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Säntis - 1832 Säntis disaster

From 4 to 9 June 1832, Ludwig Wurstemberger summoned five experts to Bern to take part in the first meeting of the Commission for Topographic Surveys. Among the issues discussed at the meeting, it was decided that Antoine-Josef Buchwalder should link up the existing triangulation network to the Austrian triangulation system. To do this, Buchwalder and his assistant Gobat had to climb the Säntis to measure the necessary angles.

Contemporary portrait of Antoine-Joseph Buchwalder
Antoine-Joseph Buchwalder (1792–1883). swisstopo, image collection, item 1044.

Equipped with measuring instruments and a tent, Buchwalder and his assistant Pierre Gobat reached the summit of the Säntis on 29 June 1832. It was here that, on 5 July, a serious accident happened.

Buchwalder described the events in his letter dated the following day, 6 July, from Alt St. Johann in the Toggenburg region.

According to this letter, two lightning strikes were heard at about a quarter past six in the morning, followed by a thunderstorm accompanied by hail. The storm stopped at 10 o’clock, and Buchwalder and Gobat ventured out of the tent. They had barely stepped outside when the rain started pouring down again and forced them back inside.

Photo of measuring instrument
Buchwalder probably carried out measurements on the Säntis using this large, combined universal instrument. swisstopo, historic tools collection, item 1007

The storm gathered more and more force and the lightning returned. A bolt eventually struck the tent and killed Gobat right in front of Buchwalder. He himself was hit on the left leg, and had to wait until the blood circulation was gradually restored before he could move it again.

The storm persisted and Buchwalder could barely stay on his feet. He was two and a half hours away from the nearest huts and, furthermore, he was not sure whether Gobat really was dead. In his helpless state, Buchwalder finally decided to make his way back down to the valley and – as if he had not met with enough misfortune already – thick fog obscured the path he needed to take. He suddenly found himself trapped between rock faces and terrifying abysses, unable to escape his perilous situation until the fog lifted for a moment.

Eventually he arrived at the first huts and was able to persuade two men to climb up the Säntis and ascertain whether Gobat was still alive or dead. At 9 o’clock in the evening, a messenger brought him the news that Gobat could not be revived and was definitely dead. At two o’clock in the morning, ten men went up the mountain to recover Gobat’s body and retrieve the instruments.

Buchwalder stayed in the Tamina Gorge to recover and was able to return to his work as early as mid-August. With regard to the family Gobat had left behind, the Swiss Tagsatzung (executive and legislative council) decided on 26 July 1832, at the request of the Military Commission, that his mother and widow would each be given 600 francs.

Literature: Buchwalder, Antoine-Joseph: Catastrophe du Sentis. Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Privatarchiv PA 411 (Nachlass Buchwalder), I, Copien von Briefen Oberst Buchwalder an dessen Pflegevater A. Watt, 6.7.1832.

Extract from original drawing
The Säntis and its neighbouring points in the grid plan of the "Triangulation Primordiale" dated 1838. swisstopo, Geodesy archive, 161,6 (reduced).

Documentation

  • 1832 Säntis disaster
    On 5 July 1832 a serious incident occurred on the peak of the Säntis which Antoine-Joseph Buchwalder, a 40-year-old engineer from Delémont, described in detail the next day in his letter to his foster father as the “Säntis mountain disaster”.
    PDF, 4 page(s), 537 KB, German
  • Copies of letters from Colonel Buchwalder to his foster father (in French)
    Estate of Colonel A. Buchwalder, 1816–1870. Donated to the Basel-Stadt Archive by the Natural History Museum from the Estate of Dr. Greppin.
    PDF, 2 page(s), 92 KB, French

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