The First Funicular Railway in Portugal’s Capital Begins Operations

April 19, 1884

The first funicular railway serving Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon made its official debut. This railway, which is best known as the Elevador do Lavra, was built to carry people up and down a steep incline called Calçada do Lavra. This section of Lisbon currently straddles the border of Santo António and Arroios, two of the city’s civil parishes (administrative subdivisions).

The railway’s two cars for transporting passengers began operations only after an engineer named Ressano Garcia had inspected the new system on behalf of the Lisbon city council and deemed it satisfactory. Approximately 3,000 people traveled on the Elevador do Lavra during the first day alone.

By this time, funicular railways – relying on cable traction for movement – had already been embraced by various other cities worldwide as a means for making travel on precipitous slopes a lot more manageable. (The origins of the term “funicular” can be traced to the Latin word “funis,” which means “rope” or “cord”.) With the inauguration of the Elevador do Lavra, Lisbon joined that ever-growing group of major cities using this means of transit.

ascensor_do_lavra_no_seu_inicio2c_noticia_da_ilustrac3a7c3a3o_universalThe person who designed the Elevador do Lavra was Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard, a Portuguese engineer of French parentage. Ponsard, who turned 35 just a little over two weeks before the Elevador do Lavra went into service, also designed two similar means of transportation elsewhere in Lisbon: the Glória Funicular, which is now likewise situated in Santo António and was inaugurated in 1885; and the Bica Funicular, which is located in the present-day civil parish of Misericórdia and was introduced in 1892.

The Elevador do Lavra — also called both the Ascensor do Lavra and Lavra Funicular – was built with both of its cars connected by an underground cable. The measured use of water was what initially enabled the cable to move one vehicle up the incline while the other vehicle made its way down at the same time.

More specifically, there were water tanks under the floor of each car. After passengers had boarded both the car at the bottom of the incline and the car at the upper station, the operator in the latter car was told how many people were in the ascending car. With that number in mind, the operator for the car at the top of the incline then filled the tank with enough water to ensure that his car was sufficiently heavier than the other one. With this imbalance in weight achieved, the car at the top then traveled towards the bottom thanks to the force of gravity as the other, now-lighter car was propelled upwards. After the cars reached their respective destinations, the process with water was repeated.

Within just a few years, this water counterweight method for moving cars along the tracks simultaneously was replaced by the more modern steam engine. That steam-powered alternative, in turn, was supplanted by electricity in 1915. The 617-foot (188-meter)-long Elevador do Lavra line remains in service today. It is owned and operated by Companhia Carris de Ferro de Lisboa (Lisbon Tramways Company). In 2002, this railway was designated a National Monument of Portugal.

For more information on the Elevador de Lavra, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elevador_do_Lavra

A video of the Elevador de Lavra in action is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TWRSaYA7M3A

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