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Classic: Cog Railway

Classic: Cog Railway
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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.

Meanwhile the fireman shovels. One shovelful of coal into the 2,000-degree fire every 45 seconds. Into the tender goes his shovel, then out to the side. His weight shifts. He swings around, shovel poised, yanks open the 40-pound door to the firebox with his free hand and slings the coal into the blasting heat. Then he checks the plume. A face, black with dust, hangs out the side of the cab and twists upward to the sky. The head withdraws. The fireman begins again. Shovelful by shovelful, he feeds the beast as it claws its way up the mountain.

That’s exactly what it’s doing — pulling itself up on a rack, rung by rung. It’s the toothed cog gear that does all the work; the wheels just act as skis, guiding the train. The power is generated by the 5:1 gear ratio: steam drives the shaft that turns the pinion gear; the little pinion gear drives the spur gear, which is five times bigger and so magnifies the power that finally turns the cog. It’s the only way it could work. Ordinary trains run on a maximum grade of only three percent; the average grade on the Cog is 25 percent.

That’s why people laughed when Sylvester Marsh, a Campton man, applied to the state in 1858 for a charter to build his railroad. One legislator suggested a railway to the moon instead — it seemed about as feasible. But Marsh ignored them. With significant help from father and son inventors Herrick and Walter Aiken, March did the impossible. “Evidently he didn ‘t consider switchbacks or hairpin turns,” says Donald Bray, Cog historian and author of They Said It Couldn’t Be Done. “He just decided the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line.” The straightest and the steepest.

At Halfway House, a small shelter that marks the midpoint of the trip, the earth rises like a wall on the right side of the train. The trees look as if they’re growing on a slant. The house looks tilted. For a moment the mist clears. To the left is a sheer drop into the green of Burt’s Ravine. In front of us looms Jacob’s Ladder, the steepest, highest, windiest railroad trestle in the world. We take turns here, on this 37.41 percent grade, standing in the aisles. Children giggle as they lean way forward, face first, legs straight, without falling over. Those who try walking to the front of the car have to haul themselves along from seat to seat. Coming back down it’s hard not to run. Between the heads of people at the front and back ends of the coach there is a 13-foot difference.

As we leave Jacob’s Ladder, the climb continues, nearly as steep, on Long Trestle, where the grade is 36 percent. The track levels off as we pass the Skyline Switch, which was installed by Henry Teague, who owned the railroad from 1931 to 1951. The switches, considered the most complicated in the world, are thrown by the brakeman and require nine moves. “It’s like a complicated dance step,” says Heather Preston, once a brakeman and eventually the Cog’s only female fireman. “Some of those pieces of metal weigh more than I do,” she says. “If you mess up, you trip and fall and probably hurt something. You’re supposed to throw a switch in a minute, but I’ve seen guys who couldn’t do it even if you gave them five.”

At the summit, which is covered in snow eight months of the year, the Sherman Adams Observation Center is crowded with people. Most have driven their cars up the auto road on the other side of the mountain. A few are hikers, smelling of wet wool, who look weary but victorious. On a good day the view would be spectacular four states and into Canada. P. T. Barnum called the Cog and its mountain the second greatest show on earth. But today is not one of those days.

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