Sylvester Marsh was a New England entrepreneur whose proposed mountain line received considerable ridicule when the idea was put forward in the late 1850s – for it was seen as a ‘railway to the moon!’ People thought the idea most inconceivable and it was a struggle for Marsh to get it off the ground. But this didn’t deter him for he had once been an astute businessman. Along the way he had had many business ventures, one of which found itself embroiled in a legal case during the 1840s and this was one where Marsh employed the services of a certain Illinois lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln. Curiously Lincoln later became noted as a railroad lawyer but that was in fact totally unconnected to Marsh’s 1858 idea for a railway up Mount Washington.
Brief history of the cog railway:
Mount Washington (6,288 ft/1,916 m) is undoubtly the most celebrated summit in the north east of the United States, sited in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The first proper route afforded to the summit was the eight mile Mount Washington Road, authorized in 1853 and opened by 1861. The railway arrived late on the scene even though Sylvester Marsh had contemplated his project long before the road was completed.
Mount Washington seen from the north during a spectacular cloud inversion. November 2022. Source: Twitter.
On August 24th 1857 Sylvester Marsh undertook a hike to the summit of Mount Washington, where he got caught in a terrible storm – somewhat unsurprising as the mountain is said to have the world’s worst weather. This storm had a ferocity similar to that which killed Lizzie Bourne in 1855 – for which a memorial was built near the summit of the mountain. The result of this inclement weather (and perhaps a reflection on what happened to Lizzie Bourne) prompted Marsh to consider an easier means of attaining the 6288 foot high summit. Marsh presented his ideas in 1858 and he was immediately met with scorn and ridicule.
One of Marsh’s business ventures had been that of being a meat exporter/packer – yet some wonder how such a profession could lead to someone building a mountain railway. However its known he had associations with the Erie Canal for he used that waterway for making numerous shipments. Its possible Marsh knew of the other canals that ran westward off the Hudson River and the Atlantic Seaboard which managed to overcome the obstacles posed by the Allegheny mountain range – this either by way of a considerable climb (the Morris Canal) or by means of a connecting railway with rope worked inclines (the Allegheny Portage Railroad.)
Its been claimed in one source the idea for a cog railway came from the one English engineer John Blenkinsopp had devised in 1812. It must however be said cog mechanisms were used in many applications in factories and mills. But its not just that – canals were a very early user of cog systems – and that was evident in the ways and means canals regulated water supplies as well as how the locks were operated. One could see the relationship between moving cogs and fixed racks thus its possible during his many years of using the Erie Canal Marsh had a good idea of cog wheels and racks and how these could be employed for other uses.
Any remnants of older lock gear on the US canal system are rare however this is Lock 7 on the Chesapeake and Ohio. There’s a series of gears and pinions designed to lift the sluices and let water into the lock chamber. As it stands that cog wheel ability could also be used to power movable structures such as lock gates and lift bridges. Source: Zaubee.
There was one other aspect to Marsh’s new cog railway. For a steam locomotive of any sort to be able to climb a mountain it would need to keep its boiler quite level – and this is where Marsh departed from general convention. Having put forward his proposal in 1858 with the first plans drawn up by 1861, unfortunately the American Civil War slowed his progress for a while.
Sylvester Marsh’s 1861 plans for a cog rail locomotive. The boiler needed to be level. Source: Progress is Fine.
People lambasted the idea of a railway up the mountain and suggested Marsh might as well continue his line to the moon. Harpers Weekly (August 1869) however recognises other mountain railways did exist and gives examples such as the one at Mont Cenis in Italy which was worked on the Fell System. Nevertheless Harpers Weekly concurred a mountain railway employing a cog system was indeed most novel.
It was found very difficult at the outset to convince mechanicans and capitalists of the feasibility of this ascending railway. Even an inspection of the working models failed to give much satisfaction. One prominent railroad manager is said to have thrown aside the early letters of Mr. Marsh as the writings of a maniac. (Mount Washington in Winter, pub 1871.)
Anyhow the state legislators of New Hampshire went along with the idea and were even wiling to amend it so as to be a railroad charter to the moon if Marsh so wished. Evidently he had no wish to go that far! His charter for a cog railway was granted on 25 June 1858.
Marsh however had to build his line in what was then a considerably isolated part of New Hampshire as the legislation prohibited him from building on the slopes where the new Mount Washington road was to be found. The only way to transport materials to the agreed site was by way of ox teams along seldom used tracks for many miles. It was evident a turnpike road needed to be built to the site of the planned base station before the railway’s construction could properly commence. This turnpike road commenced from a point known as Giants Grave on the Ammonoosuc River and wound through the woods to a spot known Twin River where the Ammonoosuc splits into two for a distance.
Twin River was at least fairly level and would provide a temporary base as well as a future interchange with the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railway. As it stands this standard gauge railroad was built a couple more miles beyond Twin River right up to where the cog railway began. This was opened in 1876 (and closed in 1931.) It once gave excellent cross-platform interchange between the main US railroad system and the cog railway.
Once this dedicated turnpike had been completed construction of the cog railway could easily begin. A saw mill was established at what would later be the base station. This saw mill was a pretty useful addition because the entire line to the summit of Mount Washington would be built on a trestle that was almost three miles long. The line was built by first cutting the trees down ahead of it and then these were transported to the saw mill which produced the large sawn timbers needed to construct further sections of the trestle upon which the line stood.
Sylvester Marsh – a guy who wasn’t going to be put off by any form of incredulity. Source: Pinterest.
Well, I built it for a pastime and to cure the dyspepsia more than anything else. I retired from business in 1855. After living a few years doing nothing, I had the dyspepsia very bad, and was compelled to do something to save my health. I got this idea and worked upon it, and built different models of it, until I worked it out. It was ridiculed a great deal, and was laughed at, but it cured the dyspepsia. (Appendix Coggers of Mount Washington p544.)
The first trial of the new cog railway took place on 29th August 1866 and it was a great success. Work continued to extend the railway and it was opened on 14th August 1868. This was as far as the steepest part of the line at Jacob’s Ladder. It had been hoped to complete the section from there to the summit in that year however bad weather stopped further construction. The line was finally completed in July 1869 and soon after its opening the President of the US conducted an official visit.
President Grant & First Lady Grant en route to the summit. August 1869. Source: Twitter.
Those old rails to the Moon:
Strap rail formerly employed on the Mount Washington Cog Railway. Source: Wikipedia.
Marsh employed a type of early rail known as Strap Rail for his project. This was lightweight and far easier to carry as opposed to the proper T shaped heavier rail. No doubt at this point in time it made sense for this type of rail to be employed because there was simply no way of carrying vast amounts of much heavier rail to such an isolated location. This type of rail no doubt eased the construction of the new cog railway but had its downfalls. Strap rail is quite thin and can be bent, distorted, even broken, under pressure. Strap rail had been used for more than half a century yet it was well known strap rail wasn’t very reliable.
Strap rail as employed on the Allegheny Portage Railroad. Source: Flickr.
The Springfield Weekly Republican for August of 1866 expressed amazement that the cog railway had used ‘old fashioned’ strap rail. Evidently they knew this type of rail was going to be problematic. Almost as soon as the railway began public operations with larger and more powerful locomotives it was evident the line’s strap rail simply wasn’t up to the task. From 1870 urgent steps were begun to replace this strap rail with what was vastly superior ‘T’ shaped rail. By 1874 most of the line had been replaced with a more suitable type of rail.
The fact the cog railway had most of its strap rail replaced by 1874 was fortunately made in time for the introduction of a newer and even larger type of locomotive designed by Sylvester Marsh – who hadn’t been happy with the batch of cog locomotives built under the direction of the railway’s General Manager Walter Aiken.
If one sees pictures of the cog railway with strap rail it no doubt dates images prior to 1874. The later and more substantial type of rail lasted until at least the 1890s when another replacement drive was undertaken. In 2022 the cog railway successfully completed the entire replacement of a full three miles of 25lb steel rail – some of which had been in use since the 1890s!
This colourised crop from one of the photographs of the line at Cold Spring in its early days, possibly 1867 as construction is fresh. This photo was taken by Kilburn Brothers of Littleton, New Hampshire, who kept a good record of the line in its early days. The photo clearly shows the strap rail employed at the time. What appears to be the upper section of the line can be seen however its likely to be preliminary work for the new railway as well as part of an existing mountain path. The photo may have been taken just after ‘Hero’ had passed downward with a works train.
The older strap rail formation can be seen in this image of the permanent way near the summit during 1874. This strap rail wouldn’t be in use much longer. Source: Historic New England.
The newer heavier rail near the summit in the late 1870s. Traces of the old strap rail can be seen. Source: Atlas Obscura.
Save for a number of minor changes including the construction of extra track at the summit and a new depot at base, the line remained very much as it was for many decades. In the early years of WWII new switches were built which afforded the line more capacity. One was at Base, another at Waumbek tank and a third provided at Skyline. This replaced an older switch at Gulf tank. With these extra switches the railway was able to operate far more trains than before. Nevertheless the switches were complicated and required a lot of effort to use – the video below shows why! By the 2000s these switches were most definitely unsuited for modern operation thus steps were begun to replace these.
The old order! Skyline switch being prepared for an up train to enter the siding in order to permit a down train to pass.
The 1890’s style of rail can be seen quite well in this 2018 image taken on the Homestretch section above Skyline. The rail is held in place by rail spikes and washers whilst the fishplates were of a horizontal type that fastened onto the wooden structure. The cog’s construction can be seen too – its actually a pair of ‘L’ plates with specially cast steel dowels riveted at regular intervals. Source: Twitter.
The cog railway gets brand new rails and switches:
The Waumbek switch was replaced with a moveable transfer starting in 2000. Around the same time the siding was replaced and was soon extended to form a lengthy dual tracked section with a new switch placed at the upper end (2004/2005) thus creating the cog railway’s first ever passing loop. The old switch up at Skyline was superseded by the new Waumbek loop. Similarly the Base station switch was replaced in 2002. With these improvements the line could now run a maximum of seven trains in total at any one time.
Further track upgrades included moving switches and a pair of upper station tracks at the summit. The latter were installed in 2014 to 2016 and completed for the 2016 summer service. The switch that connected both tracks was however not completed until 2017. Source: Facebook.
There was one job that still needed to be done and that was the replacement of the entire line with heavier duty rail. However other outstanding work needed to be completed and this was before the Ammonoosuc trestle at Base was rendered useless by storms during October 2017. The cog railway was effectively closed as a result.
The new transfer switch at Base with the summit of Mount Washington at right. The old Ammonoosuc trestle can be seen. Source: Twitter.
The switch at Base showing its operation.
The Ammonoosuc trestle was damaged by storms in late October 2017 thus closing the line completely. Winter maintenance work could not be undertaken on the railway. The new trestle over the Ammonoosuc river was installed in time for the 2018 season. Source: Twitter.
In its early days the new Waumbek loop operated with heavy rail on the loops and the older 25lb rail on the switch itself. As well as that the new heavy gauge rail lengths exhibit a section using the older track fitting and a later section with Pandrol type clips! (Facebook.)
In 2019 a Re-railing wagon was built. This 60foot long covered car would enable track staff to work in almost all weathers on the line’s re-railing project. It proved to be a considerable time saver and enabled the company to finish the project earlier than envisaged.
Vive la difference! The new heavy duty rail (2020s) compared to the smaller 25lb rail used since the 1890s. Source: Mount Washington Cog Railway.
Part of the wooden trestle at the summit was replaced with steel framework in order to facilitate a brand new switch serving a new pair of tracks thus giving greater operational flexibility. (Facebook.)
Sometime during the re-railing project it seems a decision was made to use ‘Pandrol’ chairs and track clips instead of flat base plates and sleeper spikes/coach screws thus giving the new track even more resilience.
The new look summit station with its pair of tracks comprised of 100lbs rail and an earlier style of heavy duty rail fastening – which was derived from the older system of 25lbs rail fastenings. Source: Twitter.
This lovely picture from February 2020 shows the line’s renewal work entailed upgrading the centre cog rail too. Stuff like this was done under cover of the Re-railing car which enabled work to be done in almost all weathers. Source: Facebook.
Mixed rail visible in this view – the new heavy 100lbs type (seen a little further up) with a length of old 25lb rail still extant near Jacob’s Ladder. Source: Facebook
During 2020-21 a new depot was built at Base adjacent to the old one – thus affording much larger storage and superior servicing facilities. Modern heavy rail was employed too and the project was largely complete by February 2021. The first item of rolling stock to enter the new sheds was the cog railway’s Re-railing car.
The cog railway’s vast new depot. Visible from L-R are Kenison, Algonquin, Waumbek (in the background) and Metallak partially visible at right. Source: Facebook.