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.
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.
Ed has turned all the seats around, so we ride down with the mountain at our backs. In front of us, in the down-mountain end of the car, Ed grips one giant brake wheel with his gloved hands and turns. The brakes release with a stuttering creak. He spins the other wheel, throwing his whole body into it. The coach lurches forward. Ed’s full attention is on the job at hand. He keeps one eye alert for landmarks that remind him where the track pitches downward, where the flats are. With the other, he carefully watches the distance between the coach and the engine, releasing the brake along the fiats and pushing the engine, applying more brake in the steep spots in order to take the weight off. That’s something that surprises a lot of tourists — “goofers” as the coggers sometimes call them. For safety reasons the coach and engine are not attached. Each has its own braking system, so that if something were to happen to the engine, the car could descend on its own.
Coggers point out that the Cog has the best safety record of any railway in this country — only one accident involving passenger fatalities in 120 years of operation. “It’s too bad,” says Cathy Bedor, marketing director and wife of owner Joel Bedor, “that instead of saying, ‘Oh, what a phenomenal safety record,’ so many people say, ‘Oh, what a terrible accident.’ ” But that day in 1967 is hard to forget. It was September 17, late in the season. The sun was low in the sky as the last train of the day began its descent. The 56-passenger coach was packed full. According to Bray, there were at least 70 people, maybe as many as 85.
As the train reached Skyline Switch, it didn’t stop. Nobody ever did in those days. The crew had every reason to believe that the switch had been left, as always, in the straight position. Still, if they had been watching, if the sunlight shining into the back of the cab had not been so blinding, they might have spotted the small piece of track that was set incorrectly.
But they didn’t. The engine hit the rail first, rose up suddenly, jolted sideways, and came down, wheels on the timbers. Before the crew could act, the front cog wheel did exactly the same thing. Now both cogs were out. The engine teetered, then flopped onto its side, leaving the coach all by itself.
According to Bray, the brakeman now had less than two seconds to get the car stopped before its first cog hit that rail. He tried, but wasn’t quick enough. By the time that rear cog wheel came out, he had maybe four seconds to stop the car by applying the brakes to the up-mountain axle, where the front cog was still in the rack. A passenger lunged to help him. They made a desperate effort, but to no avail. Now the coach was riding only on its wheels, the brakes were useless, and as it pitched over the top of Long Trestle, the train began to accelerate. There was no way it could stay on the trestle. The coach toppled off and landed on its side, completely smashing one end. The number of people in the coach probably served as a cushion, helping to reduce the casualties, but eight were killed, three of them children. Many were badly injured.
Bobby Trask, train master at the Cog, remembers seeing the bodies of the victims carried off the mountain. “It’s something that sticks in your mind forever,” he says. “I get nervous every time I go up. You can’t take anything for granted.” Today, engineers are thoroughly prepared and tested during several seasons as brakemen and firemen. Nobody becomes an engineer until Trask gives the OK. “If they aren’t ready, I don’t qualify ’em,” he says. And the trains come to a dead stop before they pass through the switches.
“The really sad part of that accident,” says Bray, “is that it was a very preventable thing. Just what caused it will never be known for sure. It could have been a hiker tampering with the rail, and yes, it could have been negligence on the part of the train crew — though I doubt it.” One thing is clear, though. The accident was the result of human error, not mechanical failure.
Today as we descend, the train chugs with reassuring regularity, a steady four miles
per hour. Suddenly the engineer signals from the cab. The brakeman winds the brakes. Metal screeches. The train halts. The sudden lack of motion is unsettling. A little boy shouts from the back. “Hey, what’s going on?” Ed waves a reassuring hand, exchanges words with the engineer about butterfly valves. The fireman fiddles with something outside the engine. When we start again, the relief is palpable. The downward journey of our three-hour round-trip is only slightly faster than the upward climb. And today, because there are so few trains on the mountain, we do not have to wait at the switches.
In 1988 the Cog had its best season ever — 58,000 riders; in 1989 ridership was down to 51,000, but that’s still the second-highest ever. Current owners Wayne Presby and Joel Bedor insist that the Cog is a viable business venture. Others are skeptical. “It just doesn’t generate enough capital to make the needed improvements,” says Walter Mitchell, the clerk in charge of the Mount Washington post office. He’s observed 29 seasons at the Cog. “It’s been limping along since 1931,” he notes.
Those who love the Cog — including Ellen Teague who, with her husband Arthur (no relation to Henry), managed, then owned and operated the railway from 1951 to 1983 — worry about the train’s survival. They get emotional when they talk about it. “That railroad is like a zipper in the side of Mount Washington,” says Bray. “If you take it down, the mountain is going to bleed to death in sorrow.”
Today as we reach the bottom, despite the weather, another line of passengers waits patiently to ride. Cameras flash. Children point. The train halts and we set foot on steady ground. For minutes afterwards, I feel like I am still aboard the moving train. Late in the afternoon, after the last tourist has left, after the last train has descended, a silence hangs over Marshfield Base Station. Six little engines stand steaming, their primitive souls silent except for the hiss of escaping steam. A lone figure walks down the track toward the shop, pauses, as if listening, then disappears into the dusk.