Aware of the scenic location of Mt. Rigi, and driven by his pioneering spirit, Swiss engineer Niklaus Riggenbach masterminded the construction of the Vitznau-Rigi Railway in the mid-19th century. In his own words: "I want to take everyone up into the mountains, so they can all enjoy the beauty of our glorious country". Riggenbach's invention, which would guide trains across steep climbs by means of cogwheels and toothed racks, was patented in France in 1863.
Jointly with fellow engineers Olivier Zschokke and Adolf Naef, he submitted an application to the canton of Lucerne for permission to build the Vitznau-Rigi Railway. When it became known that a similar railway was already in operation in the United States, the Council of Lucerne granted the concession on 9 June 1869. The initiators committee founded a limited liability company and offered 1250 shares, which were already greatly over-subscribed on the first day of issue.
The construction of the railway began in mid-September 1869. On Riggenbachs's birthday on 21 May 1870, locomotive No. 1, called the "Stadt Luzern" made its first 300-metre trial run. Finally, on 21 May 1871, the first mountain railway in Europe was officially opened. Riggenbach himself drove the festive train to the heights of Mt. Rigi, as far as the terminus station Rigi Staffelhöhe (cantonal boundary between Lucerne and Schwyz). The rail installation, buildings and rolling stock cost CHF 1'250 million.
It had been anticipated that 50'000 passengers would use the Vitznau-Rigi Railway annually. But during the first year of operation the figure totalled more than 60'000, and in 1874 the 100'000 mark was passed for the first time. With the opening of the Arth-Rigi Railway in 1875 these figures declined for a few years, but by 1886 they had again increased to 102'021. The highest number was reached in the centenary year of 1971, with 578'070 passengers.