where the trees had been recklessly cut down, and to ensure the proper administration of forests generally.

Geology.—The greater part of Switzerland is occupied by the belts of folded rock which constitute the Alps and the Jura (q.v.). The central plain, however, is covered by nearly undistributed deposits of Oligocene and Miocene age, concealed in many places by glacial, alluvial and other accumulations of later date. Both the Oligocene and the Miocene beds are, for the most part, of freshwater or brackish-water origin, but the middle of the Miocene series is formed of marine deposits. During this period an arm of the Mediterranean spread up the valley of the Rhone. It reached its maximum extension during the middle portion of the Miocene period, when it appears to have stretched continuously along the outer border of the Alps from the present Gulf du Lion into Austria; but at an earlier and a later date it was represented in Switzerland only by a series of brackish-water lagoons or fresh-water lakes.

Climate.—In Switzerland, where the height above sea-level ranges# from 581 ft. (Lago Magglore) to 15,217 ft. (Monte Rosa), we naturally find very many climates, from the regions of olives, vines, oaks and beeches, pines and firs, to those of the high mountain pastures, rhododendrons, and of eternal snow. It has been reckoned that, while in Italian Switzerland winter lasts only three months, at Glarus (1578 ft.) it lasts four, in the Engadine (5945 to 3406 ft.) six, on the St Gotthard (6936 ft.) eight, on the Great St Bernard (8111 ft.) nine, and on the St Theodule Pass (10,899 ft.) practically always. The highest mean annual temperature (53° F.) in Switzerland is naturally that at Lugano (909 ft.), while at Bevers (5610 ft., Upper Engadine) the lowest mean temperature in winter is −14° F., but the highest in summer is 77° F., an immense difference. At Montreux the annual mean is 50°, at Sion, Basel, Geneva and Coire about 49°, at Zürich 48°, at Bern and Lucerne 47·5°, at St Gall 45°, at Davos 37·5°, at Sils-Maria 34·5°, and on the Great St Bernard 29°. Of course many factors, such as the shape of the ground, the sheltered position of the place, the degree of exposure to sunshine, counterbalance the mere height at which the town is situated.

The snow-clad Alps of course have the heaviest rain- or snow-fall in Switzerland, this being estimated at 89·7 in. per annum. The greatest actually recorded rainfall (87·3 in.) was on the San Bernadino Pass (6769 ft.), while the lowest (21·7 in.) was at Sierre (1767 ft., Valais). At Lugano the average annual rainfall is 65·4 in., on the Great St Bernard 48·7 in., at Lucerne 45·6 in.; at Montreux 42·6 in., at Sils-Maria 37 in., at Bern and Davos 36·6 in., and at Basel, Coire and Geneva about 32·7 in. It has been shown by careful observations that the rain- or snow-fall is greatest as we approach the Alps, whether from the north or the south, the flanks of the great ranges and the valleys opening out towards the plains receiving much more rain than the high Alpine valleys enclosed on all sides by lofty ridges. Thunderstorms generally vary in frequency with the amount of rainfall, being most common near the great ranges, and often very local. The floods caused by excessive rainfall are sometimes very destructive, as in 1834, 1852 and 1868, while the same cause leads to landslips, of which the most remarkable have been those of the Rossberg above Goldau (1806), at Evionnaz (1835) and at Elm (1881). The Föhn (q.v.) is the most remarkable local wind.

For all these reasons Switzerland has many varieties of climate; and, while, owing to the distribution of the rainfall, the Ticino and Aar valleys are very fertile, the two great trenches between the main chain and its north outlier, though warm, are less productive, as the water comes from the rivers and not from the skies.

People—The first estimate of the population of Switzerland with any pretence to accuracy was that of 1817, which put the number at 1,687,900. The first regular census took place in 1836 to 1838, but was therefore not synchronous, while it was also not very systematic—the number was put at 2,190,258. That of 1850 was better organized, while in 1860 the census was declared decennial, a slight alteration being made as to that of 1888 for practical reasons. The following was the number of the population usually resident (the number of those actually present was also taken, but all detailed subdivisiors refer only to the residents): in 1850, 2,392,740; in 1860, 2,510,494; in 1870, 2,655,001; in 1880, 2,831,787; in 1888, 2,917,754; and in 1900, 3,315,443. The density per square mile was as follows: 150 in 1850; 157 in 1860; 159 in 1870; 177 in 1880; 182 in 1888; and 207 in 1900. The increase in the whole of the country from 1850 to 1900 was 39%. Thirteen cantons showed an increase lower than this average, the lowest of all being Aargau, Glarus and Lucerne; while in Bern the increase of the towns did not counterbalance the diminution in the country districts. The nine cantons which increased above the average rate did so either owing to special circumstances (e.g. the construction of the Simplon railway in the Valais), or because their industries were very flourishing (e.g. St Gall), or because they contain great towns (e.g. Zürich). The highest rates of increase were shown by Geneva (107% increase) and the half canton of Urban Basel (278% increase). As to the actual distribution of the population, the Alpine regions are the sparsest generally (with the exception of the Outer Rhodes of Appenzell), the Jura region has a much higher ratio, while the densest region of all is the Swiss plateau. The strong attraction of the towns is shown by the facts that between 1850 and 1900 the population of the nineteen largest nearly tripled, while, in 1900, of the 187 “political districts” in Switzerland 41 showed a decrease, and they were all exclusively rural.

The shifting of the population within the country is also proved when we note that in 1900 but 38.5% of the Swiss citizens inhabited their commune of birth, though the proportion was 64% in 1850. If we consider the different cantons, we find that in 1900 31.5% (in 1850 but 26.4%) lived in another commune within their canton of birth, while 18.4% (as against 6.6% in 1850) dwelt in a canton other than their canton of birth. To sum up, in 1850, out of the 35 cantons and half cantons, no fewer than 21 had a majority of citizens living in their commune of birth, while in 1900 the number was but 11, and those all rural cantons. Of the 3164 communes (or civil parishes) in Switzerland, only 21 in 1900 had a population exceeding 10,000, while 20 had under 50 inhabitants. If we look at the height of the communes above the sea-level, we find that there were but 3 (with a population of 463 souls) above 1900 metres (2953 ft,), while 68 (with a total population of 188,394) were below 300 metres (984 ft.). The number of inhabited houses rose from 347,327 in 1860 (the number was not taken in 1850) to 434,084 in 1900, while that of separate households mounted from 485,087 in 1850 (528,105 in 1860) to 728,920 in 1900.

The non-Swiss element of the population increased from 3% in 1850 to 11.6% in 1900, and its number from 71,570 in 1850 to 383,424 in 1900. The Germans are the most numerous, next in order come Italians, French and Austrians. In 1900 there were 3535 British subjects resident in Switzerland, and 1559 citizens of the United States. Of course most of the non-Swiss are found in the towns, or in rural districts where any great railway line is being constructed.

The emigration of Swiss beyond seas was but 1691 in 1877, though it rose in 1883 to 13,502 (the maximum as yet attained). Then the number fell pretty steadily till 1899 (2493), then rose again, and in 1906 was 5296. About 89% go to the United States, and about 6% to the Argentine Republic (mainly from the French-speaking cantons). Bern, Zürich, Ticino, the town of Basel and St Gall are the chief cantons which furnish emigrants.

In the matter of religion the Protestants formed 59.3% in 1850 and 57.8% in 1900, and the Roman Catholics (including the “Christian” or “Old” Catholics who arose in 1874) 40.6% and 41.6% respectively, while the Jews increased from 1% in 1850 to 4% in 1900—the remainder (other religions or none) being 2% in 1860, not reckoned separately in 1850 and in 1900. Ten and a half Cantons have a majority of Protestants while in the rest the “Catholics” have the upper hand. The same proportion prevailed 1850 save that then Geneva had a Protestant majority whereas in 1870 already the balance had shifted, owing to the number of immigrants from France and Italy.

As to languages habitually spoken, Switzerland presents a very variegated picture. By the Federal Constitutions of 1848 (art. 109) and 1874 (art. 116), German, French and Italian are recognized as “national languages,” so that debates in the Federal parliament may be carried on in any of the three, while Federal laws, decrees, &c., appear also in the three. The old historical dialects of Romonsch and Ladin (nearly confined to the canton of the Grisons, (q.v.) enjoy no political recognition by the Confederation, are largely maintained by artificial means in the shape of societies founded for their preservation, and are not even in the majority (which is German) in the Grisons. Of the other 21 cantons, all have a German-speaking majority save 6—French prevails in Fribourg, Vaud, the Valais, Neuchâtel and Geneva, and Italian in Ticino. Since the census of 1880, when detailed inquiries as to language were made for the first time, there has been a certain amount of shifting, as is shown by the following figures. German was spoken by 71.3 of the population in 1880, by 71.4 in 1888 and by 69.8 in 1900; the figures for French are respectively 21.4, 21.8 and 22, and for Italian 5.7, 5.3 and 6.7, while Romonsch fell from 1.4 to 1.3 and 1.2%. “Other languages” were 2, 2 and 3%. Thus in 1900 there were nearly 70% of German speaking persons, as against nearly 30% who spoke one or other of the Romance tongues. The most interesting cases are the cantons of Fribourg, (q.v.) and the Valais, (q.v.), in which French is advancing at the expense of German.

Chief Political Divisions and Towns.—When considering Switzerland it must never be forgotten that, strictly speaking, the only political “divisions” are the 187 “districts” into which the cantons are divided (Bern has 30, Vaud 19 and St Gall 15, no others having over 15). These are administrative districts, created for political purposes. The cantons themselves are not “divisions” but sovereign states, which have formed an alliance for certain purposes, while they are built up out of the 3164 “communes,” which are really the political units. Of the 22 cantons[1], 3 are subdivided—Unterwalden (from before 1291) into Obwalden and Nidwalden, and Appenzell (since 1597) into the Outer Rhodes and the Inner Rhodes, while Basel (since 1833) forms urban Basel (the city) and rural Basel (the country districts). The Swiss political capital is Bern (by virtue of a Federal law of 1848), while the Federal Supreme Tribunal is (since its foundation in 1874) at Lausanne, and the Federal Polytechnic School (since it was opened in 1855) at Zürich.

In 1900 there were 19 towns in Switzerland which had a population exceeding 10,000 souls, all having increased very much within the 50 previous years. The following are the six largest, the figures for 1850 being enclosed within brackets: Zurich, 150,703 (35,483); Basel, 109,161 (27,844); Geneva, 104,796 (42,127), Bern, 64,227 (27,558); Lausanne, 46,732 (17,108), and La Chaux de Fonds, 35,968 (13,659). Thus Geneva was first in 1850, but only third in 1900. Thirteen of these nineteen towns are cantonal capitals, though La Chaux de Fonds, Winterthur, Bienne, Tablat (practically a suburb of St Gall), Le Locle and Vevey are not, while no fewer than twelve cantonal capitals (Sion, Bellinzona, Aarau, Altdorf, Schwyz, Frauenfeld, Glarus, Liestal, Sarnen, Stans, Appenzell and Zug) are below this limit. It is reckoned that while the 19 Swiss towns having over 10,000 inhabitants had in 1850 a population of 255,722, that number had swollen in 1900 to 742,205.

Communications.—The carriage roads of Switzerland were much improved and increased in number after a strong Federal government was set up in 1848, for it largely subsidized cantonal undertakings. In the course of the 19th century many splendid roads were carried over the Alpine passes, whether within or leading from Swiss territory; in the latter case with financial aid from Italy (or till 1859 Austria, as the mistress of the Milanese). The earliest in date was that over the Simplon (1800-1807), while others were opened respectively over the Furka (7992 ft.) in 1867, to the top of the Great St Bernard (8111 ft.) in 1893, over the Grimsel (7100 ft.) in 1895, and over the Klausen Pass (6404 ft.) in 1900. The highest carriage road entirely within Switzerland is that over the Umbrail Pass (8242 ft.), opened in 1901, and leading from the Swiss upper Münster valley to close to the Stelvio.

The first Swiss lake over which a steamer plied regularly was that of Geneva (1823), followed by Constance (1824), Lago Maggiore (1826), Neuchatel (1827), Thun (1835), Lucerne (1835) and Brienz (1839). The first railway opened within Switzerland was that (14 m. long) from Zürich to Baden in Aargau (1847), though the Swiss bit of that from Basel to Strassburg had been opened in 1844. From 1852 to 1872 the cantons granted concessions for the building of railways to private companies, but from 1872 onwards the conditions were other and the lines were constructed under Federal supervision. In the 'fifties and 'sixties many lines were built, but not always according to sound financial principles, so that in 1878 the great “National Railway” became bankrupt. Hence the idea of the state purchase of the chief lines made considerable progress, so that in 1898 such a scheme was accepted by the Swiss people. Accordingly in 1901 most of the great lines became Federal railways, and the Jura-Simplon in 1903, while the Gotthard line became Federal in 1909. This state ownership only applies to the main lines, not to the secondary lines or to the mountain cog-wheel railways (of which the first was that from Vitznau up the Rigi, 1871) now so widespread throughout the country, The highest point as yet attained in Switzerland by a mountain railway is the Eismeer station (10,371 ft.) of the line towards the jungfrau. Many tunnels have been pierced through the Swiss Alps, such as the St Gotthard (1882), the Albula (1903) and the Simplon (1906). The highest line carried over a Swiss pass is that over the Little Scheidegg (6772 ft.).

  1. The cantons are — Aargau, Appenzell, Basel, Bern, Fribourg, Geneva, Glarus, Grisons, Lucerne, Neuchatel, St Gall, Schaffhausen, Schwyz. Soleure, Thurgau, Ticino, Unterwalden, Uri, Valais, Vaud, Zug, Zürich (see separate articles).