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The Mount Washington Cog Railway 6/22/2015

by Chris Guenzler

Robin and I left the Parker's Motel and headed back down to McDonald's in Lincoln for a hot cakes and sausage breakfast then took Interstate 93 to US 3, where at the junction to US 302 in Twin Mountain, we stopped for some pictures.

Mt Washington Cog Railroad 8 "Moosilauke" built by Manchester Locomotive Works in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1883 for the Mount Washington Cog Railway but instead, sold it to the Mountain Cog Railway as their 1 on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. In 1895, it was sold to the Mount Washington Cog Railway and re-numbered 4. In 1934, it was renamed "Summit" and then "Chocorua" in 1996/97. In 2008, 4 was fitted with the cab and tender, re-numbered 8 and renamed "Moosilauke". In 2013, it was moved to its current location on display with Coach 5.

From here we took the road up to the Base Station of the Mount Washington Cog Railroad.

The Mount Washington Cog Railway History

The Mount Washington Cog Railway is the world's first mountain-climbing cog railway (rack-and-pinion railway). The railway is still in operation, climbing Mount Washington. It uses a Marsh rack system and one or two steam locomotives and five biodiesel powered locomotives to carry tourists to the top of the mountain. Its track is built to 4 foot 8 inch gauge, which is technically a narrow gauge, as it is a half and inch less than 4 foot 8 1/2 inch standard gauge.

It is the second steepest rack railway in the world after the Pilatus railway, with an average grade of over 25 percent and a maximum grade of 37.41 percent. The railway is approximately three miles long and ascends Mount Washington's western slope beginning at an elevation of approximately 2,700 feet above sea level and ending just short of the mountain's summit peak of 6,288 feet. The train ascends the mountain at 2.8 miles per hour and descends at 4.6 mph. It takes approximately 65 minutes to ascend and 40 minutes to descend although the diesel can go up in as little as 37 minutes.

Most of the Mount Washington Cog Railway is in Thompson and Meserve's Purchase, with the part of the railway nearest to Mt. Washington's summit being in Sargent's Purchase.

History Track to the summit in 1893

The railway was built by Sylvester Marsh, who had grown up in Campton. Marsh came up with the idea while climbing the mountain in 1852. His plan was treated as insane. Local tradition says the state legislature voted permission based on a consensus that harm resulting from operating it was no issue - since the design was attempting the impossible - but benefits were guaranteed: the $5,000 of his own money he put up, and whatever else he could raise, would be spent largely locally, including building the Fabyan House hotel at nearby Fabyan Station to accommodate the expected tourists. The railway is sometimes called "Railway to the Moon" because one state legislator remarked during the proceedings that Marsh should not only be given a charter up Mount Washington but also to the moon.

Marsh obtained a charter for the road on June 25, 1858 but the American Civil War prevented any action until May 1866. After developing a prototype locomotive and a short demonstration section of track, he found investors and started construction.

Despite the railroad's incomplete state, the first paying customers started riding on August 14, 1868; the construction reached the summit in July 1869. The early locomotives all had vertical boilers like many stationary steam engines of the time; the boilers were mounted on trunnions allowing them to be held vertically no matter what the gradient of the track. Later designs introduced horizontal boilers, slanted so they remain close to horizontal on the steeply- graded track.

Sylvester Marsh died in 1884 and control of the Cog passed to the Concord & Montreal Railroad, which ran it until 1889 when the Boston & Maine Railroad took over.

Control by the Teagues began in 1931 when Colonel Henry N. Teague bought the Cog. In 1951 following the Colonel's, Arthur S. Teague, the Colonel's protege but no relation, became general manager. Arthur S. Teague gained ownership in 1961. After he died in 1967, the ownership passed to his wife, Ellen Crawford Teague, who ran the Cog as the world's first woman president of a railway. In 1983 Mrs. Teague sold the railway to a group of New Hampshire businessmen. Since 1986 the cog railway has been controlled and owned by Wayne Presby and Joel Bedor of Littleton. The Bedor and Presby families also owned the Mount Washington Hotel and Resort in Bretton Woods for the period 1991-2006. Since 1995 the railway has been managed by Charles Kenison. These individuals have been responsible for a complete revitalization of the railroad. The Cog has been in continuous operation since 1869 with service interruptions only during the World Wars.

In summer 2008, the Cog introduced its first diesel locomotive. The Great Recession and the 2000s energy crisis led to fewer passengers and the Cog sought to cut costs with the diesel, which could make three round trips for the cost of one steam train round trip. In 2012 the railroad had the highest passenger count in its history.

Since the early days of the railway's construction the workers wanted to minimize time when climbing and descending the ramp, so they invented slideboards fitting over the cog rack and providing enough room for themselves and their tools. These boards - no two were exactly alike - were approximately 35 inches long long by 9.8 inches wide, made of wood with hand-forged iron and with two long hardwood handles usually attached at the down-mountain end. Common times for the descent of the mountain using these boards were about 15 minutes faster than before. The record was 2 hours and 45 minutes, an average speed above 62 mils an hour. The "Devil's shingles" were banned in 1906 after the accidental death of an employee. Later the design of the rack was changed so the old braking mechanism could no longer grip.


The first of two major accidents in the railway's history occurred in 1929. The first accident involved locomotive 1 (first named "Hero" and later "Peppersass" because of its vertical boiler's resemblance to a pepper sauce bottle). This locomotive was used to build the railway and was lost for many years as it had been moved about the country and placed on display at numerous exhibitions. The owners of the railway at the time (the Boston & Maine Railroad) decided to restore "Peppersass" and make a commemorative trip for the railway's 60th anniversary. During the ascent however, the locomotive's front axle broke and began descending the mountain at high speed. All but one of its crew jumped to safety (though some suffered broken bones), but one man did not escape and died. Although the locomotive broke into pieces, the boiler did not rupture and the pieces were later reassembled to reconstruct the locomotive for static display. It is now located at the Cog Railway Base Station.

On September 17, 1967, eight passengers were killed and seventy-two injured when Engine 3 derailed at the Skyline switch about a mile below the summit. The engine rolled off the trestle while the uncoupled passenger car slid several hundred feet into a large rock. An investigation revealed that the Skyline switch had not been properly configured for the descending train. The railway nonetheless has a solid safety record having taken almost five million people to the summit during its existence.

Mechanical design

The cog railway designs and builds all of its locomotives and passenger coaches at the company shops located at the base of Mount Washington.

Each train consists of a locomotive pushing a single passenger car up the mountain and descending the mountain by going backwards. Both locomotive and car were originally equipped with a ratchet and pawl mechanism engaged during the climb that prevents any roll-back; during descent, both locomotive and car are braked. Recent improvements in design have replaced the ratchet (gear and pawl mechanism) with sprag clutches and disc brake assemblies. Most of the locomotives were made by the Manchester Locomotive Works. The cog or rack and pinion system that allows the locomotive to climb Mount Washington.

The rack rail design used is one of Marsh's own invention, using a ladder-like rack with open bar rungs engaged by the teeth of the cog wheel. This system allows snow and debris to fall through the rack rather than lodge in it. A similar design, called the Riggenbach rack system, was invented by engineer Niklaus Riggenbach in Switzerland at about the same time. The Swiss Consul to the United States visited Marsh while constructing the railway up Mount Washington and his enthusiastic reports persuaded the Swiss government to commission Riggenbach to build on Rigi Mountain the Vitznau-Rigi-Bahn, opened on May 21, 1871.

Initially, there was no way to pass on the Mount Washington Cog Railway. In 1941, a nine-motion switch was invented and two spur sidings were added, each long enough to divert two descending trains so climbing trains could continue to the summit, enabling more round trips per day.

In 2004, work was completed replacing the lower Waumbek Switch and Siding with an 1,800-foot passing loop equipped with electric and hydraulically powered automated switches. These switches are powered by batteries and recharged by solar panels. One switch is located at each end of the loop, allowing ascending and descending trains to pass one another.

In 2008 work began on the first diesel locomotive to be powered with biodiesel, with the assistance of a retired mechanical engineer from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. By 2013 the railway had completed the construction of five of these locomotives.

Modern operations Railway operators 2000

The most common trips on the Cog Railway are between the two main stations, one at the summit and the other adjacent to the operators' logistical and repair base.

From 2003 to 2006, "ski trains" ran, stopping at an intermediate station, from which passengers could ski down to the Base Station.

The Cog Railway track crosses a hiking trail a relatively short distance below the summit of Mount Washington, and some hikers wait for the next train in order to moon the passengers. This practice is known as "Mooning the Cog." Several hikers were arrested for performing this ritual in 2008.

Access to the base station by car is by three possible routes, each culminating with the upper portion of the dead-end Cog Base Road. The advertised, roughly eastbound route uses the Base Road's full length from Bretton Woods. An especially scenic route, initially southbound from U.S. Highway 2, follows Jefferson Notch Road, a narrow dirt road with hairpin turns; it rises 1,500 feet to the pass, at 3,000 feet above sea level, between Mount Jefferson in the Presidential Range and Mount Dartmouth, before descending to its junction with the Base Road. However, in winter and usually before and after, the Jefferson Notch Road is closed to wheeled vehicles and used primarily by snowmobiles. The initially roughly northbound route from U.S. Highway 302 in Crawford Notch via Mount Clinton Road is also closed in the winter to vehicular traffic. Due to the operations of trains all winter beginning in 2004-2005, the Cog Base Road is now plowed and sanded all winter to allow tourists, skiers and employees to access the Base Station.

Environmental concerns

The steam locomotives on the railway generate large amounts of smoke, nicknamed Cog Smog. The railway is exempted from the state's air-pollution-control law (RSA 125-C:20), which exempts "any steam locomotives and engines or replacements there of used in connection with the operation of a railroad or railway which were in operation or on order prior to January 1, 1973, and are located entirely within the state."

Each three mile steam locomotive ride burns 1 short ton of coal and consumes 1,000 US gallons of water.

One steam locomotive was converted to oil firing in 2008. The attempt to oil fire the existing steam locomotives failed and in 2008 the railway introduced its first diesel locomotive which was designed and built by the railroad staff. Since 2008, four more diesels were completed (M-2 and M-3 in 2009, M-4 in 2011 and M-5 in 2013). All the new diesel hydraulic locomotives are operated on B20 (20 percent biodiesel blend) during the summer season. The primary reason the new diesels were built was to reduce the visual pollution caused by the coal-fired steam locomotives, lower emissions and to increase the length of time that passengers could spend at the summit of Mount Washington.

The locomotives push passenger cars that have a 70 person capacity.

Our Visit

As we made it up the road to the base station, we pulled off when we saw a locomotive on a trailer.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad 1 "Peppersass" built by Campbell & Whittier in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1866. Initially named "Hero", it was employed building the line up Mount Washington. In 1867, the engine was renamed "Peppersass", apparently because its upright boiler suggested a bottle of pepper sauce. Pronounced with a New England accent, "sauce" became "sass", and the name stuck. It was retired from active service in 1878 and at some point was sold to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, who donated it to the State of New Hampshire in 1929.

This engine was going on a tour and was removed from the Marshfield Base Station although I will just call it the Base Station in this story. We then drove to the lower parking lot and saw cog railroad trains lined up for the day's service. We walked to the station area to get a feel for the place.

The view from the Base Station.

The Flag of the United States of America in front of the Base Station.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad coach 6 would be the car we are riding in today.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad 2 "Ammonoosuc" built by Manchester Locomotive Works in 1875 as 4 "Atlas" and re-numbered 2 following rebuilding after the 1895 fire. In 1931, it was re-named "Ammonoosuc". This engine would push our train up the summit and pull it back down.

The look up the grade from the Base Station.

A photo runby of our train.

The next bio-diesel train is coming up the grade.

Steam meets a bio-diesel.

Passenger coach 9.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad Bio-diesel M2 "Algonquini" built by the railroad in 2009.

Our steam engine is looking good.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad M2 pushes its train up the grade.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad coach 3.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad Bio-diesel M1 "Wajo Nanatassis" built by the railroad in 2008. This was the first of the bio-diesels built.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad meets our steam engine.

Bio-diesel M1 and train.

Our steam engine for the trip this morning is certainly looking good.

The view looking up the grade.

Bio-diesel M5 "Metallak" built by the railroad in 2013.

Bio-diesel M1 and train.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad coach 8.

Bio-diesel M4 "Agiocochook" built by the railroad in 2010.

The name of Bio-diesel M1.

Mount Wasington Cog Railroad coach 2.

Down at the shop was another set.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad coach 1.

Bio-diesel M3 "Abenaki" built by the railroad in 2009.

The transfer table at the shop.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad steam engine 9 "Waumbek 9" built by American Locomotive Works in 1908. This was the first horizontal boiler engine to have the cab on the same plane as the boiler. For a short time, this locomotive burned biodiesel, but was reconverted to coal.

A look into the car shop. We asked for a shop tour and they agreed to give us one.

Views inside the Mount Washington Cog Railroad car shop.

The drill press.

The lathe.

Sides to a new coach being built.

One of the new seats.

New roof supports.

New windows and frame.

New seat supports. Next we would went inside the engine shop.

They are building a new bio-diesel.

Tools of the trade.

Another steam engine getting a coat of new paint.

A view outside the shop building. We proceeded around the back of the shop.

Locomotive parts.

All of these parts are very interesting.

One of the old locomotives out behind the shops.

The snow blower.

Coach 7 is back here.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad 7 "Falcon" built by Manchester Locomotive Works in 1883. It was re-numbered 1 following rebuilding after the 1895 fire and re-named "Mount Washington" after 1931. It is currently stored out of service at the shops.

Mount Washington Cog Railroad 3 "Agiococook" built by Manchester Locomotive Works in 1883 as Green Mountain Cog Railway 2. It later became 5 (the third instance) and in 1934, was re-numbered 3 "Base Station". This was the locomotive in the fatal accident of 1967 and was renamed "Agiocochook" in 1995 or 1996. It last operated in 2009 and is currently stored serviceable outside the engine shops.

After a great tour, Robin and I returned to the Base Station. A special thank you to the Mount Washington Cog Railroad shop crew for a fantastic tour.

Another photo runby as our train arrived at the Base Station.

The steam engine was almost ready to take us up to the summit and back this great morning.

Clouds had descended down the mountain to Base Station.

Other steam engines here. Now we picked up our tickets for a great trip up the mountain.

Click here for Part 2 of this story