Hiking lovers, that crossed the Vosges trails between Abreschviller and the Donon massif couldn’t, 40 years ago, cross or walk along one of the many valleys of the Donon towards Abreschviller without meeting a railway line with an unusual gauge of 0.70m.
If curious people walked along this path, they generally did not have a long walk before meeting either a rail siding on which were parked wagons loaded with logs, or a branch line that led to forest plots being exploited.
If most knew that the line they came across belonged to the railway network of Abreschviller, few knew about the history, the frequency and the way in which it was exploited. Nowadays, only the last six kilometers the closest to Abreschviller, wich are exploited for tourist purposes, remain of this network. So, before time forgets , it seems interesting to recall the origin and the history of this network, wich, according according to the specialists, at its peak, was one of the most important forest railway in Europe.
Geographical and economic situation
The northern part of the DONON massif (altitude 1008 m) is composed of vast hilly forest areas with 80% forest cover. The national forests of Abreschviller, Walscheid and Saint-Quirin form a combined massif of 11,500 hectares, between 300 to 1000 meters in altitude.
Several valleys: the White Saar, the Red Saar, the yellow Zorn, Abreschviller brook and their tributaries coming down from the massif. This forest, consisting of 75% coniferous and 25% deciduous (beech and oak), produces about 75 000 m3 of wood per year. It is managed by the National Forest Office (ONF).
For a long time, the low population density and the scarcity of communication channels have been the cause of the under-exploitation of this forest.
From the few exploitation centres concentrated in the more accessible areas, timber was transported by a sledge “schlittage” or by wagons with oxen to small sawmills installed along lively streams from which they pulled their driving force. Water was often used to convey what they produced by floating it downstream.
The arrival of the railway
By the 1850s, the Forest Service had planned a vast program of forest road construction, which was only partially realised. In 1884 the German Forestry Administration replaced the forest roads project with the construction of a railway line up the Abreschviller stream from the area known as ZWEIBACH for 5 km, which was extended to 13 km in 1888. The gauge chosen was that of the Prussian military railways, about 70 cm. This is the only known case, of introduction in France, of this type of gauge.
A few years later, a project of building a railway track with normal gauge between Sarrebourg and Abreschviller was studied. The question was to know if the line with normal gauge should be extended until the lower terminal of the forest railway in Zweibach, or whether the former should be brought down to Abreschviller. The installation of large sawmills in Abreschviller, including a state-owned sawmill managed by the forestry administration, opted for the second solution: The normal route would stop at Abreschviller, whose railway station would be built in 1892.
The extension of the forest railway
On 30 March 1892 a violent storm, identical to the one of December 1999, devastated the massif and blew over about 200 000 m3 of timber. Faced with an enormous quantity of materials to be exploited rapidly, the German Forestry Administration of the time immediately carried out all the projects for the extension of the narrow line, approximately 35 km (excluding sidings and avoidance), which were built in four months. Equipment was bought and a workshop installed in Abreschviller near the sawmill for the maintenance of this equipment. Starting on July 5, 1892, the first steam trains cross the massif.
A few years later, once the timber of the storm of 1892 had been exploited, the forest administration considered that the extent of the network was too great for the normal needs.
After study, part of the existing network was declared no longer useful: the railway was disposed of; the rails and the surplus material were sold off.
In 1902, a new storm put the forestry administration with 180,000 m3 of timber to be exploited. A new extension of the network was decided.
In 1918 it included 50 km of railway. It continued to extend until 1939 to reach about 73 km of which there were 9 km of siding and garages.
Every day, two trains served the network; one the Zorn line, the other the Red Saar and the Abreschviller stream. In the morning, they brought the empty trucks and left them a short distance up the line from the loading sites.
The timber cut in the forest was brought down to the railway by two woodcutters and were loaded into the wagons with a winch system. They were then brought by gravity to the nearest siding and taken at the end of the day by the train going to Abreschviller. Each wagon was attached to the next, as well as to the locomotive by a long wooden pole fitted with a coupling ring at each end. This system allowed for a large overhang of the load at the ends of the wagons. It was easier to transport the long logs without problems of stability in the curves. Each train could carry 50 to 70 tonnes of logs.
The workforce for the operation of the railway (including loaders and maintenance personnel) was about fifty.
The annual volume transported was about 35 to 40 000 m3 around 1958, which meant about half of the timber production of the entire forest massif, the other half being directly transported by the road which extended more and more into the mountain range.
The decline of the network
In 1960, the routes for the timber extraction consisted of 61 km of railways and 92 km of roads (42 km of forest roads and 50 km of public roads). The railway and rolling stock were so worn that it would have been necessary to carry out major maintenance or even renewal operations. Moreover, timber lorries and forestry tractors with trailers appeared wich were more flexible and advantageous than the railway: the timber loaded in the heart of the forest could be delivered directly to the users, without additional handlings. The forest administration decided on a progressive reduction of the railway and on the realisation of an 85km road program, including 48 km to replace the Red Saar railway, which already followed the Donon’s road on about 10 km. A complementary program of paths and dragging trails was realised to reach timber more easily. The dismantling of the railway began in 1962. In 1964, 40 km of the railway was dismantled and at the end of 1966, after 75 years of good and faithful services, the network stopped being used to transport timber.
At the end of the exploitation of the network for timber transport, the forest administration allowed groups of tourist who asked, to visit it. On Saturdays and Sundays, touristic trips were organised. As soon as the project to abandon the railway was known, the idea of maintaining a section of line as a touristic attraction was decided, with the agreement of the Abreschviller Tourist Office. With the support of the forestry administration, the Strasbourg delegation of the Federation of Friends of Secondary Railways (FACS), chaired by Dr SINGER, set up a committee to take over a section of the line and its regular operation during summer weekends.
It was first intended to use the line between Abreschviller and Breschpunkt (10 km). The end of this line was particularly difficult because of the two direction changes required to allow a steep incline to be negotiated. This situation would have required special constraints on traffic where transporting the public. It was quickly seen that this difficulty added to the long distance would have considerably increased the operating costs. Also, in order to propose a journey at a reasonable price, the Committee realised that they had to limit their ambitions. That’s why the line between Abreschviller and Grand Soldat was chosen (6,1 km).
After the original Committee was transformed into the Abreschviller Forest Railway Association, it could benefit from different subsidies. From 1968, a regular week-end service worked with the diesel locotractor (which needed less restoration expenses ) and three platforms fitted out as open carriages.
This first year was a complete unexpected success with more than 10 000 tourists transported during the season.
Encouraged by this success, the Association intensified their efforts wich allowed it to fit out the terminus in Grand Soldat. The Association also restored some parts of the railway, rehabilited the steam locomotive Heilbronn 02-20T, the Mallet system, acquired two closed wagons which were sold at a favourable price by the Swiss railway company Wengenalpbahn (a railway serving the Jungfrau Mountain near Interlaken).
The transformation of the rolling stock was done at the Association’s workshop, in order to enable the wagons to move on a railway of 70 cm gauge, whereas they were made to move on 80 cm gauge. At the same time, the local section of the Club Vosgien marked out some new walking paths near the terminus in Grand Soldat. This hamlet is also known because of the house wich was the birthplace of Alexandre CHATRIAN, born in 1826, writer and railroad worker. He wrote a series of novels (including the best known “L’Ami Fritz”) with his friend Emile ERCKMANN, native of Phalsbourg.
This is how we arrive at the 20th April 1969, official date for the second birth of the forest railway. On that snowy day and with the presence of many personalities from this area, the Army Minister Pierre MESSMER cut the inauguration ribbon. Then the train started with its smoke and steam to the cheers of the crowd and with a folk music played by the “Harmonie La Vosgienne” from Abreschviller. Since then the second steam locomotive has been restored (Decauville), two wagons have been bought in Orléans, two wagons have been constructed on existing bogies, a third steam locomotive 030 with a separated tender (Jung 1944) has been bought in Austria, the renewed lines at the departure and at the terminus have been completed with 2,5 km of a new line completely reconstructed and ballasted, train station pavilions have been created at the train departure and terminus thanks to the help of the Tourist Office of Abreschviller.
10000 visitors during the season (from May to October) from the first year, increased to 25000 and 35000 visitors since 1971. Since then, the number of visitors varies from 25 000 to 30 000 by season.