A Railroad into the Clouds: The Mount Washington Cog Railway

A New Hampshire state legislator in the 1850's suggested that Sylvester Marsh, who was planning a railroad line from the base to the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire, should be granted the charter; not just to the summit, but to the moon as well, for how impossible such a railroad line would be.

At over 6,200 feet in height, Mount Washington is the tallest mountain in the Northeastern United States, and its summit is well above the tree line, making the ascent feel similar to the much higher mountain terrains in the Rocky Mountains. Despite the incredible prominence of the mountain, Marsh was undeterred, and even put $5000 of his own money towards the project, which helped secure the charter for the railroad.

In 1868, Marsh would prove his detractors wrong when his railroad was completed, one of the first rack and pinion railways in the world, and to this day the second-steepest grade in existence. This line is the Mount Washington Cog Railway, which we visited during Labor Day Weekend. (Right of Way)

The Cog certainly keeps their history alive!

At points on the ascent, and descent, riders face an over 35% grade, which can be somewhat uncomfortable, especially as the wooden benches on the Cog are quite narrow. That said, this isn't a comfort line in the slightest, and the views atop Mount Washington are well worth the ride! 

This was our train, powered by a unique biodiesel engine. We got a pic of the steam engine still in service as we rode up the mountain.

Side note: As of September 2021 when we went, masks and social distancing were not a requirement related to COVID-19 in New Hampshire, but most of the visitors were wearing masks nonetheless. 

As one might expect from one of the steepest inclines in the world, the ride is a slow one, both up and down, reaching at most 5mph either way, taking about 30 minutes each way. There are several spots where trains going up and down Mount Washington pass one another, and that's where we spotted Ammonoosuc, the steam engine in service that day. Its name comes from the river, which is the first of numerous trestles along the climb.

Hannah was our tour guide on the way up, and made a ton of great observations and a ton of terrible jokes. Her words, not mine!

Before US Highway 302 and the Base Station Road, how did one access the station for the Cog Railway? The answer is another rail line, specifically the Mount Washington Branch of the Boston & Maine Railroad. This line got its start as the aptly-named Mt Washington Railroad, as well as the Boston Concord & Montreal Railroad, before becoming part of the B&M. This line transported riders 20 miles between the Mt Washington Base Station, where trains depart for the ascent to the mountain, to a junction with the rest of the B&M system known as Wing Road.

c.1910 photo at the Mt Washington Base Station, showing the Cog on the left and the B&M on the right. Robert Bermudes photo collection.

By the 1930's, this branch line was abandoned, meaning only automobiles and/or hikers could access the Base Station. 

One thing some people might not be prepared for is the extreme winds atop Mt. Washington. It is the windiest place on earth, and the convergence of several different weather patterns, meaning the highest gust ever recorded at 231 mph was recorded here. Some tornadoes have had estimated wind speeds up to 318 mph, but those have never actually been observed, for obvious safety reasons. This is to also note that it is much colder atop Mt Washington; it was in the low 40's at the top of the mountain, and upper 60's at the bottom, so dress accordingly if you plan to visit. Personally, the temperature and wind variations made it that much more fun!

A mid-20th century Mount Washington Cog Railway postcard.

As you begin to ascend into the clouds, you'll notice the Presidential Mountain Range, and the Appalachian Trail, on either side of the tracks. The trail crosses the Cog at one point as well. Our tour guide said that on clear days, like most of our visit, it was possible to see the states of Vermont and Maine, as well as New York, the Canadian Province of Quebec, and the Atlantic Ocean. I'm not sure if I totally believe that, and even if I did see them, I wouldn't know what I was looking at.

Our climb, reaching the tree line. Looking in the background, you can get a real sense of just how much of a grade we are on!


The tree line at Mount Washington is far lower in elevation than, for example, the Rocky Mountains, as the wind speeds and poor weather prevent a lot of vegetation from growing there. It is essentially a tundra.

Even from within the car, you can see some incredible views upon the ascent!

As previously stated, the railway has been in service for over 150 years, and has hosted incredibly important people on their vacations; one of which was the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, who came to visit along with his family in 1869.

Another postcard in our collection, this one of the base of Mount Washington.


In the foreground is the Appalachian Trail, with some other mountain peaks in the background. It was quite cold at this point, but it was pretty refreshing, given the current summer we've dealt with in the Chicago area.

Finally, the train reached near the top of Mount Washington, where you can walk, along with dozens of others who took the Cog, the Trail, or the Mount Washington Auto Road to reach the summit.

This was well worth the biting winds and the journey all in all, and it goes without saying that the Mount Washington Cog Railway should definitely be on your bucket list!


The weather changes quite quickly atop the mountain; fog rolled in, and rolled out, and rolled in again!

Top of the Cog Railway tracks with fog in the background.

You're not in Kansas anymore, but you can still get blown away.

Looking out towards the top of the Mount Washington Auto Road.



Mount Washington has plenty of telecommunications towers as well as an active weather station, especially important given how temperatures and/or weather fluctuates up here.

There are a ton of hikers to mix in with.
The tour gives riders one hour to take in Mount Washington, visit the museum and gift shop, and ascend to the top, among other activities. In earlier times, one could stay atop the mountain in a hotel overnight, although all but one of those have burned. I can't imagine doing that myself, it kind of sounds like it would end like the Shining. 

More shots of the Cog Railway's peak.

Mount Washington is one of New Hampshire's State Parks, and thus is not owned by the Cog Railway itself, although they were the first to turn the summit into a tourist attraction.

I will say I could have stayed up here all day. An hour goes by really quickly up here!

Then, our ride down the mountain arrived, which I made a short video of below:



As we made our way back down, the tour guides still had more to discuss, like how newspapers were delivered from the peak of the mountain on sideboards, which sounds incredibly fun!

Upon coming back, I took a peak through the museum, which is located in the Base Station area along with the gift shop. It was a nice museum, but the real trip here is the actual ride itself.

Inside of one of the engines on the Cog.

One of the sideboards in question, mentioned earlier with how the newspaper was delivered.

Definitely some steampunk vibes going on here with all the gears and valves inside of their steam engines!

I say this a lot after visiting some of the places we've been to, but it's true, that pictures don't do this place justice, and you ought to check out the Cog Railway for yourself! It is well worth the trip up to the remote New Hampshire area, and the views atop the mountain, and even from the nearby Franconia Notch and Crawford Notch cannot be missed!

Thanks as always for reading!


Comments

  1. I was able to visit My Washington in 2014. It is breathtaking. At the time when you looked over the rail at the mountain top you then realize you are above the clouds.

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