Today’s post is a special request from my dad, Jim Hanson. He was watching Jay Leno’s Garage and saw a segment about the train that takes visitors to the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

Mount Washington from a few miles east of Lancaster, New Hampshire, USA. Photo by AlexiusHoratius via Wikimedia Commons

My dad’s last base before he retired from the U.S. Air Force, my senior year in high school, was the now defunct Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. One of the best things about growing up in the military, and with my parents, was that they always wanted to explore all the new places the Air Force sent us.

So while in New Hampshire, of course we checked out the tallest mountain (6,288 feet) in the state. Mount Washington is known for it’s unpredictable weather, and the day we were there it was crazy windy. Like blow-away-a-small-child windy. But even that was not as bad as the record on April 19, 1934. On that day, the Mount Washington Observatory recorded wind speed at 231 miles per hour. That’s still a record for wind that’s not part of a hurricane or typhoon.

Engine and coach of the world first cog railway, which climbs Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Photo from the Library of Congress by Carol M. Highsmith via Wikimedia Commons

The Cog Railway that ferries travelers to the top of Mount Washington was built by Sylvester Marsh (1803-1884). (This link is to a page on the Cog Railway website, which talks about Marsh’s great-grandson’s research to know more about his great-grandfather.)

Born on a farm in New Hampshire, Marsh made his fortune in Chicago in the meat packing business. He returned to New Hampshire and according to his great-grandson, in 1857 Marsh climbed to the top of Mount Washington. Inspired by all he saw, he wanted to make that view available to all.

He decided a train was the best way to enable more people to reach the summit, but the grades were too steep for the standard friction-based rail. So he devised a new system, using cogs (see photo below) between the rails that would keep the train on the tracks even on the steepest sections of the mountain.

Rack and pinion (or cog) mechanism in the museum at the Mount Washington Cog Railway, New Hampshire October 2012. Photo by kremerbi via Wikimedia Commons

The partially completed railway first took paying customers on August 14, 1868 and the tracks to the top were completed in 1869, making this the first mountain cog railway in the world.

The train still runs today, and is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2019 with special events. Some details for you:

  • The track is 3 miles long.
  • It takes about an hour to travel those 3 miles, but the views must be amazing.
  • As of today, the cost of an adult ticket on the steam train (they now also have biodiesel trains) is $78.
  • The train Jay Leno took on his show was coal-fired steam powered. For one trip, the train uses one short-ton of coal. (History and environmentalism don’t always go well together.)
  • As you can see in the above photo of the train, the boiler has to be tilted at a weird angle so that it sits level on the steep grades. Apparently the boiler would be destroyed if it wasn’t designed this way.
  • Another environmentalist nightmare is that each trip also uses, along with all that coal, 1,000 gallons of water.
  • The train actually pushes the passenger section up the mountain, rather than pulling it.

If that wasn’t enough American ingenuity for you, below is my favorite photo. The men building the tracks created sleds that worked on the cogs to slide down the tracks at the end of the work day, rather than walking down the mountain. Cogs are useful and fun!

Sliding, Mt. Washington Railway — showing railroad workers sliding down the tracks on what were dubbed “Devil’s shingles”. Photo by Benjamin West Kilburn (1827-1909) via Wikimedia Commons