Among The Clouds


After the Civil War, a new $500 working model of the cog engine and track—and the belated perception of New England railroads that a cog railway could generate vacation passenger traffic—smoothed Marsh’s way, although he had to contribute $5,000 toward the venture himself. Surveys had already indicated that a great ridge on the mountain’s flank jutting toward the valley of the Ammonoosuc River would be an ideal path for a railway. Yet building the line proved difficult. From the nearest railroad, twenty-five miles away at Littleton, New Hampshire, men and oxen struggled through the woods with materials, equipment, and supplies. A log house went up to accommodate the workers. Plans called for the track to be mounted on longitudinal stringers set on crossties, much of it airborne on trestles. There was no sawmill available at first, and ties, stringers, and trestle timbers had to be shaped laboriously by hand. While the track inched up the grade, the first locomotive arrived. Built by Campbell, Whittier & Co. of Boston and based on Marsh’s working model, the little engine looked hardly bigger than a model itself. It arrived at the site—formally called Marshfield but more commonly known then and now as the Base Station—in pieces. It had been taken apart for the slow haul through the woods and had to be reassembled. Marsh drove his crews hard during that summer of 1866. By August 29, a quarter-mile of track had been completed, crossing the Ammonoosuc River on a trestle with a grade of 1,700 feet to the mile. It was not much of a stretch for those days of transcontinental railroad building, but it was long enough to justify a trial run in the hope of garnering useful publicity. A flatcar large enough to carry forty people was hastily knocked together, and the diminutive engine, optimistically named Hero , was fired up for the run. Because her vertical boiler resembled a pepper-sauce bottle, a bystander promptly nicknamed the engine Peppersass .

The brief run was a huge success; the glowing reports of the newspapermen present burned away the last doubts of the cog railway’s practicability and made the line’s completion certain. Although there had been only one major injury and no deaths connected with the work to date, the successful trial run made Sylvester Marsh a casualty of sorts. The New England railroads that had backed the line installed one of their own men—Job Sanborn of the Boston, Concord & Montreal—as construction superintendent in Marsh’s place. Shouldered aside, Marsh retained the title of president; later he observed with some bitterness that he was little more than a figurehead. Strangely, he was not listed as a stockholder.

Nevertheless, Marsh’s work had won him a permanent niche in rail history as the creator of the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway. Two Swiss engineers, sent to study the Mount Washington line in preparation for building one like it up Mount Rigi, were so impressed by Marsh that they offered him the post of superintendent of construction for the Swiss project. But he declined.

When Marsh was shoved aside, the third largest stockholder in the line was Herrick Aiken’s son, Walter. Just what happened between Marsh, the New England railroads, and Walter Aiken, who apparently sided with the railroads, is not clear. At this distance in time, neither heroes nor villains can be distinguished. Marsh remained a prosperous man, but it was Walter Aiken who nursed the new cog railway from infancy to adolescent success as the second of the four men who have dominated the railway’s history. A big, bewhiskered Yankee, Aiken could do almost anything for the railway that needed doing, and much needed doing. One day, as he crawled out from under a repair job on a stubborn engine at the summit, a woman visitor assumed he was an employee and asked him to get her a drink of water. Aiken did so and with some dismay contemplated the small tip she offered him. “Madam,” he said, “I’ve put a great deal of money and work into this railroad, and this is the first dividend I’ve ever got, and it’s so small I think I won’t take it.”

Regular runs to the summit began in the summer of 1869. The stagecoaches that brought cog railway passengers from the summer hotels to the Base Station were superseded, in 1876, by a Boston, Concord & Montreal branch line from Fabyan, seven miles away. The convenient access offered by the new branch heightened the competition between the railway and the carriage road (now the auto road) ascending the eastern side of Mount Washington. Wooing passengers became a fine art. Legend tells of a stubborn Vermonter, Dave Cutting, who had struggled to persuade a party of late-in-the-sea-son visitors to take the railway. He ended his efforts with one last warning: “Ef I was you, I’d go up now; we’re goin’ to take the mountain down in the fall!”