1902 Encyclopedia > Lake of Lucerne

Lake of Lucerne

LAKE OF LUCERNE, the name given by foreigners to the Vierwaldstattersee, or lake of the four forest cantons of Switzerland. Only a small portion of its shores lie within the canton of Lucerne, but the name has been taken from the most considerable town which it approaches. Lying on the north-west side of the Alps of central Switzerland, this lake has extraordinary interest for the physical geographer, for the lover of natural scenery, and for all who feel sympathy with the story of Swiss independence. Like most of the other Alpine lakes, it lies altogether among the Voralpen, or outer ranges of the Alps, but is remarkable for the extreme) irregularity of its form, which suggests problems of much difficulty to the orographer. The great majority of the Alpine lakes occupy depressions or excava-tions in a single line of valley; and, so far as their form is concerned, the facts appear to be equally reconcilable with the views of those geologists who believe the lake basins to have been hollowed out by great glaciers as with those

Plan of Lake of Lucerne.

which refer their origin to disturbances of relative level, and restrict the action of the ancient glaciers to a secondary part in the result. The Lake of Lucerne, however, appears to occupy portions of four different valleys, orographically distinct, andconnectedonlyby narrow and tortuous channels. Commencing at its eastern extremity, we have the portion called the Bay of Uri, which at its southern end receives the considerable stream of the Reuss, bearing down the drainage of the Alps adjoining the pass of St Gotthard. This extends from south to north about 8 miles, with an average breadth of less than 2 miles, enclosed between steep limestone mountains rising from 4000 to 5000 feet above its surface. At the north end of the Bay of Uri a low tract, only a few'miles in width, divides the shore of the lake from the little Lake of Lowerz, and another similar tract divides the latter from the Lake of Zug, so that it seems natural to conclude that if the Bay of Uri had been excavated by ice action it would have retained its original direction and carried the waters of the Reuss to the Lake of Zug. In point of fact the channel of the lake is bent abruptly westward round the promontory of Treib, and extends in the same direction nearly 10 miles, with the local designation of Buochsersee. But this channel is closed at its western end by a low neck of land, and the passage for navigation is through a narrow strait, less than half a mile wide, which connects the Buochsersee, lying south of the Burgenstein and the Vitznauerstock, with a third basin occupying the bottom of the valley which lies north of those ridges. Proceeding westward along this latter portion of the lake, we find two deep bays, several miles in length, opening on either hand, while a third extends somewhat north of west to the town of Lucerne. The bay on the left hand, opening towards the south-west, is called the Alpnachersee, while that on the opposite or north-east side is the Bay of Kiissnacht. At the central point where these meet it is seen that they lie in a continuous line of valley extending from the Briinig Pass to the Lake of Zug, as the Bay of Kiissnacht is separated from the latter only by a low isthmus. Those who refuse to regard glaciers as the chief agents in the excavation of lake basins ask how it can be supposed that a glacier from the valley of the Reuss could have accomplished the hollowing out of the middle portions of the lake, and further inquire whether the glacier from the valley of Sarnen, which is supposed to have excavated the bays of Alpnach and Kiissnacht, should not have also cleared away the isthmus between the latter and the Lake of Zug, leading the drainage of the lake in that direction. The question as to the true origin of lake basins in the Alps cannot be satisfactorily discussed until their forms have been determined by numerous and accurate soundings, and this has as yet been done for the Lake of Como alone. The greatest depth hitherto measured in the Lake of Lucerne is 1040 feet, but no connected series of soundings appear to have as yet been made. The mean height of the surface above the sea-level is 1437 feet, or 68 feet higher than the Lake of Zug.

The irregularity of its form is the chief cause of the unequalled variety which characterizes the scenery of the Lake of Lucerne, but the geological structure of the moun-tains that enclose it much enhances the effect. Its eastern portion lies amid the Secondary limestone rocks which are everywhere in the Alps marked by sharp peaks and ridges and precipitous crags; the middle part is enclosed by great masses of Tertiary conglomerate, called in Switzerland Nagelfluhe, which constitutes such mountains as the Righi and the Biirgenijtein, showing steep faces with gently sloping summits; while the western extremity is surrounded by swelling hills richly planted and dotted with bright looking hamlets or solitary farm-houses. The forests which once covered the greater part of this region, and give the local designation to the four original cantons of Switzerland, have been extensively thinned, but enough yet remain to add another element to the charms of the scenery. Vine-yards with their formal rows of stakes are scarcely seen on the shores of the lake, but orchards surround most of the houses, and the walnut grows to great perfection. Lucerne is the only town on the lake. Altdorf, the chief town of Uri, stands nearly 2 miles from the head of the Bay of Uri, and Schwyz, capital of the canton of that name, is more than 3 miles from the shore; but since the introduction of steam navigation several of the villages on its coast have largely increased in population.

Modern scepticism has thrown doubt upon many of the details in the popular history of the origin of Swiss independence ; but it is certain that the shores of this lake nurtured the men who commenced the heroic efforts that secured freedom for their country. Here, at the beginning of the 14th century, in an age when nearly all Europe was in the hands of feudal oppressors, a handful of mountaineers drove out the local tyrants and levelled their strongholds, and a few years later, on the fields of Morgarten and Sempach, confronted and put to flight the chivalry of Austria. The man who can visit unmoved the Griitli, the spot, overlooking the Bay of Uri, consecrated by popular tradition as the scene of the first meeting of the confederates on the night of the 7th October 1307, must be devoid of all sense of the sublime in natural scenery and of the heroic in human action. (J. B.)

The above article was written by John Ball, M.A., F.R.S., author of Alpine Guide.

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