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Classic: Cog Railway

Classic: Cog Railway
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Yankee Classic from 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.

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