Among The Clouds

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There is a kind of astonishing improbability about the Mount Washington Cog Railway. This New Hampshire institution is so obviously a child of the nineteenth-century world of great white summer hotels with endless porches filled by genteel rockers, that its mere survival in an age of television, expressways, and air-conditioned motels seems almost wondrous. In an age that regards 1,200-mile-an-hour supersonic aircraft as much-needed improvements upon 700-mile-an-hour jets, a transportation system that moves passengers at four miles an hour, with locomotives built in the nineteenth century, borders on fantasy. In an era that has seen family-owned businesses replaced with “multi-management corporate bodies,” to quote a recent publicity release, there is something rather quaint about a cog railway that has thrived for ninety-nine years thanks in large part to the efforts of just four men.

Sylvester Marsh, first of the four, the New Hampshireman who planned the railway, said in later years that he undertook the venture to cure his boredom and dyspepsia. The cure has left no mark in the annals of medicine, but it has left a lasting mark upon the mountains of the world, from the Rockies to the Alps. It was the world’s first, and is still the world’s steepest, cog railway; it is still powered entirely by steam and is still ridden by passengers in the thousands from July to October. Today, as ninety-nine years ago, travellers board the cog railway’s one-car trains at the Base Station and are steam-propelled up grades as steep as 37.5 per cent—a rise of 37.5 feet vertically for every 100 feet forward —to the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington.

Sylvester Marsh was attacked by boredom and dyspepsia because he acted upon his expressed opinion that when a man has enough money he ought to stop working. In his case, this reasonable pause came in his fifty-second year. Born in 1803 in Campton, New Hampshire, he grew up on a farm, moved (on foot) to Boston before he was twenty, rose to eminence and wealth as a meat packer in the primordial Chicago of 1833, lost his money in the panic of the 1830’s, recouped his fortune in grain, and retired to the green Boston suburb of Jamaica Plain.

In August of 1857, he climbed Mount Washington in company with a clergyman friend. A fierce storm broke, and the two men stumbled, exhausted, to shelter at the summit. Such storms are not unusual on Mount Washington; unwary climbers have died of exposure there in August. Yet even at the time of Marsh’s ascent, trips to the summit on foot or horseback were popular. It is not unlikely, then, that the nearly disastrous outing set Marsh to pondering the virtues of an easier way to the top. Adding to his interest was a model cogwheel locomotive and cograil-centered track constructed by an acquaintance, Herrick Aiken of Franklin, New Hampshire. Aiken was a fertile and successful inventor; he had already devised a circular knitting machine that produced a seamless stocking in less than five minutes. Aiken had shown his cogwheel locomotive model to working railroaders; then as now a conservative breed, they had dismissed the concept as impracticable.

Marsh, no railroader himself but a practical man—his success in meat packing came after he had invented the necessary machinery—was very impressed with Aiken’s model. He promptly had another constructed to his order, a clockwork-powered cogwheel locomotive and eight feet of track, wound it up for a New Hampshire legislative committee, and blandly requested a charter for a railway up Mount Washington. After running the gantlet of heavy-handed legislative jests suggesting that it be extended to permit service to the moon, Marsh’s charter was signed on June 25, 1858, by Governor William Halle. The times were not propitious for attracting investors to a bizarre mountain railway. Marsh devoted himself to a research-and-development program. The Aiken model had demonstrated clearly that it was quite feasible to build an engine that could climb a mountain. How to build one that could descend safely was less clear. Marsh’s eventual solution was such a triumph of simplicity that it is still in use today. The locomotives become rolling air compressors on the descent. Special valves admit air to the four cylinders of the locomotive; compressed by the pistons, the air holds engine speeds to a safe four miles an hour on the downgrade. Marsh also perfected the locomotives’ running gear; it too is still in use today, slightly modified, on all six of the railway’s engines.