New England

The Cog Turns 150 | Celebrating the Mount Washington Cog Railway

A climb to the summit of Mount Washington aboard this steam-powered train is unlike any other ride in America.

By Leath Tonino

Apr 23 2019


Steam engineer Joe Eggleston at the helm of a c. 1908 coal-powered locomotive dubbed “Waumbek.”

Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Mount Washington.

Need I say more?

OK, I’ll say more.

At an elevation of 6,288 feet, it’s the apex of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range and the most prominent peak east of the Mississippi. It’s also home to some of the world’s worst weather, a place where surface winds have been clocked at 231mph and the mercury has plunged to nearly 50 below zero. An indifferent killer, infamous for dispatching novice hikers and veteran alpinists alike, the mountain has been the site of some 150 fatalities since record keeping began in 1849. Even during summer, the environment above the tree line is raw and rugged, beautiful in its wildness, wild in its beauty.

But let me say this, too: All aboard!

Steam engineer Joe Eggleston at the helm of a c. 1908 coal-powered locomotive dubbed “Waumbek.”
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Actually, what I meant to say was Cog. As in the Mount Washington Cog Railway. As in locomotives pushing vintage-style coaches brimming with camera-wielding tourists up an improbabletrack, essentially a ladder three miles long pinned to the mountain’s western flank. (The namesake cog gear grips the rungs of the ladder track, which liesbetween the two rails and, as one historian put it, “won’t let go”).That this unrelenting slope of stunted conifers and stony wastelands is awe-inspiring in the Biblical sense of “dread mixed with admiration or veneration”—that it should, seemingly, have nothing whatsoever to do with a cute little choo-choo train—is the allure and the excitement.

Without fail, casual Cog chitchat makes reference to The Little Engine That Could—or perhaps that should be The Little Engine That Still Can and Still Does. The first trip with paying riders (think billowy black dresses and trim suit coats, thin cigarettes lit behind cupped hands, a kind of Victorian panache) was August 14, 1868; after railroad construction finally reached the summit, the Cog officially opened to the public on July 3, 1869.

Though the tracks were still being built, in 1868 the railway began its first trial runs with passengers, who rode on a no-frills open platform.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of the New Hampshire Historical Society

With a nod to that very first run, I chose August 14, 2018, for my own personal introduction to a train that runs out from the distant past, crossing 29 presidencies (and counting), its daily chuffing effort interrupted by winter, the occasional world war, and not much else.

Waiting in line at the Marshfield Base Station ticket counter, inspecting a wall map bristling with thumbtacks left by visitors—Congo, Finland, Uzbekistan, Greenland, New Caledonia, New Jersey—I’m reminded that the Cog is one of the Granite State’s truly iconic attractions (120,000 passengers in 2017 alone).This, in turn, reminds me ofmy apprehension about being mechanically conveyed, without having to break a sweat or raise a blister, to Mount Washington’s summit. My Presidential Range résumé is varied, featuring knock-you-down galesand untold miles slogged—what some call “earning it.” Simply put, I’m in love with the bigness of mountains, with the way they make me feel small, and thus I tend to avoid contraptions that reduce the topography’s scale.

Then again, denying this particular topographical feature’s rich sightseeing heritage is, arguably, just another form of reductionism. “The Cog railroad was not built for mining, not built for logging—it was built for tourism,” says Peter Crane, curator at the Mount Washington Observatory, in the documentary Mount Washington Cog Railway: Climbing to the Clouds.The Cog’s founder, Sylvester Marsh, a New Hampshire farm boy who amassed a fortune inventing machinery that revolutionized the grain-drying industry, wanted to comfortably and safely share with visitors the beauty of his native landscape. Maybe there’s something to be learned by seeing this familiar-to-me place from aCog’s-eye view.

And anyway, life’s too short to pass on a party, especially a sesquicentennial. The 9 a.m. “steamer” (one of two throwback steam engines powered by coal amid a fleet of seven biodiesel engines) will be departing soon. The ascent will last about an hour. The descent will last about 45 minutes.

With the shrouded peak of Mount Washington in the background, Waumbek begins its slow climb up the second-steepest railway in the world.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

All aboard!

have no clue what the sky was doing back in 1868, so let’s imagine the conditions like so: lowscudding clouds, intermittent drizzles,the arrow-straighttrack shooting upward into gray oblivion.With the summit obscured, a mood of mystery prevails, as if the mountain might go and go and go—the lost Everest of the Northeast. I enter the coach and settle in the rear, noting handlebars built into the metal frame of each padded bench. Save for this design feature (to aid wobbly aisle wanderers) and some wood ribs that arc acrossthe ceiling (similar to an overturned boat), the coach is basically a school bus.

As tends to be the case on a school bus, we “kids” are raring to go. My fellow Coggers, around 50 in total, span a spectrum of age and preparedness. An octogenarian with bushy white muttonchops (oddly reminiscent ofSylvester Marsh’s own facial hair) is outfittedfor a squall on a trawler in the Bering Sea, whereas a smartphone-gripping adolescent wears sandals and a floral-patterned dress. Next to me, three Italian women who have donned translucent plastic ponchos appear confused by the sloppy, gloomy morning.

Asks the signorina from Milan: “How does the color come out on the mountain, not much?”

“Sorry, it’s no Mediterranean,” I say, “but believe me, this really is an awesome part of the United States.” Eager to play tour guide, I ramble on. “When Sylvester Marsh proposed to build the Cog, skeptics disparaged it as ‘the Railway to the Moon’ … and the Pilatus in Switzerland is the only mountain-climbing railroad steeper … and until recently they used this cog-and-ladder technology to yank ships through the Panama Canal locks….”

Alas, the language barrier proves to be impenetrable. Better to focus on Tommy, our brakeman, who looks the part in a dapper vest, tie, and conductor’s cap, his ponytail tucked into a neat little bun. Originally fromNew York, Tommy emigrated to the White Mountains for the skiing. He’s worked 14 seasons on the Cog (April to November) and appreciates, among other aspects of the job, the dynamic nature of, well, nature—the way that four laps in eight hours equates, typically, to 16 distinct types of weather.

“We’re going to climb about 3,600 feet,” Tommy says into his microphone. “The average grade is 25 percent, and the max grade is37.41.” He pauses for effect.“And that’s the fun part.”

The numerical Cog is not the visceral Cog—the Cog that vibrates your backside, that chatters your teeth—but the stats are nevertheless impressive. Fireman Pete will shovel a ton of coal (literally) into the engine’s firebox, and we’ll stop midclimb at a water tower to refill the tender (capacity is 700 gallons, but it takes 1,000 gallons to get up the mountain).Engineer Joey needs 150 psi of steam to keep the Cog cranking, and while maintaining that pressure might sound challenging, it’s a cinch compared with the era of wood-burning boilers: park the train, go out with an ax, gather additional fuel from the subalpine thickets. A yesteryear ascent required three or four hours and, presumably, 3,000-calorie breakfasts for all involved.

“It’s a nonsmoking coach,” Tommy says, concluding his spiel. “But if you feel the dire need, just open the window and take a hit off the engine.”

About that: A 110-year-old antique, up close the thing is less cute choo-choo than angry dragon hybridized with the Industrial Revolution. Though the engine is 10 feet behind me (remember that it pushes rather than pulls the coach), a dense black plume of exhaust tangled with silvery steam almost wholly obscures the view. Glimpses, that’s what I get. The stubby smokestack shuddering. Cinders popping out, littering the trackside. Joey, with thick mustache and oversize protective earmuffs, leaning from his stool at the controls, gesturing to Tommy with a wave: We’re ready.

Sharp and sudden, a whistle sounds—and we’re on the move.

Quite understandably, the Cog steamer is noisier than your Prius, your F-350 dragging a trailer of baying bloodhounds, your D9 Caterpillar bulldozer, whatever. The layers of grinding, groaning, grumbling, bursting, hissing, and shrieking would have been familiar in the 19th century, when tourists from Boston and Manhattan arrived at the foot of Mount Washington via steam locomotive, but in the 21st century they make a decidedly foreign music.For a while, I lose myself in the crescendos, the avant-garde symphony. Tommy’s narration, despite the microphone, comes through only in snippets.

“Hurricane of1938 … track flipped … steel twisted like a ribbon.”

“Seventy miles per … our cutoff … few weeks ago gusting 85.”

“Think I’m joking … hold on to your hats and children … tumble away.”

Some minutes pass, andwhen I next hear Tommy’s voice break into audibility he’s saying that people often ask, earnest in their confusion, why the trees are growing on an angle.Indeed. The Cog’s-eye view is disorienting, a geometric riot reminiscent of an M.C. Escher print. Birches and spruce bordering the right-of-way—a 99-foot-wide swath cut from the otherwise dense forest—jut out, reach out, tilt out. Precipitation slants, diagonals, bounces. Mist swirls, curls, unfurls. My brain struggles to make sense of a world canted, tipped on its side.

At around 4,400 feet, having knocked off Cold Spring Hill, Waumbek Tank, and Halfway House, we leave behind the dense, matted krummholz—German for crooked wood—and access the alpine zone proper. Visibility is 50 feet at best. Blocks of lichen-splotched schist, fringed with dripping brown grasses, extend into foggy murk. Man-size cairns ghost out fromthat murk, as does a backpacker on the Jewell Trail. I consider how, from his vantage, framed by the edges of a raincoat’s hood, we’re the ghosts, the surreal apparitions.

The Cog offers an aural and visual experience, certainly, but it likewise offers a vigorously somatic experience, a reminder that your body is encountering the mountain’s body. Facing forward, I notice that wise Tommy has swapped his conductor’s cap for a baseball hat, his spiffy brakeman’s uniform for a trustyyellow-brown slicker. He’s balancing with the poise of an Olympic gymnast in the open doorframe that leads to a minuscule deck extending from the coach’s snout, unperturbed by the jouncing. Something about his wide stance inspires me: It’s arrived the time … tostand. Dozens of foot and leg muscles twitch madly to keep me steady as I labor—and labor is undoubtedly the correct term—up the aisle, toward him. Handlebars, thank you.

In the front row: Dang, it’s really spitting! An elderly couple—golf windbreakers, khakis, hair helmetlike with dampness—huddle together. I ask Tommy if his passengers gripe about the unpredictable and, let’s just say it outright, profoundly crappy conditions on Mount Washington. If, in other words, they assume this to be an amusement park ride as opposed to a journey into uncontrolled and uncontrollable elements. “Some folks whine,” he says. “But on the whole, most are in it for the adventure.”

The elderly couple, whose collective lapI nearly fall into as I turn back to my seat, are smiling. Huddling and smiling. At once.

Ultimately, what emerges from a trip on theCog is the same thing that emerges from the physical act of hiking Mount Washington.Yes, the train gives us history: the illustrious (President Grant and his family rode to the summit), the progressive (Ellen Crawford Teague became the world’s first female railway president in 1967), the violent (eight were killed when an engine derailed and a coach slid into a rock). This little engine has been going strong for 150 years, which is impressive—but 150 years in the lifespan of geology, of upthrust earth? If the Cog’s-eye view gives us anything, it gives us the bigness of mountains I have always so valued. By celebrating the Cog’slongevity, we are actually celebrating landscape, the incontrovertible and unyielding backdrop against which all human time spans are measured, sesquicentennials included.

Interrupting these ruminations, the whistle that initially set us in motion sounds again. Now the tone is elongated, varying in pitch and volume over 20 seconds. It’s almost animate, I think, an animal bellowing in joyous pain, in agonized triumph: I’m hurting! I’m going to make it! Grrrrrr! A similar cryhas issued from my own hoarse throat during the final heaving, heart-exploding minutes of a summit push. Regardless of your constitution—whether you’re made of flesh and blood or steel and steam—climbing Mount Washington demands serious grit.

We pull in at the tip-top, and the track—ends. Nowhere else to go except, as the skeptics meanly quipped, the moon. My fellow Coggers file out, Tommy and Joey and Pete helping them from the coach, pointing them toward the Sherman Adams Visitor Center, 100 paces away. I’m the last to exit, and when I do, the cold wind is enlivening. I mill around in the rain for a while, unwilling to trade the intensity of the place for a gift shop and snack bar.

An hour later, on the descent, the clouds part, and the Presidential Range glistens, simultaneously newborn and ancient. The view is, as it has been and will forever be, huger than huge.

Need I say more?