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A Yankee Notebook

May 25, 2015


MOUNT WASHINGTON COG RAILWAY – There’s always an air of slightly anxious anticipation among the crowds of people waiting to board the passenger cars of the Cog Railway. It’s most noticeable among those who haven’t been up the mountain before. They gaze upward along the impossibly steep track, which some days disappears into hanging clouds, and ask nervous questions about past calamities on the mountain. The lady with me – Mother, of course – looked up along the line and noted that about a hundred yards up, the tracks took a little jog to the left. “Isn’t that dangerous?” she asked.

“Not at the speed we’ll be going,” I assured her. “It’s about like a fast walk. In September of 1955 I raced the train down the mountain and back up to win ten bucks.”

Some other prospective riders, with a slightly more technical interest, perhaps, stepped over next to the tracks and inspected the cog rail. The two outside travel rails aren’t very heavy – not at all like mainline steel – and the central cog rail is surprisingly small, considering the loads and anxieties it bears up and down the steep side of the mountain. It looks like nothing else as much as a four-inch wide steel ladder with round rungs about two inches apart. You can google it to see a photo of the whole mechanism. The underside of the locomotive has a pair of cogged wheels, front and back, that engage the ladder rungs and pull the whole load upward and, on the return trip, let it slowly down the mountain.

Mother and I were there, along with a couple hundred faithful public television viewers, to ride to the summit and later in the day catch a preview of a brand-new documentary film about the Cog Railway. The Railway has a long and fascinating history, so naturally that’s both a part of the film and part of the technology still being used today.

It started with a New Hampshire farm boy, Sylvester Marsh, who went west to seek his fortune (in his case, to Chicago, where he became a grain merchant). An inventive and active sort, Marsh patented an improved grain-drying machine that secured his fortune. He retired at only 52 and returned to New Hampshire just after the Civil War. But sitting around disagreed with what was obviously a Type A personality; he developed a bad case of chronic heartburn, in those days called dyspepsia.

He started walking vigorously (naturally) to settle his stomach, and one day took a hike up Mount Washington with a friend. As many hikers have been, they were caught by a fierce, swift change in the weather. But they struggled upward and found refuge for the night on the summit in the old Tip-Top House. The story goes that then and there Marsh determined to build a railroad up the mountain to make it accessible to others. The idea probably germinated a little longer than that, but it doesn’t matter. Railroads were on everybody’s mind in those days. They had helped the North win the Civil War, and at that moment were reaching toward the Pacific and the driving of the Golden Spike in 1869. In the heat of the Industrial Revolution, anything seemed possible.

Still, Marsh had to petition the New Hampshire Legislature for a charter – a proposal that wags called Sylvester Marsh’s Railroad to the Moon, which seemed no less impossible. There were no environmental reviews, as there would be today (and which the steam engines, burning a ton of coal for each ascent of the mountain, would surely flunk). Marsh got a five-year charter, surveyed the route, and started chopping and trestling his way toward the top. The crew built a strange steam work locomotive that’s still on display at the base station. It had a radically inclined boiler which on the steep grades of the climb became horizontal.

The triumphs and failures of that herculean effort were legendary. When it became obvious that Marsh and his crew wouldn’t get to the summit before the charter ran out, a railroad company moved in, shunted Marsh to a siding, and completed the track in time. They made the first commercial run to the top on July 3, 1869, six years to the day after Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. Two months later, President Grant rode to the top to take in the magnificent scenery.

And it is magnificent. The track hugs the mountain on the right going up, but on the left yawns a huge glacial valley, newly lined with avalanche scars from Hurricane Irene. If you’re in a window seat on that side, it’s hard not to imagine the result of your car tumbling off the tracks. The brakeman/conductor stands at the front of the car, in some places about forty feet higher than the lower end, chattering cheerfully into a microphone.

This was Mother’s first trip up Mount Washington. She didn’t get quite the view President Grant got; the upper thousand feet or so of the mountain were cloaked in clouds. Getting off the train at the end of the track, she could barely descry the loom of the Sherman Adams Building through the gray gloom. Some of the party braved the wind and disorientation and climbed to the peak of the mountain to take selfies with the summit sign. Others sipped coffee and chatted with the obvious hikers – most of them Canadian; it was Victoria Day holiday – taking a break from hiking in the fog.

We climbed aboard a car for the ride back down behind one of the new biodiesels, built, like everything else on the railway, in the shop at the foot of the mountain. It’s an amazing little railroad that for almost 150 years has been the little engine that could. We’ll be back – on a clear day.

Photo by Willem lange