From the Shipyard to the Railyard
Al Laprade Important Cog
It's been 15 years since Al Laprade took an early retirement, but instead of spending his days wetting a line in a mountain stream, he's using his vast knowledge to keep the Mount Washington Cog Railway on track in the 21st century.
"I think I'm the luckiest man in New Hampshire," said Laprade, who begins his 11th year at the Cog this summer. "There are many aspects to what I do, both historical and technical. It's definitely a challenge."
In 1993, Laprade retired from a career as a mechanical engineer at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and headed north to the White Mountains. For the next couple of years, he worked winters at a local ski area and in 1997, applied for a job as a brakeman at the Cog.
"I did that for several years and the folks here knew I was a mechanical engineer, so I got reeled into projects that got bigger and bigger," he said with a laugh.
The mountain climbing Cog Railway was developed by visionary Sylvester Marsh, who devised the first tooth-racked rail system to bring his strangely shaped, steam powered locomotives to the summit of Mount Washington in 1869. More than a century later, it is up to men like Laprade to keep the railroad safely running.
"The hardest part is that there is state-of-the-art technology to all this," he said. "On the other hand, we don't want to eliminate the character of the Cog."
One of his biggest challenges has been developing a bio-diesel locomotive, which burns cleaner than the coal-fired steam engines. Since the day that Old Peppersass climbed its way to the top of Mount Washington, little has changed on these engines, which have tilted boilers to accommodate its uphill journey.
Bio-diesel will be a more energy efficient way to continue bringing passengers to the summit of Mount Washington and Laprade has no doubt the founding father of the Cog would be pleased with the 21st century adaptation of his technology.
"If Sylvester Marsh was here today, he would approve," Laprade said, noting that Marsh, in the 1860s, was on the cutting edge of technology for his time.
The Cog Railway is one of those places that if it gets into your blood, its a part of your life, and for a number of employees, their livelihoods.
"There's a very unique group of people here," he said. "Everybody is a character and they all bring something to the table. They may look a little rough around the edges, there is a lot of skill here and a lot of knowledge."
Miles from anywhere, at the bottom of the steep slopes of the highest mountain in the northeast, Cog crews long ago learned to be self-sufficient. "There's a tradition here that everything that is designed and built here has to be maintained here," Laprade said.
On the rare occasions when outside assistance is needed, he said, "We always go to a North Country business," like Isaacson Steel and Alpine Machine in Berlin, to the local NAPA auto store in Littleton.
Laprade remembers his first ride on the Cog and he remembers simply coming up to the Marshfield Station and watching the locomotive steam and passengers boarding the cars.
He counts himself as being lucky to be able to do a job he loves so well.