The Mount Washington Cog Railway has been chugging up the Northeast’s highest peak since 1866.
By Bill Vossler
Want to stand where a record wind speed “” 231 mph “” was recorded in 1934? Want to view breathtaking vistas? Then hitch a ride on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Cog Railway, one of the world’s steepest railroad tracks.
In the spring of 1858 New Hampshire legislators thought Sylvester Marsh’s request to build a cog railway to the top of 6,288-foot Mount Washington, the state’s highest peak, was a joke. “Let him build a railway to the moon!” one legislator taunted. Marsh later said he was taken aback by a “universal burst of laughter.” Because he was not asking for government funds, however, “Crazy Marsh” was granted a five-year charter to “fool away his own money.”
Marsh’s drive to build the cog railway stemmed from a hike he had made up the mountain the previous August. The day had dawned dry and clear as he and pastor Augustus Thompson set out toward the summit’s Tip Top House hotel, where winds blew 100 to 150 miles per hour at least twice a month, with higher gusts possible, and temperatures routinely plummeted 30 degrees in minutes.
At the tree line halfway up, the pair passed a rock cairn with a sign: “Lizzie Bourne, daughter of Judge Bourne of Kennebunk, Maine, perished here Sept. 14, 1855. Aged 23 years.” Then a storm slammed into them. In the book Sylvester Marsh and the Cog Railway, Dick Joslin writes that they were struck by “a terrific storm “” hurricane-force winds, freezing rain, and premature darkness …. Staggering, sometimes crawling, they lost their way.” The men would have perished, except by sheer accident they stumbled upon the Tip Top House hotel, exhausted and half-frozen.
That night Sylvester Marsh lay awake, determined to figure “some easier and safer method of ascension” to the top. After hours of tossing and turning, he decided on a railroad, an undertaking never before attempted on such a steep slope.
Mount Washington already was a popular tourist spot. The Tip Top House was the second hotel built upon it, and access by railroad, if possible, would surely turn out to be a good enterprise.
Because of Marsh’s vision, visitors today can step aboard a purple railroad passenger car amidst the scent of pungent coal smoke, hear the chuff of an 1890s-era steam locomotive, and feel the powerful thrust from behind propel the car seemingly “towards the moon,” 3,625 feet up from the base station on three miles of track with an average grade of 25 percent. At Jacob’s Ladder, the 37.41-degree grade makes it the most dangerous trestle in the world. At this point passengers in front are 14 feet higher than those in the rear. Standing is impossible without a good grip.
But the eye-popping trip is not the least bit dangerous, all because of Sylvester Marsh’s cog system. While passengers feast on “the most beautiful scenery in New England,” as a brochure says, the steady steam engine noses the passenger car up the track. Little has changed since Marsh envisioned the trip 150 years ago.
Marsh knew it wouldn’t be easy. Steam railroads were in their infancy, and he knew nothing about them. A rail line had never been built to the top of a mountain, because at any substantial grade, such as Mount Washington’s rise of 1,320 feet per mile, the smooth wheels of a locomotive would simply spin on the tracks.
But Marsh was no stranger to overcoming adversity. At age 20 he walked 117 miles to Boston to seek his fortune. In 1833 he knew nothing about meatpacking, but by 1850 a Chicago newspaper noted, ” … for the business of packing [Marsh’s steam-operated plant] is perhaps the best house in the city.” His wife died after only six years of marriage, leaving him to raise two small children alone. When shipped corn went bad, he figured out how to dry it to prevent spoilage, a feat that was lauded as “one of the most important discoveries of the age,” according to the Chicago Press and Tribune.
For a year after his nearly disastrous climb, Marsh planned mountain-climbing scenarios. “By trial and error,” Joslin wrote, “he developed variations of cog locomotive and track systems, working them out in model form.” Cog railways were not new “” they were often used in coal mines “” but Marsh developed a suitable mountain system: a central cogwheel beneath the locomotive that engaged a toothed middle rail.
Then Marsh invented an air brake, which may have been the first time compressed air was used to slow a locomotive. Today as passengers take the trip upward, Marsh’s air brake holds the train on a 25-degree slant while the brakeman sets a hand switch on the rails, and then the assemblage rumbles onto a side track where it takes on 400 gallons of water. While this occurs, another train passes by on its downward journey.
Minutes later, the upward trip resumes. The scenery changes dramatically. Lush, green, tall firs give way to wind-bent trees, thin patches of bare rock, low bushes, lichen-covered rocks, and then snow. The bleakness is tempered by stunning views of the countryside.
A fellow in front of us on the train grimaced and said, “Already it feels as if it is derailed.” But we were feeling only the jostle of each cog.
For three years after Marsh received permission to build the railroad, pressing business prevented him from working on it. This included a lawsuit to determine legal title to 1,000 feet of Chicago River footage near his business in Illinois. Marsh hired attorney Abraham Lincoln, who in 1860 won the case. It would be Lincoln’s last court trial before he was nominated for president a month later.
During the Civil War, no one except Marsh was thinking about a railway up the mountain. He planned it carefully. Travelers would need good roads to the mountain, so he bought 17,000 acres and laid out a six-mile access road from the public turnpike to the new cog railway base station.
Next he mapped a rail route to the top of the mountain. Passengers would need a place to stay overnight, so he purchased White Mountain House Inn, located on the west side of Mount Washington. He envisioned passengers taking railroad cars in New York City, checking their baggage at the Tip Top House, and with only one change of trains, seeing the sun rise in Gotham one day and from the top of Mount Washington the next.
That could happen only if the Boston, Concord & Montreal (BC&M) railway added track from the end of its line to Marsh’s access road. Marsh wrote a letter to BC&M president John E. Lyon, trying to convince him to do this. Lyon later said he thought the letter “was from some crazy man.”
To advertise his project, Marsh published an article in Scientific American magazine, in which he touted his vertical steam boiler and air brakes, attempting to gain backers. Some people were intrigued, but not enough to invest their money.
That is, not until Marsh showed them the working model he’d built. He loaded a miniature railway car with 50 pounds, fired up his 17-pound model steam cog locomotive, which easily pushed the car to the top of 20 feet of track at a 33 percent grade. He also displayed the “atmospheric brakes” that allowed the locomotive and car to move up and down together safely, or if needed, down separately.
Suddenly, people became believers. Holmes Hinkley, builder of BC&M’s steam locomotives, said he believed the cog railway would work. Josiah Quincy, founder of BC&M, agreed. Nathaniel White of Cheney Express Co. (now American Express), and Henry Keyes, president of the Central Pacific Railroad, endorsed it. Two individuals remained to be convinced: John Lyon and Joseph Dodge of BC&M. They said that they’d extend their railroad line to Marsh’s if he could prove that his invention worked.
On August 29, 1866, dozens of railroad executives, engineers, and reporters climbed aboard a railroad flatcar and were pushed by a steam locomotive named Peppersass (the engine’s vertical boiler looked like a pepper sauce jar) up and down a 660-foot section of 32-degree slant track on Mount Washington. After two hours of travel up and down, it was obvious the test was a success. Now Marsh had his backers.
On July 3, 1869, the track was completed to the top. Two months later, the venture’s success was assured when President Ulysses S. Grant rode the cog railway. Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper reported, “The president passed some minutes in examination of the locomotive … and was particularly struck with the simplicity and safety of the air brake.” That summer more than 5,000 passengers rode safely on the cog railway to the top of chilly, inhospitable Mount Washington. The “railroad to the clouds” was an unqualified success, and no one ever laughed at “Crazy Marsh” again.
Thus, 135 years later, visitors can safely step out on the top of Mount Washington at the very spot where the wind once blew at 231 mph, see vistas stretching miles away, and later reboard the railway for a safe trip back to the bottom.
Hurricane-force winds still sweep across Mount Washington, chiefly during winter. Such weather is found elsewhere only on top of Arctic and Antarctic peaks, and the ancient ice at the top of the mountain has not melted since the last glacial age, so visitors should make sure they bring jackets even in summer. The temperature at the peak averages 53 degrees in summer, and can feel colder with the windchill.
This first-ever mountain cog railway still boasts some of the steepest tracks in existence. The journey takes three hours, round trip, at 4 miles per hour, including time to visit the gift shop and museum at the top. During each excursion the steam locomotive consumes a ton of coal and 1,000 gallons of water. The passenger car and locomotive are never coupled together, as the locomotive pushes the car through a bumper, which allows independent braking of the passenger car.
When you visit, you’ll be impressed by Marsh’s efforts.
Mount Washington Cog Railway
Bretton Woods, NH 03589
(603) 278-5404 in New Hampshire
The cog ride takes approximately three hours round-trip, including a 20-minute stop at the summit. A camera and extra jacket are recommended. The trains are fired by coal, so dress accordingly.
It is strongly recommended that tickets be purchased in advance. Reservations can be made online or by calling the railway. The train schedule begins in earnest after Memorial Day weekend, with trains departing on the hour.
The fare is $49 for adults, $45 for seniors (age 65 and older), $35 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for children under 6 who sit on an adult’s lap. The railway’s ticket office, restaurant, gift shop, and museum are now located inside its new Marshfield building.=
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Twin Mountain, NH 03595
Beech Hill Campground & Cabins
P.O. Box 129
Twin Mountain, NH 03595
Crawford Notch General Store & Campground
Harts Location, NH 03812
Living Water Campground
100 Route 302 E.
Twin Mountain, NH 03595
Twin Mountain KOA
372 Route 115
Twin Mountain, NH, 03595
(800) 562-9117 Reservations
Twin Mountain Motor Court & RV Park
P.O. Box 104
Twin Mountain, NH 03595