As the very first king of the Belgians it is my pleasure to share my story with you. I have been fortunate to experience the Industrial Revolution first-hand. In Great Britain I became inspired. I kept my eye on one man in particular: George Stephenson. What a genius.
Give that man a medal
Stephenson began his career at Killingworth Pit. As a maintenance engineer he was allowed by the managers to experiment with the steam engine. In 1814 he built his first steam locomotive, which could transport 30 tons of coals at 4 miles per hour.
In 1825 he designed The Locomotion, considered to be the first serviceable locomotive. It transported no less than 80 tons of coal at 24 miles per hour. That speed was unheard of at the time!
“The eggs will arrive like omelettes”
In 1830 Belgium became independent from the Netherlands and I became king. However, the dissatisfaction of the Netherlands with this had quite an impact on our economy. They closed off the canal connections to the northern provinces and even blockaded the harbour in Antwerp. We needed to find a solution if we were to become a strong industrial country: either to dig a new canal or to develop a railway network.
Personally I favoured the latter!
Not everyone was in agreement, however. Between 1830 and 1834 there were a great number of discussions in parliament and lots of studies were carried out. Those opposing the railway claimed that there would be less employment opportunities, especially for the many coachmen and skippers. Some even thought that the eggs would arrive like omelettes and the milk like butter! A clear sign of fear of the unknown.
Anyway, in the end, the railway won. The engineers Pierre Simons and Gustave De Ridder were employed to create plans for the new railway. They even went to England to see how it was done there.
Finally, on May 5, 1835, the moment arrived. Belgium was the first country on the European continent to open a public railway and I had the honour of inaugurating it. Brussels was the first capital in the world to have a rail connection: a 22 kilometre long railway line to Mechelen.
It was quite a spectacle: throngs of spectators showed up. They sat in trees and on roofs, there wasn't any space left. You couldn't begin to describe just how excited the crowd was: it was as if they could feel that a new era was about to begin.
3 giants: La Flèche (the arrow), the Stephenson and L’Eléphant (the elephant)
That day 900 guests travelled from Brussels-Allée Verte to Mechelen. The convoy consisted of three trains, each pulled by a fabulous new steam engine: La Flèche, the Stephenson and L’Eléphant. Passengers were seated in 30 carriages, adorned with the national tricolour flag. There were simple open and covered bench wagons. But some more luxurious carriages for the important guests.
The locomotives were like mysterious monsters. They were loud and had high chimneys from which smoke poured out continuously. On an open platform with a railing stood the driver. As he was standing there proudly, he truly seemed to tame the monster.
Although the train could reach speeds of 60 km per hour it was driven more slowly in the beginning, so as to make everyone feel at ease. This despite the fact that there were positive reports of the first test drives at full speed:
“We have to point out that this new method of transport does not affect the breathing. People are not at all suffering any discomfort in the open wagons.“
My own train
Sadly, for safety reasons, I was not able to travel as a passenger myself on that historic day. However, rail had such a big impact that only six years later, I had my own luxurious carriage built.
And if you think that my royal coach was opulent you should see the carriages built for my successors! Go to Train World and see for yourself the style in which they travelled.