Mount Washington Cog Railway | Yankee Classic
“Coggers” sweat and “goofers” stare as the steam engines of the Mount Washington Cog Railway claw their way up “the steepest, highest, windiest railroad trestle in the world.”
Excerpt from “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” Yankee Magazine, July 1990.
It’s late summer 1989. But here, it could be 1889.
Day dawns gray and damp at the base of Mount Washington. The fog is thick. From the clustered log cabins of Marshfield Base Station, the tracks of the Cog Railway rise steeply and disappear into a cloud.
Scattered along the flat stretch of track between Marshfield and the repair shop, six little locomotives stand steaming. The “coggers,” the men who run the trains, move up and down and around their engines in a fluid choreography of greasy palms, sinewy forearms, coal-smudged faces. They haul themselves, one-handed, into the cab, adjust valves, toss shovelfuls of coal into the fire. They swing hammers against metal, listening. Again they strike, testing. They work steadily against a backdrop of constant noise.
General manager Robert (“Clem”) Clement strides up and down the track checking things, calling the schedule to one of his brakemen. “We’ll take the eight and the six at 10:30, the nine at 11:30. Bring the four down to the shop.” At 8:30 the first train leaves, right on schedule. Another day begins at the Cog.
Nowhere else in the world do men care for their trains quite the way they do here beneath the great mountain, where the oldest steam-powered cog railway has been climbing to the 6,288-foot summit for 120 years. It’s late summer 1989. But it could be 1889. Things haven’t changed much here at New Hampshire’s biggest tourist attraction. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976, the Cog is an operating museum of machines running on the cutting edge of 19th-century technology. “It’s pretty primitive,” says brakeman Ed Wright, who is cleaning the windows of our coach, the one leaving at 10:30. “But it works. When this thing moves, you see a jumble of parts going all over the place in crazy ways. Somehow it’s all working in harmony.”
To coggers, the train is more than a machine. “A steam engine is the closest thing to a living organism man has ever produced,” says welder Bill Sherwood, who works in the shop where the locomotives are maintained and repaired as they have been for over a century. “Artificial intelligence doesn’t make it — a microchip doesn’t breathe and creak and have indigestion. A living organism is a messy thing. And these engines bare their primitive little souls for all to see.”
It’s a rare sight these days, such a primitive soul. The Cog is one of only two coal-fired, mountain-climbing steam railways in the world. At Pike’s Peak in Colorado, where the trains no longer run on steam, cog enthusiasts say it’s like riding up the side of a mountain on a subway. There’s nothing to see, nothing to smell. There’s no soul.
At 10:20 Ed Wright has finished polishing his windows and is standing by the door of the coach taking tickets from soggy but spirited tourists. There are jokes about the weather, about the great view from the top. We wonder aloud at our willingness to go up a mountain on a day like this, reassured that others have also paid $32 for the ride. A sense of shared adventure prevails. Behind us the engine has finished loading — one full ton of coal plus 1,000 gallons of water. She leaves the bunker, steaming toward us. Small children clap their hands over their ears. The track bed rumbles beneath us. We rock suddenly with the impact as the engine settles against the back of the coach.
Ed reminds us not to get off for any reason on the way up. “We’re the only railroad built entirely on wooden trestle,” he says. “Between here and the summit we’re anywhere from one foot to 40 feet off the ground — so it could be a long step down.” There is laughter, some of it nervous. The engineer blasts two ear-piercing whistles that hang for a split second in the morning air. Then we’re off.
“I’ve wanted to do this ever since I was a kid,” says Ernie Charette, up from Cape Cod for a weekend with his two daughters. Casey and Sarah are kneeling, chins resting on the back of the last seat in the coach, staring straight into the face of the 18-ton locomotive pushing us up the mountain.
The engine churns. The thick smell of saturated steam and burning coal rushes through an open window. We’re climbing Cold Spring Hill, the third-steepest grade on the railway. Here the mountain is lush with late summer grass and ferns. Above and ahead of us, the track cuts a black seam into the soft green.
Beneath our feet the metal ratchet pounds like a jackhammer. The windows vibrate in their frames. Many are cracked. But the jolting in the coach is nothing compared to that in the metal engine cab. Engineers say it’s like living inside a bass drum. The seat rocks so much it hurts to sit on it. Rattling knocks your teeth right out of your head, they say. And the noise is ferocious. Some engineers stuff cotton in their ears, then lean out the window so they can hear the sound of the running gear, not the rattling of the cab.