Making Tracks in New England

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Riding the rails in New England, there’s a little engine that could.

Text and photography by David Lasker


Put an adorably, lovably cute toy model of an old-fashioned choo-choo train into a sci-fi enlarging machine, and you’d get New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Cog Railway, the world’s first mountain-climbing train. One of the few remaining steam engine railways in North America, it climbs to the 6,288-foot summit of the highest peak in the Northeastern U.S., in the heart of the White Mountain National Forest. On a clear day, views extend to Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Quebec and 75 miles east to the Atlantic Ocean.

At the railway’s 1868 inauguration, the Boston Transcript called the railway “one of the greatest wonders of the time.” P.T. Barnum hailed the railway as “the second greatest show on earth,” the first being his famous circus.

The idea for the Cog occurred to inventor-entrepreneur Sylvester Marsh in 1852 after hiking up Mount Washington and nearly dying of exposure during a sudden storm. His innovations making the railway possible include the first patent for air brakes, paving the way for modern train and truck transportation. Another was to gear down the engine to sacrifice speed for power, enabling the use of a lightweight, compact locomotive. Its driving rods reciprocate frenetically as the cog wheel turns slowly, driving the train at a stately 2.8 miles an hour (4.5 kilometres an hour). Quieter, cleaner biodiesel locomotives, introduced in 2008, are twice as fast.

We pick up our tickets in the rustic clapboard base station. It and the restored old steam locomotive and passenger car look like props from a Western movie. The boiler looks cockeyed with its tilt reflecting the route’s average 25 per cent grade, or an incline of one foot for every four feet of track. This allows water in the boiler to stay nearly level, ensuring even steaming that provides steady power. (A standard friction-traction locomotive maxes out at seven per cent grade.)

The pungent aroma of burning coal fills the nostrils as we board the coach, painted outside in a cheery bright primary colour. Inside, the wood-ribbed ceiling evokes a rowboat’s hull. With a shrill whistle blast, the engineer starts the ascent. Some passengers, worried about coal dust stinging their eyes, close their windows until the wind changes.

Soon, five miles to the west, the red roof and whitewashed walls of the Omni Mount Washington Resort emerge from the canopy of green. The Tiffany-windowed landmark dates from 1902 and is the sole survivor of an enclave of grand hotels where major rail lines converged to meet the Cog. The hotel hosted the 1944 Bretton Woods International Monetary Conference, which established the International Monetary Fund. The director Stanley Kubrick filmed The Shining (1980) here, boasting Jack Nicholson’s most memorable on-screen moment as he leers psychopathically while taunting, “Heeere’s Johnny!”

Presently, the white birches thin out, unable to withstand the arctic weather of the higher elevations. The remaining trees grow shorter. They appear to be leaning over, but, no, I remind myself, we are leaning; the trees stand straight.

My ears pop at 3,800 feet while we pause at the Womback water tank to replenish water in the boiler. The ant-sized forms of hikers and rock climbers provide a sense of scale to the landscape – a sign on the trail proclaims: Stop. The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad. – with dramatic vistas of the Presidential Range on the left and its peaks named for Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and the two Adamses. Hikers were arrested in 2007 for providing another kind of view, a ritual known as Mooning the Cog.

In a few minutes, the spruce and fir species that proudly stand tall lower down on the mountain diminish to shrubs. This signals the onset of the Krummholz zone, from the German for “crooked,” or “twisted,” and “wood.”

At 4,800 feet, the last stunted vestiges of greenery yield to barren, boulder-strewn fields. We have finally crossed the timber line, the point at which no tree can grow. Only rare, fragile alpine plants thrive.

The grade on the three and a half-mile-long track reaches 37.5 per cent at Jacob’s Ladder, the curving, 300-foot trestle two-thirds of the way up the mountain and still the steepest stretch of railway in the world. How soothing it is to feel the gears below, firmly grasping as they up move up the cog rack between the rails.

Our brakeman-guide walks gingerly down the aisle, reminding us the front of the coach is now 14 feet higher than the back. Nearly shouting, to compete with the racket of the antique locomotive, he challenges us to stand up straight. Adults and kids alike laugh as they try.
Disoriented, they lurch out at the nearest seat or person. The train moves slower than a carnival kiddie ride, so you’re safe.

Our car is shrouded in mist as we approach the summit. The wind picks up, and the train rocks slightly. The summit lies at the centre of three storm tracks, and weather can turn severe at any time of year. Indeed, Mount Washington holds the world’s highest land wind speed record ever: 231 m.p.h. In July and August, it averages 35 m.p.h. As we disembark, ladies grab at their flailing hair while the men hold on to their hats. The summit is 20 F colder than the base. Leaning into the brisk wind, I zipper my hoodie. Not to worry, the train doesn’t operate when the weather turns too blustery on the summit.

Couch potatoes head for the Sherman Adams Summit Building to chow down on fast food and coffee (Adams was a state governor and chief of staff to Dwight D. Eisenhower). Hardier types mosey over to Tiptop House, the oldest surviving summit building, thanks to its fireproof stone structure dating from 1853. Originally, the wooden roof was anchored to the ground with chains to keep it from blowing away. The house, now a museum, has been restored to a semblance of its hotel days. The narrow bunk beds and the small windows set within the deep thickness of the walls make this a cosy, welcoming place. As I pictured Victorian-era arrivals warming themselves by the crackling fire, I mused that the Cog had taken me on an old-fashioned journey through time as well as space, letting me share an experience just as my great-great-great-grandparents did.

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