Mt. Washington Cog Railway

The Mt. Washington Cog Railway has the distinction of being the very first such system ever put into practical use in the United States when it opened just after the Civil War. The operation was conceived by Sylvester Marsh who believed the railroad would become a popular tourist attraction after he climbed New Hampshire's Mount Washington in the early 1850s. His idea proved to be quite a success and, just like the Manitou & Pike's Peak Railway in Colorado, thousands of folks continue to descend upon Bretten Woods annually to ride the train. Interestingly, the railroad does not scale the entire mountain but begins about a quarter of the way with grades reaching incredible levels, which peaks at 37.4%! For much of its existence the Mt. Washington line relied on standard steam power to shove trains up the slope but today it uses cheaper, and more environmentally friendly, bio-diesel units alongside its steamers.

Mt. Washington steamer #9, the "Waumbek," receives some attention at the shops while others watch during August of 1970.

For years, the White Mountains of New England, located in northern New Hampshire and Maine, have been a popular tourist attraction, which only grew when railroads finally reached the region. The first of these system was the appropriately-named White Mountains Railroad, which opened a line to nearby Littleton about 20 miles away in 1853 (the company would eventually become a subsidiary of the Boston & Maine). It was just one year earlier, in 1852, that a meat-packer from Chicago, Sylvester Marsh, had climbed Mt. Washington and realized its potential to attract tourists given the spectacular views it offered as the tallest slope east of the Mississippi River (6,293 feet). First, however, he would need to develop a cog, or rack, railway system to scale the mountain as similar designs were already in use in other parts of the world.

He began to work on his new business idea in 1855 and in the spring of 1858 decided he was ready to showcase his contraption to the New Hampshire State Legislature using a model locomotive and a short stretch of track. His cog design (which was later patented on September 10, 1861 and known as the Marsh System) ultimately won over the legislature, which approved his charter although unable to raise funding he had to use his $5,000 of his own money to construct a small test section to show the public how it worked. This small stretch of track, a quarter-mile in length, was constructed at Cold Spring Hill at what is now the opening section of the Mt. Washington Cog (located about 2,700 feet up the slope of the mountain). The demonstration occurred on August 29, 1866 and the public was incredibly impressed with the Marsh cog system which used a simple, ladder-like rack sported by outside-bracing "L" shaped rails.

Another view of #9 as it begins the climb up the mountain during August of 1970.

This was engaged by a pinions on the locomotive with deep-setting teeth to not only "grab" the rack securely but also designed in such a way that two teeth were always engaged for added safety. The success of the demonstration allowed the formation of the railroad, private funding to be secured, and Marsh nominated as president. A year later, in 1867 he had one mile open and by August 14, 1868 the line had reached Jacob's Ladder. Finally, in July of 1869 the 3.25-mile railroad was opened to the Mt. Washington summit and had cost $150,000 to complete. One of the first dignitaries to ride the new system was none other than President Ulysses Grant, the heralded Union general which had helped win the Civil War for the North.

The first steam locomotive used was an upright boiler design named Old Peppersass, #1 (which also went by the name of Hero and Peppersauce). It somewhat resembled the Baltimore & Ohio's Tom Thumb and featured a trailing tender with a rating of between 45 and 50 horsepower. It was slightly angled to remain at a level position while climbing the mountain and pushed a single passenger car on its journey, a practice still used today as an added safety measure (locomotives also lead the way on the journey back down for the same reason although it also saved time by not having to turn the units). After years of service the railroad knew it needed to replace #1 and would eventually roster a fleet of steam locomotives that looked like traditional designs with an enclosed cab and tender but used a slightly angled horizontal boiler (about 10 degrees) so that water always remained above the crownsheet. These later units bore names like Cloud, Atlas, and George Stephenson.

Soon after the cog opened the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad, which acquired the White Mountains Railroad, completed a branch from Littleton to Bretten Woods to offer guests a more comfortable means of transportation to ride the tourist attraction. Since the 19th century not much has changed for the operation, which has been in almost continuous operation since its opening. Today, the branch from Littleton is no longer in operation and the cog line is once again disconnected from the national railroad network. It still utilizes some of its 0-2-2-0 steam locomotives for trips up the mountain although the historic units, which date to the early 20th century, have larger been replaced by newer power these days. 

Mt. Washington Cog Locomotive Roster

Name Wheel Arrangement/Type Road Number Builder Date Built
Peppersass2-2-01Campbell, Whittier & Company1866
Mt. Washington0-2-2-01 (Originally #7 and known as Falcon.)Manchester1883
Ammonoosuc0-2-2-02Manchester1875
Agiocochook0-2-2-03Manchester1883
Chocorua0-2-2-04Manchester1883
Kancamagus0-2-2-06Manchester1874
Moosilauke0-2-2-08Mt. Washington Cog1983
Waumbek0-2-2-09Manchester1908
Kroflite0-2-2-010Mt. Washington Cog1972
Wajo NanatassisDieselM-1Mt. Washington Cog2008
AlgonquinDieselM-2Mt. Washington Cog2009
AbenakiDieselM-3Mt. Washington Cog2009
AgiocochookDieselM-4Mt. Washington Cog2010

(Thanks to S.S Worthen's "Steep But Slow" from the July, 1956 issue of Trains as a reference for this article.)



Two of Mt. Washington's little steamers await their next assignment while sitting at the shops during August of 1970.

In 2008 it acquired a biodiesel-powered diesel locomotive, #M-1 and now owns four numbered through M-4, which handles most duties.  Interestingly, the railroad still owns nearly every locomotive it ever operated although several steamers are now either on display or stored. To learn more about the Mt. Washington Cog Railway please click here to visit their official website.  For more information about train rides around the country, including the Mt. Washington Cog Railway you might want to consider the book Tourist Trains Guidebook, which is put together by the editors of Kalmbach Publishing's Trains magazine. 


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