Making Tracks in New England
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.
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.
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.