220 years ago: The inferno of Château-d'Oex

Mon, 14. Sep. 2020
Château-d’Oex before the fire: remarkable are the many chalets covered with shingles, the pointed church roof in the Bernese style and the defence tower on the east side of the village.

In the night of 27th to 28th July 1800, in the middle of a period of heat and political turmoil, the village centre of Château-d’Oex was almost completely wiped out by a devastating inferno.

It is an exceptionally hot summer in that terrible year 1800, there has been no rain for weeks, everything is dry and arid. The authorities of Château-d’Oex are nervous and full of concern. They are well aware of the impending danger, as the village has already burned down in 1664 and 1741.

In addition, villages and small towns in the wider region have already gone up in flames. All it takes is a little carelessness, a servant who clumsily drops his candle into the straw, a maid who is careless when lighting the fireplace, the spark of an exuberant blacksmith, and everything burns brightly!

All possible precautions have been taken: the volunteer fire brigade conducts regular drills and has five hand water pumps for emergencies. A new well has been put into operation near the village square. The candles must be carried around in closed lanterns. Farmers are not allowed to enter the stable with the pipe in their mouth. Each household keeps a ladder and a water bucket ready for emergencies. But, unfortunately, everything should be in vain.

Ominously red sky
In the night from 27 to 28 July, at 1.30am, for unknown reasons a fire breaks out in a boutique in the middle of the village centre. The fire spreads rapidly from one shingle roof to another, first around the village square and then along the village street.

Despite the rapid use of hand pumps and water from the new village well, the fire cannot be brought under control by the fire brigades of Château-d’Oex and Rossinière. Even the beautiful, Bernese-style pointed roof of the church spire catches fire and collapses under a great roar and an enormous cloud of sparks.

People are desperately trying to save what can be saved. They try to protect isolated buildings with wet cloths, hedges and wooden fences are hastily chopped down to contain the fury of the fire.

That night, people from Nyon on Lake Geneva all the way to Neuchâtel observe the ominously red sky over the Fribourg Prealps.

God’s punishment
The extent of the disaster is shocking: 42 houses, 18 barns and stables, four granaries and 27 shops full of goods are reduced to rubble and ashes. The church is heavily damaged. 52 families lose all their belongings. As if by a miracle, “only” the old shoemaker is killed in the attempt to return to his burning house.

Fortunately, the cattle is on the Alps for summering and does not come to harm. The few animals that are on site can be saved. This fact is partly responsible for the economic survival of the families after the disaster. The situation is much more difficult for most business owners, who have literally lost everything.

On the Sunday after the fire, the priest Philippe-Sirice Bridel celebrates a service in the village square surrounded by smoking ruins. He uses an improvised stone pile as a pulpit and preaches that this is God’s punishment for the bad way of life of the congregation. He laments deeply the loss of 36 family bibles...

Big wave of solidarity
Just three buildings in the village have survived the inferno, including the new parsonage with the parish priest’s papers and archives. Its large cellar now serves as a storage room for the relief supplies and food transported from the surrounding farms.

The disaster also triggered a great wave of solidarity among the neighbours. Since the four bakeries, including the grain and flour, have also been burned, the bread is now baked in Rougemont. The municipality of Saanen is also donating 500 kilograms of bread. From Saanen, Gruyères, Bulle, Vevey and Lausanne, wagons full of clothes and linen are rolling into the Pays-d’Enhaut, sorted by the women and distributed among the families in need.

A pugnacious priest
The belligerent reformed priest Philippe-Sirice Bridel – who, unlike his rival Jean-Gabriel Henchoz in Rossinière, makes no secret of his loyalty to Bern and the old regime – energetically organises the reconstruction of the village. The priest, who has influential connections throughout Switzerland, is charged by the parish with organising a collection for the reconstruction.

Bridel has one condition: the village must be rebuilt with stones and tiles instead of wood and shingle roofs. This is difficult for the villagers to accept because such a construction method is expensive and they are used to working with wood. But the priest is persistent in his efforts and prevails.

On a tour that takes him via Neuchâtel to Basel, he collects over CHF 5000, an enormous sum for this period. The government of the new Helvetic Republic also helps by issuing tenders for bills of exchange in the provinces of Fribourg, Oberland and Léman in favour of the severely affected mountain village.

Like a phoenix from the ashes
In order to rebuild the village and the large Hôtel de Ville, bricklayers from Italy have to be hired, because nobody in the region knows the craft. The stones are brought in from a local quarry and sand transported from the Saane. The reconstruction takes just two years. The church can already be consecrated in December 1802.

The catastrophic fire means a new beginning for Château-d’Oex, similar to the fire in Gstaad almost 100 years later. Due to the increase in the number of English holidaymakers, the first guesthouses and hotels open soon afterwards. Within a short space of time the village develops like a phoenix from the ashes into an internationally renowned health resort.





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Issue 6 | 2021

Wait, can this be the last editorial of this summer? Must be because of the relativity thing. Relativity of time – a wonderful concept to toy around with. Not as a theoretical physicist, way too complicated. No, I mean as a layman.