The Poschiavo valley lies in south east Switzerland, between the Engadine and the Valtellina in north east Italy. The highest point is 3,900 metres above sea level, and the lowest at the frontier with Italy, is 552 metres. Poschiavo is 1014 metres above sea level. The climate is characteristic of its southern alpine location, and the principal municipalities are Poschiavo and Brusio with populations of about 3500 and 1200 inhabitants respectively. Italian is the main language, and there is a local dialect, Pus-ciavín.
About 15000 years ago, a huge landslide occurred which formed the lake at Le Prese, to the south of Poschiavo. The first official reference to Postclave (Poschiavo) was found in a document of 824. It is thought that 'post clavium' – Latin for ‘beyond the key,’ could refer to the barrier formed by the lake, following the landslide. Another theory is that the key to the valley, travelling south from the Engadine, is the Bernina Pass. The emblem of Poschiavo shows crossed keys. A few artefacts from the Bronze and Iron Ages, and some Roman graves and coins have been found in the valley. Canton Graubünden, (Grigione, Grisons), was once part of a Roman province called Raetia.
In Raetia, there were feuds between church and civil authorities for centuries, which seriously damaged trade, so the leaders of the valleys formed Leagues and in 1408, Poschiavo joined one of these. The Leagues combined and eventually formed Canton Graubünden - over 200 small communities scattered within 150 distinct valleys. At this time, the valley was oriented to the north. Graubünden conquered the Valtellina in 1512, and in the late 16th and 17th centuries, reformation and counter-reformation caused severe tensions in the region. In 1542, the people of Poschiavo elected their first mayor. In 1797 Napoleon integrated Graubunden into the Cisalpine Republic but in 1803 the valley of Poschiavo joined the Swiss Confederation together with Canton Graubünden. The Valtellina is now a part of Italy.
In Poschiavo in the early 19th century, schools were established, and between 1842 and 1865, the road over the Bernina Pass was completed, connecting the valley with the rest of the canton. In 1852, the local newspaper “Il Grigione Italiano” was established, and this provides an insight into daily life in those days. The economic and cultural relations of the valley were mainly focused towards Valtellina until the beginning of the 20th century. The 19th century is also significantly marked by the emigration from the valley, for between 1856 and 1860, almost 200 young men followed their compatriots from Ticino and sailed to Australia. This trend continued during the rest of the century when some families also left for America, England and other parts of Europe.
By the end of the century, initiatives financed by external capital where commenced, which would transform the valley. The power station at Campocologno was built in 1903/4, and the Bernina Railway opened in 1910, linking the Engadine with Tirano in Italy. In 1912, two dams were built on the Bernina Pass, marking the watershed between the Danube and the Po. It was not until 1965 that the Bernina Pass was open throughout the winter.
Cars were permitted in 1926, and 1929 saw the construction of the San Sisto Hospital, Poschiavo. The two World Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 had great impact on neutral Switzerland. During the Second World War, many military and civilian refugees fled over the border from Italy. Smugglers were transporting rice, coffee and cigarettes from Switzerland to the Valtellina, supplementing the meagre income of many families, and this continued until the 1970’s. Allied bombs fell in the municipality of Brusio in 1945.
Over the centuries there have been avalanches and floods causing great damage and hardship in the valley. Serious floods were recorded in 1556, 1772, 1834 and 1987, and there were probably many others unrecorded. Memories are still fresh of the flood of 1987, when serious damage occurred in the valley, and also the Valtellina. (See website page re floods).
For photos of Poschiavo in former times, see Photo Album page.