Script No, 480, September 16, 2006
© 2006 David Minor / Eagles Byte
Back in June of this year  the U. S. Interstate highway system celebrated its 50th anniversary. When it was built back in the 1950s one of the justifications for the immense project was national security. (It was named the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways). Rapid troop movement within the country would be facilitated.
Another set of projects under way 150 years earlier had a similar goal. Napoleon Bonaparte was the multi-tasker par excellence. To help solidify his sphere of influence over France and much of Italy he would have to be able to move his forces quickly to anticipated trouble spots - no plans for Moscow yet - and the biggest bottlenecks were the passes through the French and Italian Alps. He knew that from experience. So, in addition to his many other projects - defensive works in Belgium, Italy and Poland, the harbor at Cherbourg, a canal connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea (that one didn’t work out, then), and the beautification of Paris - the Corsican corporal undertook a roads project of his own.
The plan was to construct a broad carriage road along an alpine route that would penetrate the mountains between Switzerland and Italy at Simplon, and the French pass at Mont Cenis. The first or eastern would allow penetration close to the region around Milan and the more western would allow quick access to Turin.
Construction accounts and records are not readily available, but French engineers and road builders, working between the years 1803 and 1811, somehow managed to pull it off. On the outer fringes of the route Bonaparte had crews pushing roads through marshes and forests in north-eastern France and west-central Germany. In a time when most of the work was done by crude machines and brute strength the builders bridged ravines in the mountains and chopped passes through until carriages (and cannon, of course) could be sent rapidly back and forth between borders. It might take fifty winding miles of zig-zagging road to cover a crow’s flight of thirty and, although the eighteen-foot-width permitted three carriages to travel side-by-side, there were many sections where it took sixteen mules to pull them up and down the nearly perpendicular roadway. In the winter it was necessary to attach runners to the carriage wheels.
Several times a year the hands-on French dictator would make an inspection tour of the various projects he was pushing through western Europe. He’d stop at each work site and subject his project managers to a rigorous and minute examination of their progress, until he was fully satisfied with the work.
Back in 1804, the same year he became emperor, he wrote, "Men are only as large as the monuments they leave." He actually left several smaller ones - a hospice and barracks at Cenis and a triumphal arch (never completed) near Milan. Lord Byron had his own view of the engineering feat and perhaps, in an oblique dig, of its creator. “The Simplon is magnificent in its nature and its art – both God and Man have done wonders – to say nothing of the Devil – who must certainly have had a hand (or a hoof) in some of the rocks and ravines through and over which the works are carried.”