Location: Bretton Woods, New Hampshire
General Description: In response to the growing tourist demand to ascend Mount Washington to either stay in the hotel at the summit, to hike the trails, or to simply appreciate the view when the weather permitted, enticed Sylvester Marsh of Littleton, to invent and built the first mountain-climbing cog railway from the base camp to the summit. Marsh made his fortune in the meat-packing industry in Chicago, so when he first brought his plans to the New Hampshire Legislature he was laughed at and told he “might as well build a railroad to the moon.” Undaunted he began construction along with inventors Herrick and Walter Aiken and on July 3 1869, ‘Old Peppersass’ became the first cog-driven train to climb 6,288-foot Mount Washington. 140 years later, the Mount Washington Cog Railway is a National Engineering Landmark and part of American heritage, still carrying passengers up to the summit of Mount Washington. With grades averaging 25% percent and a maximum grade of 37.41% on Jacob’s ladder, it is the second steepest railway in the world. The original steam engines burned wood until coal was introduced in 1910 and the oldest operational steam engine in the operation was built in 1875. These steam engines have a distinctive look with the boiler tilted at a 25% angle to match the slope so the boiler is level for most of the trip. Today, most of the operation uses bio-diesel engines since 2008 that were designed and constructed on-site, in workshops near Marshfield Station. Each engine pushes a single passenger car up to the summit and provides most of the braking on the way down with additional brakes in the passenger car, which is not physically connected to the engine in case something goes wrong. This keeps the engine from dragging the passenger car with it down the mountain. They continue to build new diesel engines, as well as, the cogs, passenger cars, and railroad ties on-site to maintain the railway. The operation of the train is similar to a bicycle, except the chain is a long steel cog that is located between the two rails. The engine and passenger cars have “sprockets” that engage the cog to push the engine up the mountain, or slow the descent back down the mountain. The wheels are free to roll on the tracks as the propulsion is supplied by the sprockets and cogs.
1) Although the price of a ticket is steep ($68 apiece) the experience of riding this railway up to the summit should not be missed. There is a road that you can drive yourself up the other side of the mountain (for a fee) to the summit, but I would not recommend it for the faint of heart!! This is especially true since the weather at the summit is known to be the worst in the US. The day we were there we were in the clouds with 40 degree weather and 50+ mph winds. Visibility was about 10 feet with a murderous wind. I would not have wanted to drive in it.
2) Guides provide a running commentary the entire trip, which takes about an hour both ways, giving useful information about the history of the railway, plants and animals that you might see, and the changes in the climate zones as you travel from a mixed northern hardwood forest, through a spruce-fir forest, to a dwarf spruce forest and finally above the tree line as you approach the summit. Unfortunately, visibility dropped to near zero as we entered the clouds just over half way up the mountain, so we could not see the great vistas and sheer drops.
3) You only have about an hour at the summit, which is sufficient time ever when the weather is good. I understand that the vistas are tremendous, but they occur only about 10 days a year and we were not that lucky.
4) At the base camp they have a nice small museum about the history and technology of the cog railway with exhibits, videos, and artifacts. I especially liked seeing the “demon shingle” which was a board that the workers on the railway could ride down the rails at the end of the day rather than waiting on a train. This was nothing more than a thin board with a wooden seat and two rudimentary handles to operate friction brakes. The record time for descent was 2 minutes 45 seconds which meant they were moving at over 60 miles per hour!! That would be some thrill ride.