“Let him build a railroad to the moon!” a member of the New Hampshire Legislature suggested sarcastically, and everyone burst into hysterical laughter.
The demonstration was about a wind-up model of Sylvester Marsh’s invention—a locomotive powered by a central cogwheel gripping a center notched rail. Four outer wheels have neither power or braking ability, but only support and guide the engine. The light engine is geared down to attain the power needed. And for safety, multiple braking systems are included.
Although this episode heralded several years of public disbelief and ridicule for Sylvester Marsh, the state eventually gave him a five-year Charter to build railways on Mount Washington and Mount Lafayette to “fool away his own money.” The year was 1858.
How the Idea Came About:
Two years earlier, in 1856, Sylvester Marsh, a very successful businessman from Boston, and a friend hiked up Crawford Path. Above the tree line they were suddenly overtaken by storm-hurricane winds, freezing rain and premature darkness. Staggering, sometimes crawling, they lost their way until they finally stumbled to the top, exhausted. Marsh had found his mission: to provide “easier and safer method of ascension.”
We were there!
157 years later, people are still hiking up Mount Washington. But not us! Why should one not make use of Mr. Marsh’s handwork and ingenuity? It was on a cold September morning that Masood and I drove up to Marshfield Station at the base of Mount Washington in New Hampshire.
It had rained the previous night. By the time we reached Marshfield Station the sun shone timidly behind the clouds, but the air was very cold. Masood was all wrapped-up in a jacket we borrowed from a friend, because it did not make sense to buy a new one that will never be used in the U.A.E.
I, on the other hand, had layers of clothes on, plus the hijab and all the excitement, so that I did not feel too cold. But I had to stuff my hands into the pockets of my pretty, light-weight, white jacket (that I did not get the chance to wear again, sigh) every now and then to keep them warm enough to not shake when taking photographs.
We missed the 10:30 am train, having arrived just a few minutes before its scheduled departure.
How Much Does it Cost?
Those tickets cost $64 each per adult ($35 in November and December) for a round-trip plus entrance to the museum at the top of the mountain. The round trip takes approximately three hours, generally including a one hour stop at the summit.
Now, some people think spending that much money on a brief train ride is crazy, finding the journey too slow and boring. When we bought those tickets, however, we were looking forward to experience Mr. Marsh’s genius invention, a part of America’s history.
About the Coaches:
I’m assuming each car can easily accommodate 40 passengers, but I observed a few trains and noticed that they were never really filled up to maximum capacity. Most of the passengers were families, with small children. One of the women had a small infant in her arms. Next to us sat a beautiful French couple.
Currently, the Cog has six coaches in its fleet of cars, most of them running on biodiesel than steam. The Cog workers built the brightly-painted, wood, Victorian-styled coaches. The front and back have walls of glass, and the side windows open for air and photography when the weather permits.
The Mount Washington Cog Railway is the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway (rack-and-pinion railway). It is the second steepest rack railway in the world.
The windows do not open, much to my dismay. But, the good thing is that you can walk around the coach at any point during the journey and take pictures!
Now that is a dilemma: I seem uncertain whether to look out the window at the magnificent view of the mountainside or wonder at the Victorian-era technology that’s propelling us into the thick clouds above.
The 100-year-old Waumbek Tank:
Now, besides taking this train or hiking, there’s another way to get to the summit of Mount Washington—in your own car! They say the drive up is fun and spectacular and all, but the drive down is pretty nasty on the poor brakes.
But if you are a first-timer like us, I believe taking the cog railway is the best option, considering the history that comes with it.
The brakemen, who are well-trained on the mechanics of the train’s braking system, are all very knowledgeable and funny. They will tell you the history all the way up, then fun facts all the way down. Some will even tell you a little bit about themselves and their family.
While taking a picture of Masood next to a train, a brakeman gave his black hat to Masood to put on.
This is the 100+ year-old water tank that is used by multiple engines several times every single day. It’s pretty impressive, actually.
But more astonishing than that is the change in flora and topography from the base to the summit.
Old Man of the Mountain:
I totally missed seeing the Old Man on the way up. The brakeman was pointing at it, but I just couldn’t see the outline of a face. On the way down, it was pretty clear so I was able to not only see the face but also take a blurry photograph of it through the coach’s window for you.
The Old Man actually was made of five slabs of Conway granite balanced atop one another. More details on this face here.
When we told our colleagues that we were planning on going to Mount Washington’s summit, they all suggested the same thing—bring warm clothes. The weather up there is crazy and unpredictable.
The lowest recorded temperature at the summit was -49 degrees Fahrenheit; the highest was +74 degrees. The temperature on the summit falls below zero more than 65 days a year.
Jacob’s Ladder, a Fascinating Experience:
Jacob’s Ladder is a pretty cool point on the journey up or down Mount Washington!
Jacob’s Ladder is listed in Guinness Book of World Records as the most treacherous section of train track in the world. As the train climbs a 37.4 degree slope it also makes a 30 degree left-hand turn while 30 feet in the air. As it climbs the ladder, the front of the passenger coach is 14 feet higher than the rear of the coach!
While the passengers were busy either marveling at the beauty surrounding us or taking pictures, the brakeman suddenly puts down his microphone, stands up, opens up the front door, and begins to fall backwards, as if trying to drop himself on an imaginary bed with fluffy cushions. All of us gasped at practically the same time! One little mistake and he’s out there on the tracks.
Turned out, he’s never going to fall on his back. Not at Jacob’s Ladder. “Try it and see for yourself,” he cheerfully suggested, our jaws still hanging open from his stunt.
Masood was the first to try. It was pretty amazing how he could balance himself and not fall. I joined him a couple of minutes later. Then the French couple joined us. It was so much fun! It was something like this.
Deeper into the Clouds:
The winds blew stronger, felt colder. It started to get dark and it wasn’t even noon yet. I looked out the glass window and saw the leaves and tall grasses sway brutally with the wind. I also wondered about how the hikers were doing out there.
Occasionally, we saw rocks that are marked. It’s for the hikers, the brakeman told us. It keeps them from getting lost.
We’re told the view from here is spectacular on a clear day. There’s a deep cliff to your left, he told us. We looked out and saw nothing but thick clouds.
At the Top!
And I’ll tell you all about that in the next post!
In the meantime, we will continue to enjoy some nice, sunny weather…
What’s your memorable train experience like?