This was brought by the railway

In the village where I live, the railway arrived at the same time with the 20th century. However, the preparations, the establishment of a stock company, the collection of the share capital, the development of the plans already begun a decade earlier. Town clerk Gyula Bitskey made the following proposal on the town council’s special meeting held on 20 January 1892:

“I consider it unnecessary to argue for the generally proven fact as to how great blessing for a municipality is if it has a railway station, what a boost it means for the industry, an increase of the value of the property, an easy and good sale for the local products and, in consequence, an intensification of tax payment. I am therefore convinced that the honorable Council desires and wishes the establishment of a railway connection with the capital city.

The vineyards in the Old Hill which because of their soil are the most exposed to the devastation of phyloxera, will soon be totally useless areas, but if we will have a railway station, they will become the most sought for holiday resorts, and their value will reach never seen heights.

The price of our products will considerably increase due to the easy transport. The vacationers will pay a good price for the empty rooms in the village. The artisan class, so absent until now, will settle in the village and, due to the competition, the articles of the shops, butcher-houses and inns will become cheaper.

The transport of the much-needed fertilizers, carbon and firewood, wheat, wine, melon, fruits, milk etc. will be cheap and quick.

The village will be populated, new colonies and holiday resorts will be established, rates and taxes will be shared on a larger base and become more bearable.

The communication with the authorities and offices will become easier.

The value of lands and houses will be doubled.

Honorable Council! – I am far from having exhausted the benefits to be reached by the establishment of a railway connection!”

The words of the clerk were confirmed by history. The branch line built from the Budapest-Gödöllő railway to the village allowed to the women of Csömör to deliver every morning fresh vegetables and fruits to the markets of Budapest. Even in the 1990s it was a refreshing spot on the early morning train the group of the last women in the traditional Slovak pleated skirt with blue flower pattern and great shawl carrying large baskets to the market of Bosnyák square. The focus of the village’s agriculture changed from the arable lands to intensive vegetable production in the gardens and later in glass-houses which meant a certain extent of independence even in the times of the Socialist kolkhoz, just as the possibility of commuting into the factories of the city for the men who lost their lands. Young people could daily go to the middle schools of Budapest, and although they spent most of the day in the city, they did not lose their contact with the village unlike their companions living in colleges, and after graduating they returned to live here. The vacationers came as well, the middle and high bourgeoisie and officers of Budapest who before the war built holiday villas, and after the war as personae non gratae in the city they settled here. Up to the mid-90s, the introduction of the phone and the bus and the proliferation of cars the railway remained the only contact to the city and the outside world for the village.

That the railway in the past hundred years brought the city and the world not only to Csömör but to the whole country, is dramatically shown in the exhibition The golden age of railways – Rural modernization, opened on the last weekend in the Open Air Museum – the Skanzen – of Szentendre. The installation established by Zsolt Sári in the large inner space of the former granary from the northern Upland region illustrates this story with a multitude of archive photographs, documents and railway items. The exhibition also has an elegant, beautifully typographed and clearly structured bilingual (Hungarian-English) catalog, which is the source of the following images and information

The first Hungarian railroad was opened in 1846 between Pest (Buda and Pest were two cities on the two banks of the Danube until their union in 1873) and Vác, forty kilometers to the north. The celebrated poet Sándor Petőfi even dedicated a poem to it. The real railway building fever, however, arrived only with the economic boom following the transformation of the Hapsburg Monarchy into the dualistic Austro-Hungary in 1867, which gave large opportunities to the country. The Hungarian State Railways were established in 1868, and by 1873 all the cities of the country were interconnected with railroads in the length of 4100 kilometers. After the passing of the law on the building of local railways in 1880, a further 13 thousand kilometers were built by nearly two hundred private companies. On the evening of the first world war, the country was interwoven by 21200 kilometers of railroads.

The railway contributed to the spreading of middle class values right from the beginning of its building through the collaboration of foreign – mainly Austrian, Czech and German – skilled workers who passed their knowledge and tools to the great number of workers coming from all over the country. It was then that the trolley, the barrow or the horse-drawn truck spread even to the smallest villages. The trunk lines were usually funded by the state, while local stock companies were established for the building of the local railways, but these too enjoyed substantial public support.

The real tool of modernization, however, was traveling. “I want to make this lazy Hungarian move! I want even the housewife of Brassó [today Braşov, Romania] to come to buy hat in Budapest!” It was with this slogan that the minister of public transport Gábor Baross introduced in 1899 the so-called diminishing tariff system that revolutionized the rail transport in Hungary. The essence of the system, divided into 14 zones, was that on the one hand the fares between two nearby zones were very low, and on the other hand above 225 kilometers every ticket costed the same: thus it was very cheap to travel both to the nearby town and to very far. The mere introduction of the zone system increased by 7 million the hitherto 12-14 million passengers per year.

The specific groups of the passengers are separately presented in the exhibition. Due to the low local tariffs, villagers could regularly carry their products to the markets of the nearby towns. A class of commuters to the factories was born. It was then that the bicycle became popular in the villages, as the workers from the more distant places could come by them in the morning to the nearest railway station. The teams of agricultural seasonal workers also traveled from place to place on hired freight trains.

Students from the nearby villages, whose parents could have not allowed to pay for the college, could now daily go to the urban schools. Railway tourism was also in development, facilitated by the “penny trains” regularly organized by the Railways for the special programs held in various cities. The middle class, of whose way of life summer holiday was an integral part, discovered the Hungarian spas and the mountain resorts in the Tatra mountains.

And the soldiers’ trains were also on the move, which henceforth became an integral part not only of military logistics, but also of military folklore and memoirs

“…We’re going to get on the train on Friday morning between nine and ten… we are going to be garnished, our cadet is buying tricolor ribbons for the hats, and small flags will be on the gun’s barrels, yes, my dear wife, our journey is going to be beautiful, but unfortunately I’m not writing this because I’m happy for it, I only wanted you to know how garnished we will be…” (Letter by Gyula Pörs from the 83rd regiment to his wife from Vienna to Senyeháza on 2 July 1915, leaving for the Eastern front in Galitsia)

After the introduction of the diminishing tariff system, in 1891 the fares on freight items were also radically reduced. Agricultural products could access in large quantities and cheaply to the cities and abroad. It was at this time that Hungarian grain became widely known for its good quality, and a large zone of food processing industry was built at the south of Budapest, whose surviving buildings are now considered industrial monuments.

The railway also delivered industrial products all over the country, filled the little shops with the same goods, and contributed to the standardization of furnishings. A good example of this is the Thonet bentwood furnisher, founded in 1842 in Vienna which, beginning with the 1860s, established a number of factories in Hungary at the meeting of beech forests and railway stations. The railway itself was the largest customer of the Thonet furniture, and from there they spread to the middle-class and later to peasant households.

A separate chapter is – and at the exhibition it has a separate catalog indeed – that of the railway restaurants. Some typical items of their menu soon found their way to the average Hungarian kitchen where they are still considered as festive dishes: the Wiener schnitzel, meatball, scones or Zwack Unicum. And the typical checkered tablecloths of the railway restaurants can be still found in traditional peasants’ kitchens and in some last small suburban eating-houses, referred to precisely as “kockásabroszos”, that is, “those with checkered tablecloth”.

The railway stations built from the 1870s on single type designs were among the most important representation and social spaces of villages and little towns. Their stylistic elements and architectural solutions – cellars, stone and brick plinth, frontal plaster and brick decorations – quickly appeared on the wealthier houses as well. The small iron stoves of the railway waiting rooms were also taken over in rural homes. And moreover the brick outdoor furnace that one would consider such a traditional element of archaic peasant household, also appeared for the first time in the uniformly designed gardens of railway guards.

The typical station designs also included typical vegetation: linden and chestnut avenues which tolerated well the smoke of the locomotives and which can be still seen around old railway stations all over the Monarchy, as well as geraniums, dahlia and bred roses planted in wooden boxes, which soon became an indispensable visual element of Austrian and Hungarian village houses. The Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy also developed a special code, in terms of which in the Eastern part of the Monarchy the erect type geranium, while in the Western part the bent down type geranium had to be used in official window flower boxes.

The local times used before the railway and following the course of the sun were in 1891 officially replaced by a uniform Central European time zone. It is from then on that every clock shows the same time across the country. Moreover, in many places even the clock appeared for the first time on the facade of the railway station, and from there it found its way into private houses. The fixed working time that followed the clock instead of the sun also appeared at this time first in the urban and then in the rural work as well.

And the railway not only brought middle-class lifestyle and objects to the countryside, but also introduced to the city the village’s culture and folklore which at the turn of the century became one of the most important means of expression of national self-image. This is how the folk dress of certain traditional zones near to the main railway lines, first Mezőkövesd and its matyó dress and later Kalocsa became the representants and important manufactural centers of folk culture, whose home-made products also spread in the middle-class homes and clothing through the mediation of the railway.

And the railway has created a society within the society: the world of the railwaymen. To be a railwayman meant a fix salary and a life-long work, health insurance, pension and a number of other benefits, which was an unimaginably great thing at that time. To be a railwayman meant a rank and a social rise: the railwayman was a gentleman, a good party even for rich peasants’ daughters. He had a credit at the shopkeepers, and his own glass in the pub.

The railwayman’s life was based on a strict hierarchy, responsibility and discipline, which was symbolized by the uniform. The properly regulated railway uniform represented a rank and an authority just as that of a military officer.

The railway uniform in several places even had an influence on rural clothing. For example, in the town of Tura, not far from my village, it substituted for the traditional male folk dress: the lads ordered clothes at the local taylor which imitated the railway uniform.

One large wall of the exhibition is completely filled with a mosaic made of passport photographs, the portraits of several thousand railwaymen who maintained and operated this huge machinery for long decades. The documents and photos in the foreground of the mosaic present the individual life stories of some railwaymen: locksmith Géza Sárközy in 1898 was already a train apprentice, then he passed an officer’s exam in Cegléd, becoming a locomotive heater, and finally in 1900 a driver of the Hungarian Royal State Railways. János Csonth from 1888 was walking through the ladder of ranks until in 1911 he became a stationmaster in Rozsnyó (today Rožňava, Slovakia), and after the Trianon Treaty in 1920 he received a service apartment and a job in Budapest from the railway. Gyula Ébersz, son of a German immigrant from the Black Forest, who became so much Hungarian that as a railway officer in Munkács (today Mukačevo, Ukraine) in 1920 he “did not want to make an oath for the Czechs”, so he was deported with his wife and three children to the diminished Hungary in a freight train in which they also lived for more than a year. Finally he received a job at the Debrecen railway station, but as a consequence of the previous hardships he soon died in a heart attack. The railway, however, still cared about them: his wife as a “rail widow” received a rented flat in Püspökladány and a saleswoman’s job in a kiosk.

My God, take care of me on all my ways
protect and help me in my work.

The exhibition also presents in detail the associations, choirs and sport clubs of the railwaymen. In Hungary the first public football match was organized by them in the autumn of 1896: this was the beginning of the first railway sport club “Törekvés” (Ambition) whose local house of culture is still standing in my native district Kőbánya, at the corner of the railway officers’ colony, proudly bearing on its facade the more than hundred years old inscription “Törekvés”.

Nowadays railways have hard times. The branch lines are closed down not only in Hungary, but all over Europe – and of course they are similarly bewailed everywhere: we will soon present a Spanish example of that. We leave this well organized and structured exhibition with a double feeling. On the one hand it is a heart-wrenching thought that we still saw this world functioning, we traveled on many little branch lines, knew the ethos of railwaymanship, ate in the typical railway restaurants. And probably we are the last generation who saw all this. On the other hand it is comforting to see how much the railway during the hundred years of its existence fufilled its vocation, transporting not only people and goods but also culture, civilization and middle-class lifestyle. I wonder what could now play a similar civilizatory role in Hungary.

The exhibition, quite in style, can be reached by rail: on a small local railway. A narrow gauge train, built in the 1930 was recently set up in the Open Air Museum together with an authentic railway station, launched by railwayman in period uniforms, provided by period advertisements, and sometimes even carrying passengers in period costumes. This small vicinális fits quite well to the old rural houses, and in the stopped time of the Skanzen it lets you experience something from that world about which the exhibition gives news in the 19th-century granary. Get on board.

2 comentarios:

francesca dijo...

Thank you for the beautiful journey on Hungarian trains, Studiolum.

I'd like to recall here one tiny example on how the train impacted people in an Iranian (Persian, actually, then) mountain village according to Kader Abdolah's novel "My father's notebook" (Spijkerschrift). In the village, illiterate women, for a long time, used to weave beautiful rugs having patterns reproducing mysterious cuneiform writings carved in a cave above the village. Then, suddenly, in the late Thirties, when Reza Shah let build the Trans-Iranian Railroad across Saffron Mountain, the women started weaving rugs with a smoking train moving like a snake between the Persian mountains.

Studiolum dijo...

Yes, I remember that episode. Actually, this practice is quite widespread not only in Persia but in the ancient Persian cultural sphere, from Central Asia to Afghanistan: that they weave into relatively small rugs the most interesting events of the day, the pictures seen on TV or in an illustrated journal, weapons, war helicopters, portraits of politicians etc. In a Persian bazaar you can always see dozens of this kind of illustrated news along with the nobler and more traditional rugs – and usually the same persons do both. They are not mixed up, they are considered as different genres, and are made with different care: those with modern pictures are intentionally made more ephemeral. This is their BigPictures.