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Among The Clouds

July 2024
14min read

Tourists who ride the famous cog railway up the precipitous slopes of Mount Washington often feel the sky itself is their destination. Overcoming many obstacles—including a recent serious accident—the little locomotives with their tilted boilers have been huffing and puffing people to New England’s highest summit for nearly a century

There is a kind of astonishing improbability about the Mount Washington Cog Railway. This New Hampshire institution is so obviously a child of the nineteenth-century world of great white summer hotels with endless porches filled by genteel rockers, that its mere survival in an age of television, expressways, and air-conditioned motels seems almost wondrous. In an age that regards 1,200-mile-an-hour supersonic aircraft as much-needed improvements upon 700-mile-an-hour jets, a transportation system that moves passengers at four miles an hour, with locomotives built in the nineteenth century, borders on fantasy. In an era that has seen family-owned businesses replaced with “multi-management corporate bodies,” to quote a recent publicity release, there is something rather quaint about a cog railway that has thrived for ninety-nine years thanks in large part to the efforts of just four men.

Sylvester Marsh, first of the four, the New Hampshireman who planned the railway, said in later years that he undertook the venture to cure his boredom and dyspepsia. The cure has left no mark in the annals of medicine, but it has left a lasting mark upon the mountains of the world, from the Rockies to the Alps. It was the world’s first, and is still the world’s steepest, cog railway; it is still powered entirely by steam and is still ridden by passengers in the thousands from July to October. Today, as ninety-nine years ago, travellers board the cog railway’s one-car trains at the Base Station and are steam-propelled up grades as steep as 37.5 per cent—a rise of 37.5 feet vertically for every 100 feet forward —to the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington.

Sylvester Marsh was attacked by boredom and dyspepsia because he acted upon his expressed opinion that when a man has enough money he ought to stop working. In his case, this reasonable pause came in his fifty-second year. Born in 1803 in Campton, New Hampshire, he grew up on a farm, moved (on foot) to Boston before he was twenty, rose to eminence and wealth as a meat packer in the primordial Chicago of 1833, lost his money in the panic of the 1830’s, recouped his fortune in grain, and retired to the green Boston suburb of Jamaica Plain.

In August of 1857, he climbed Mount Washington in company with a clergyman friend. A fierce storm broke, and the two men stumbled, exhausted, to shelter at the summit. Such storms are not unusual on Mount Washington; unwary climbers have died of exposure there in August. Yet even at the time of Marsh’s ascent, trips to the summit on foot or horseback were popular. It is not unlikely, then, that the nearly disastrous outing set Marsh to pondering the virtues of an easier way to the top. Adding to his interest was a model cogwheel locomotive and cograil-centered track constructed by an acquaintance, Herrick Aiken of Franklin, New Hampshire. Aiken was a fertile and successful inventor; he had already devised a circular knitting machine that produced a seamless stocking in less than five minutes. Aiken had shown his cogwheel locomotive model to working railroaders; then as now a conservative breed, they had dismissed the concept as impracticable.

Marsh, no railroader himself but a practical man—his success in meat packing came after he had invented the necessary machinery—was very impressed with Aiken’s model. He promptly had another constructed to his order, a clockwork-powered cogwheel locomotive and eight feet of track, wound it up for a New Hampshire legislative committee, and blandly requested a charter for a railway up Mount Washington. After running the gantlet of heavy-handed legislative jests suggesting that it be extended to permit service to the moon, Marsh’s charter was signed on June 25, 1858, by Governor William Halle. The times were not propitious for attracting investors to a bizarre mountain railway. Marsh devoted himself to a research-and-development program. The Aiken model had demonstrated clearly that it was quite feasible to build an engine that could climb a mountain. How to build one that could descend safely was less clear. Marsh’s eventual solution was such a triumph of simplicity that it is still in use today. The locomotives become rolling air compressors on the descent. Special valves admit air to the four cylinders of the locomotive; compressed by the pistons, the air holds engine speeds to a safe four miles an hour on the downgrade. Marsh also perfected the locomotives’ running gear; it too is still in use today, slightly modified, on all six of the railway’s engines.

After the Civil War, a new $500 working model of the cog engine and track—and the belated perception of New England railroads that a cog railway could generate vacation passenger traffic—smoothed Marsh’s way, although he had to contribute $5,000 toward the venture himself. Surveys had already indicated that a great ridge on the mountain’s flank jutting toward the valley of the Ammonoosuc River would be an ideal path for a railway. Yet building the line proved difficult. From the nearest railroad, twenty-five miles away at Littleton, New Hampshire, men and oxen struggled through the woods with materials, equipment, and supplies. A log house went up to accommodate the workers. Plans called for the track to be mounted on longitudinal stringers set on crossties, much of it airborne on trestles. There was no sawmill available at first, and ties, stringers, and trestle timbers had to be shaped laboriously by hand. While the track inched up the grade, the first locomotive arrived. Built by Campbell, Whittier & Co. of Boston and based on Marsh’s working model, the little engine looked hardly bigger than a model itself. It arrived at the site—formally called Marshfield but more commonly known then and now as the Base Station—in pieces. It had been taken apart for the slow haul through the woods and had to be reassembled. Marsh drove his crews hard during that summer of 1866. By August 29, a quarter-mile of track had been completed, crossing the Ammonoosuc River on a trestle with a grade of 1,700 feet to the mile. It was not much of a stretch for those days of transcontinental railroad building, but it was long enough to justify a trial run in the hope of garnering useful publicity. A flatcar large enough to carry forty people was hastily knocked together, and the diminutive engine, optimistically named Hero , was fired up for the run. Because her vertical boiler resembled a pepper-sauce bottle, a bystander promptly nicknamed the engine Peppersass .

The brief run was a huge success; the glowing reports of the newspapermen present burned away the last doubts of the cog railway’s practicability and made the line’s completion certain. Although there had been only one major injury and no deaths connected with the work to date, the successful trial run made Sylvester Marsh a casualty of sorts. The New England railroads that had backed the line installed one of their own men—Job Sanborn of the Boston, Concord & Montreal—as construction superintendent in Marsh’s place. Shouldered aside, Marsh retained the title of president; later he observed with some bitterness that he was little more than a figurehead. Strangely, he was not listed as a stockholder.

Nevertheless, Marsh’s work had won him a permanent niche in rail history as the creator of the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway. Two Swiss engineers, sent to study the Mount Washington line in preparation for building one like it up Mount Rigi, were so impressed by Marsh that they offered him the post of superintendent of construction for the Swiss project. But he declined.

When Marsh was shoved aside, the third largest stockholder in the line was Herrick Aiken’s son, Walter. Just what happened between Marsh, the New England railroads, and Walter Aiken, who apparently sided with the railroads, is not clear. At this distance in time, neither heroes nor villains can be distinguished. Marsh remained a prosperous man, but it was Walter Aiken who nursed the new cog railway from infancy to adolescent success as the second of the four men who have dominated the railway’s history. A big, bewhiskered Yankee, Aiken could do almost anything for the railway that needed doing, and much needed doing. One day, as he crawled out from under a repair job on a stubborn engine at the summit, a woman visitor assumed he was an employee and asked him to get her a drink of water. Aiken did so and with some dismay contemplated the small tip she offered him. “Madam,” he said, “I’ve put a great deal of money and work into this railroad, and this is the first dividend I’ve ever got, and it’s so small I think I won’t take it.”

Regular runs to the summit began in the summer of 1869. The stagecoaches that brought cog railway passengers from the summer hotels to the Base Station were superseded, in 1876, by a Boston, Concord & Montreal branch line from Fabyan, seven miles away. The convenient access offered by the new branch heightened the competition between the railway and the carriage road (now the auto road) ascending the eastern side of Mount Washington. Wooing passengers became a fine art. Legend tells of a stubborn Vermonter, Dave Cutting, who had struggled to persuade a party of late-in-the-sea-son visitors to take the railway. He ended his efforts with one last warning: “Ef I was you, I’d go up now; we’re goin’ to take the mountain down in the fall!”

Success brought a need for more locomotives—although the first ones proved stout enough. Little Peppersass served until 1878, when she was deemed worn out and was retired. Like Peppersass , the early engines had vertical boilers. In 1872, Marsh patented a new design with a horizontal boiler (tilted, however, to keep it level on the grades), four cylinders, and two driving spur gears. Subsequent engines, most of them still in service, embodied these features. To be sure, they have been drastically rebuilt over the years and hardly have an original rivet left, but on the three-and-a-half-mile run to the summit they are still performing a task equivalent to lifting an eighteen-ton block of granite thirty-seven hundred feet in the air in seventy minutes.

Peppersass became, in retirement, the cog railway’s best-known engine. In 1893 she joined other antique locomotives at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, was later exhibited in St. Louis, and finally—and somewhat mysteriously—was taken into custody by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad for more than twenty years. Her reappearance at a Baltimore & Ohio “Fair of the Iron Horse” inspired a New Hampshire clergyman to work for her return to the cog railway. He was successful, and old Peppersass surprised the men at the Boston & Maine Railroad’s Concord shops by passing the required boiler tests with ease despite her great age and her hand-headed conical boiler rivets.

Back at the Base Station, she was gingerly tested and, once an accumulation of nuts and cherry stones stored by squirrels was removed from her boiler, proved as adept as ever at climbing the mountain. But her spryness proved her undoing. To mark her return, the cog railway invited civic dignitaries, hotel executives, and the press to an all-out celebration on July 20, 1929. Peppersass climbed the mountain behind six special trains; aboard her were an engineer, a fireman, two photographers, the engineer’s son, and, for a short distance, a Boston & Maine official. On the way down, just above Jacob’s Ladder, the steepest part of the road, Peppersass broke a tooth on a gear, leaped out of mesh with the cograil, and began to run away. (Unlike the other cog railway engines, which have two driving gears, the little antique had only one.) The engineer ordered all hands to jump to safety; all did, except a photographer named Daniel Rossiter, who stayed aboard and fell to his death at the foot of Jacob’s Ladder. Peppersass also tumbled from the track; she was subsequently reassembled and, shining in brass, red, and green, glitters on permanent display at the Base Station.

Until 1930 the cog railway remained a protégé of the Boston & Maine; it made up for its lack of profit by helping to lure vacationers to the White Mountains. But despite their close relationship, the Boston & Maine and the cog railway were not especially compatible. The summer-only line burdened its parent with heavy maintenance and operation costs (it takes a ton of coal and 1,000 gallons of water to lift a train from base to summit) and further offended the Boston & Maine by its winter hibernation and laborious spring revival. The relationship became especially strained during the Depression. For railroads, it was a particularly disastrous period, since in addition to the over-all business decline they suffered increasing and largely irreplaceable losses of freight and passenger business to autos, trucks, and buses. By 1931, the Boston & Maine had abandoned its branch from Fabyan to the Base Station, and decided to dispose of the cog railway itself.

An offer was first made to sell the line to owners of neighboring hotels. They declined, but one of them, Colonel William A. Barren of Crawford House, suggested the course that ultimately saved the railway. “What you need,” he said to a Boston & Maine executive, “is a circus promoter; a man who can run the road, increase services, stir up new business, publicize the railway to get more people interested in taking the trip up Mount Washington.” The Boston & Maine found a man so eminently suited for the task that the survival of the cog railway without him cannot be imagined.

At first glance, Colonel Henry N. Teague seemed a somewhat unlikely candidate for the ownership and presidency of an unprofitable part-time railway. He had dropped $1,000,000 in Florida land speculations in the 1920’s and, conceivably, would have had difficulty finding the price of a round trip on the cog railway. A native of Maine, he was a graduate of Dartmouth College and one of the first graduates of its Amos Tuck School of Administration and Finance. His colonelcy was honorary; he’d been a private in the Spanish-American War.

Pressed to buy the cog railway, Colonel Teague not surprisingly pleaded poverty. The Boston & Maine then airily presented him with the cog railway and a mortgage for $100,000. When the Colonel pointed out that he lacked cash to operate the line, the Boston & Maine put $10,000 in the bank for him. In return for an IOU of epic proportions in the midst of the worst depression in American history, Henry N. Teague had acquired an unprofitable mountain railway with train sheds full of more or less viable antiques.

Apparently cut out to be a genial bear of a man, the Colonel became less genial and his temper shorter. But he coped admirably. The railway had been running two trains a day to the summit, a schedule geared to the twice-a-day arrival of the branch-line trains from Fabyan, when those were still running. Aware of the greater freedom afforded by private autos, the Colonel began running one train an hour—a schedule that remains substantially unchanged today. To lure passengers, he inundated roadside restaurants, tourist cabins, gasoline stations, and diners with advertising folders. He drove to every convention within reach to promote the line. When he wasn’t away promoting, he often sat at the Base Station surveying his domain; when an acquaintance said, “How are you?” the Colonel replied, “Cross as ever.”

His crossness was suspect, however. He was genuinely fond of the college boys he recruited annually to run the railway and paid them bonuses at the end of-the season. A lonely man who never married, he made the railway and its workers a substitute for a family, and the boys repaid him with loyalty and affection. His skills at promotion soon doubled the annual passenger traffic. He enlarged the parking lot at the Base Station and built comfortable cabins, a restaurant, and a gift shop.

Henry Teague proved the wisdom of the Boston & Maine in choosing him to shoulder a burden it could no longer bear. But he matched the railroad’s good judgment with his own in his choice of a successor—another Teague (but no relation) and another “colonel” (this time a real one). At the time Henry Teague recruited Arthur S. Teague—whose physician-father was a friend—all the older man knew was that the youth seemed a likely prospect for a summer job on the cog railway. An engineering student at Clemson College in South Carolina, Arthur Teague had planned to begin an eighteen-month General Electric apprenticeship following his graduation. Retrenching to suit the times, General Electric dropped the program. So it was that in 1933, his career plans sidetracked, Arthur Teague came to the cog railway. He stayed there until his death in the summer of 1967, although he took time out to serve in World War II; he entered that conflict as a lieutenant and emerged as a colonel with nearly every decoration for bravery the United States can bestow save the Congressional Medal of Honor.

There were more parallels between the two Teagues than their surnames. Each man brought to the cog railway at the time of his arrival the qualities it most needed to survive. Henry Teague geared the line to the age of autos, motels, and expressways. Arthur Teague, charged with the operation of a railway that could be fairly described as an anachronism in action, brought to the line the engineering and technical knowledge needed to operate it successfully, make needed improvements, and hold the reins on costs. His work evokes memories of Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee: “I could make anything a body wanted—anything in the world, it didn’t make any difference what; and if there wasn’t any quick new-fangled way to make a thing, I could invent one.”

For example: the cog railway’s Base Station is six miles from the nearest electric power line; the necessary connecting links would have cost $20,000. Arthur Teague harnessed falling water on the mountainside to turn a Pelton water wheel that generates electricity for the Base Station, operates all the shop machinery through belt drives, and turns a water motor that pumps water to the summit of Mount Washington at seven gallons a minute at a pressure of 2,000 pounds to the square inch.

The cog railway had a maintenance problem: the twelve-tooth pinion gears keyed to the two crankshafts of each locomotive frequently required replacement because of the heavy strains involved in running. Arthur Teague redesigned the assembly so that now shaft and gear are made from a single piece of chrome molybdenum steel.

By no means devoid of sentiment, Arthur Teague artfully restored an 1875 coach to its Victorian grandeur and equipped it with modern roller bearings. On the other hand, needing more and larger passenger cars, he designed coaches built from stock-size steel and aluminum sheets, thus reducing the price of the finished cars.

In one instance, Arthur Teague took a negative rather than a positive approach. In 1946, General Electric offered to build three diesel locomotives for the cog railway at $100,000 apiece, but Teague rejected the proposal, reasoning that the season was too short to permit the line to carry such a heavy debt. Today, twenty-two years later, the cog railway’s six steam engines are a major attraction in themselves.

Their appeal is, of course, their rarity in a diesel age, yet that rarity poses problems. The cog railway’s machine shop is required to do every imaginable job called for in keeping the six extant engines running: making and installing new boiler tubes, sidesheets, and flues; machining bearings; and making new crank and main shafts and its own patterns for outside casting.

Arthur Teague died last August. Almost as if this were an ill omen, tragedy struck the Mount Washington Cog Railway a month later. On September 17, 1967, a train carrying some eighty tourists was backing down the mountain in its usual lazy fashion when it ran into a mistakenly opened switch about a mile from the summit. The engine jumped the track; the coach, with nothing to hold it back, plunged on down the mountain another 500 feet and then bounced off the trestle, turning over as it did so and crushing eight passengers to death. Many others were injured.

While the accident—the only one involving passengers in ninety-eight years of service—has naturally cast a temporary pall over the cog railway, there is every indication that it will survive this worst blow in its history. The New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission has reported that “the primary cause of the accident was human error and not … any structural or mechanical deficiency of the railroad.” Mrs. Arthur Teague has bravely announced her intention to carry on her husband’s work, and full service to the summit of Mount Washington is positively expected to resume in the spring of 1968, as it has every spring since 1869. New safety measures, however, will be in effect.

A trip on the cog railway will remain as unusual and exciting as it has always been. Expectant crowds will wait for each train, will eye the steeply sloping track with awe, will crowd closely around the locomotives. Still a tradition will be the ticket-collecting stop on Jacob’s Ladder; because of the 37.5 per cent grade, passengers at the front of the car are thirteen feet higher than passengers seated at the rear. Buildings beside the track, actually level, appear crazily tilted. So does the world that moves past the windows and the tilted seats in the coach. As the train ascends, the red spruce trees of the Base Station are soon replaced by wiry evergreens that diminish to twisted shrubbery at the timber line. Above the timber line is an Arctic world, the legacy of the long-gone glaciers. The train moves across a gray lunar landscape, its barrenness relieved only by the scenic panoramas that stretch for miles away from the heights. If the mountain is in a benevolent mood, travellers can see no fewer than seventy-four bodies of water, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Connecticut River. Visible from the summit on a clear day are the Adirondack Mountains of distant New York, the nearer peaks of Vermont’s Green Mountains, and Mount Washington’s neighbors in the Presidential Range. Portland, Maine; Laconia and Portsmouth, New Hampshire; and innumerable smaller towns are all in view.

Surprisingly, the trip up the mountain is a quiet one. For all their herculean labors, the six engines of the cog railway are mild of voice; their exhaust is a series of gentle chuffs rather than a staccato of explosive blasts. For children, each is The Little Engine That Could, come to life, its muted exhaust surely saying, “I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can,” as it climbs New England’s highest mountain. Ahead of it in the coach will be another three or four score riders who will agree, as thousands have before them, with P. T. Barnum’s comment on the view from the top of Mount Washington: “The second greatest show on earth.”

Little Giant

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