Cog Railway Media Resources
An Engineering Feat of Enduring Fascination
BRETTON WOODS, NH – It was more for their amusement than any confidence in Sylvester Marsh’s abilities that New Hampshire lawmakers, in 1858, granted him a charter to build a railroad up the rugged slopes of Mount Washington. Legislative lore from that day in Concord says that after he showed a model to demonstrate his idea for a cog railway, a legislator quipped that Marsh “might as well build a railway to the moon.”
With their approval in hand, Marsh, a Campton, NH native who made his fortune in Chicago’s meat packing industry, set about building the Cog Railway using an idea proposed by Herrick Aiken and his son, Walter of Franklin, NH. It was no easy task, for not only would he have to contend with the harsh weather on Mount Washington, he would need to haul materials and equipment by ox teams through miles of thick forest at the base of the mountain.
Some of his contemporaries knew Marsh as a creative and innovative thinker; others called him a “mild mannered lunatic.” But after a delay caused by the Civil War he was able to find investors and by 1865, the Mount Washington Steam Railway Company was formed. A year later, construction began on the track. That is when the first engine, a strange contraption that resembled an old pepper sauce bottle, was built and christened Old Peppersass. It became the workhorse during construction – used to transport materials to build the track that is actually a trestle winding more than three miles up the mountain and ranging from two feet to 30 feet off the ground.
The steepest part of the track, with a grade of 37.4 percent is known as Jacob’s Ladder, and is the second steepest such track in the world. Early settler Ethan Allen Crawford had given the name “Jacob’s Ladder” to a neighboring steep crag. The name stuck. (A little south of this section is a rock that bears Crawford’s initials and the date 1820.) How steep is 37.4 percent? At that incline, the heads of the passengers in the front of the coach are 13 feet higher than the heads of the passengers in the back.
On July 3, 1869, after three years of construction, Old Peppersass became the first cog-driven train in the world and the first to climb to the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington. Although new steam engines, that bear names like Ammonoosuc, Agiocochook, Tip Top and Waumbek, have been put in service, little has changed on the three-mile route since that day in 1869. Each trip requires over one ton of coal and 1,000 gallons of water to move the 18-ton engine and its one coach to the summit. The trains stop halfway up the mountain to take on water and, from there, they pass a complex series of switches that allow trains to pass each other on the tracks. The awesome views feature mountain flora and fauna, steep ravines and breathtaking vistas of the Presidential Range. On a clear day, the view from the summit includes the Atlantic Ocean, Vermont, New York, Maine and Canada. On some other days, the train literally goes above the clouds.
When they purchased the Cog Railway in 1983 nearly 25 years ago New Hampshire natives Joel Bedor and Wayne Presby inherited only two operating engines and a facility needing much work. “We had a dream that we could restore and upgrade the operation to bring the railway back to its original prominence, without changing the truly unique Cog experience,” Presby recalls. “We began by restoring several of the engines, upgrading the track and building new passenger coaches - not only enclosed, but heated, as well.” Now, the Cog operates year round showing off the changing seasons of the surrounding mountains and valleys. The partnership has also constructed a new Marshfield Station, which includes an interpretative museum that displays years of Cog history, a restaurant and gift shop. Old Peppersass, long retired, is also on display.
Sylvester Marsh realized his mountain climbing railroad dream, but stopped short of the moon. By happenstance, exactly 100 years and 17 days from Peppersass’ first run to the summit of Mount Washington, modern dreamers put manned spacecraft, Apollo 11, on the surface of the moon. Marsh, the “mild mannered lunatic,” would have approved.
His genius was officially recognized on June 26, 1976, when the Cog was named
a National Historic Engineering Landmark.
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For more information, contact The Cog at 1-800-922-8825
or in New Hampshire at 603-278-5404.