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The SLF Story - a Blending of Fact and Fiction

Among railway modelers it is common practice to develop a "History" of one's own miniature empire as a way to explain what the railroad is all about. This practice has two main purposes. First, it inspires the imagination by anchoring, to some degree, the fictional road among its real-life counterparts. Second, it provides a framework within which the modeler can evaluate the myriad of modeling options and from them select only the elements that are in harmony with the "story" behind the railroad.

The entire concept of a railway connecting Domodossola to Oberwald is admittedly far-fetched given the realities of engineering and the more efficient options that the actual topography provides. The valley is quite steep and even the roadway depends on sections of switchback construction to overcome the abrupt changes in elevation. Nevertheless, an adhesion railway making use of several expensive spiral tunnels could be constructed in this locale.

Old Postcard Showing the Two Cars in Place

Interesting fact: Between the two world wars, two teak-wood CIWL (Wagons-Lits) cars, a restaurant car and a sleeping car, were road-hauled up to a breathtaking overlook near Formazza and mounted on concrete footings. They were used for many years in this location as a tourist stop but were demolished in the closing days of WWII.

Advertisement for the "Wagristoratore" that appeared in newspapers of the day

Connection with the SBB at Oberwald is a bit of a fiction since that town is actually on an East-West narrow gauge line (the Furka-Oberalp) and is not directly connected to the Federal standard-gauge system. It is however common practice for system changes to occur at places other than the precise border between two countries. For example, Swiss locomotives handle all traffic north of Domodossola even though that station is several kilometers inside Italian territory (and it's not the first station one comes to after exiting the south end of the Simplon Tunnel).

Interesting fact: Near the turn of the 20th century, the Swiss gave serious consideration to connecting Oberwald with other towns north via standard gauge track.

The Toce valley and the surrounding countryside was a hotbed of underground partisan activity during WWII, and the foundation of the "Independent Republic of Ossola" is an historic fact.

This event occurred after the capitulation of the Italian Government while the whole of northern Italy was still occupied by Germans and Italian fascists loyal to Mussolini. This 'rebel' government cut off communications and commerce with the rest of Italy, and expanded trade with Switzerland via the Simplon Tunnel.

As the republic fell apart, some 35,000 Ossolani did indeed flee to Switzerland via the Simplon and over the narrow gauge railroad east to Locarno. Some partisans operating in the Formazza area did walk over the Passo San Giacomo to avoid capture; many later escaped from Swiss interment camps to rejoin their comrades fighting against the fascists.

Interesting fact: The partisans did foil a German plot to dynamite the south portal of the Simplon. The poster above left (click it for a larger view) commemorates this heroic deed and the plaque (above right) was placed at Iselle to commemmorate the 50th Anniversary of this event.

The Val d'Ossola

Already somewhat industrially developed by the turn of the Twentieth Century, the Val d'Ossola became strategically important following the 1906 opening of the Simplon Tunnel and completion of the line south to Arona. Foremost among the early industrialists (besides our fictional character Bacco) was the Ceretti family who constructed the first ironworks in the valley at Villadossola. Other foundries followed at Domodossola, Vogogna d'Ossola and at Baveno.

The chemical industry has a significant presence in the area, particularly in the towns of Varzo and Pieve di Vergonte. Gold was once mined in the Anzasca valley, and granite and marble are still quarried at several locations throughout the region. Rounding out the industrial picture are mechanical works in several towns and a viable logging industry in the area around Santa Maria Maggiore.

Prior to WW II, tourism was a well-developed business in the region. The restrictions and destruction of the war years killed the industry, but it has since recovered and grown with the country's increase in free time and disposable income.

When I visited the South Portals in Fall 2004, I was truly impressed with the beauty of the area and the refreshing alpine atmosphere. There are several small towns, most of which have some sort of guest accommodations (bed & breakfast establishments). It would be a good place to stake out a base of operatons for a few days of day trips to Switzerland and to the Lake District.

Toce River Falls - Second Highest in Italy

Interesting fact: In the years prior to WW I, the huge hydroelectric potential of the region was recognized. Eventually, dozens of dams and falling water generators would provide over 600 Megawatts of electrical power to area factories and to cities as far away as Milano.

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