- Historic Sites
Among The Clouds
Tourists who ride the famous cog railway up the precipitous slopes of Mount Washington often feel the sky itself is their destination. Overcoming many obstacles—including a recent serious accident—the little locomotives with their tilted boilers have been huffing and puffing people to New England’s highest summit for nearly a century
April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
Success brought a need for more locomotives—although the first ones proved stout enough. Little Peppersass served until 1878, when she was deemed worn out and was retired. Like Peppersass , the early engines had vertical boilers. In 1872, Marsh patented a new design with a horizontal boiler (tilted, however, to keep it level on the grades), four cylinders, and two driving spur gears. Subsequent engines, most of them still in service, embodied these features. To be sure, they have been drastically rebuilt over the years and hardly have an original rivet left, but on the three-and-a-half-mile run to the summit they are still performing a task equivalent to lifting an eighteen-ton block of granite thirty-seven hundred feet in the air in seventy minutes.
Peppersass became, in retirement, the cog railway’s best-known engine. In 1893 she joined other antique locomotives at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, was later exhibited in St. Louis, and finally—and somewhat mysteriously—was taken into custody by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad for more than twenty years. Her reappearance at a Baltimore & Ohio “Fair of the Iron Horse” inspired a New Hampshire clergyman to work for her return to the cog railway. He was successful, and old Peppersass surprised the men at the Boston & Maine Railroad’s Concord shops by passing the required boiler tests with ease despite her great age and her hand-headed conical boiler rivets.
Back at the Base Station, she was gingerly tested and, once an accumulation of nuts and cherry stones stored by squirrels was removed from her boiler, proved as adept as ever at climbing the mountain. But her spryness proved her undoing. To mark her return, the cog railway invited civic dignitaries, hotel executives, and the press to an all-out celebration on July 20, 1929. Peppersass climbed the mountain behind six special trains; aboard her were an engineer, a fireman, two photographers, the engineer’s son, and, for a short distance, a Boston & Maine official. On the way down, just above Jacob’s Ladder, the steepest part of the road, Peppersass broke a tooth on a gear, leaped out of mesh with the cograil, and began to run away. (Unlike the other cog railway engines, which have two driving gears, the little antique had only one.) The engineer ordered all hands to jump to safety; all did, except a photographer named Daniel Rossiter, who stayed aboard and fell to his death at the foot of Jacob’s Ladder. Peppersass also tumbled from the track; she was subsequently reassembled and, shining in brass, red, and green, glitters on permanent display at the Base Station.
Until 1930 the cog railway remained a protégé of the Boston & Maine; it made up for its lack of profit by helping to lure vacationers to the White Mountains. But despite their close relationship, the Boston & Maine and the cog railway were not especially compatible. The summer-only line burdened its parent with heavy maintenance and operation costs (it takes a ton of coal and 1,000 gallons of water to lift a train from base to summit) and further offended the Boston & Maine by its winter hibernation and laborious spring revival. The relationship became especially strained during the Depression. For railroads, it was a particularly disastrous period, since in addition to the over-all business decline they suffered increasing and largely irreplaceable losses of freight and passenger business to autos, trucks, and buses. By 1931, the Boston & Maine had abandoned its branch from Fabyan to the Base Station, and decided to dispose of the cog railway itself.
An offer was first made to sell the line to owners of neighboring hotels. They declined, but one of them, Colonel William A. Barren of Crawford House, suggested the course that ultimately saved the railway. “What you need,” he said to a Boston & Maine executive, “is a circus promoter; a man who can run the road, increase services, stir up new business, publicize the railway to get more people interested in taking the trip up Mount Washington.” The Boston & Maine found a man so eminently suited for the task that the survival of the cog railway without him cannot be imagined.
At first glance, Colonel Henry N. Teague seemed a somewhat unlikely candidate for the ownership and presidency of an unprofitable part-time railway. He had dropped $1,000,000 in Florida land speculations in the 1920’s and, conceivably, would have had difficulty finding the price of a round trip on the cog railway. A native of Maine, he was a graduate of Dartmouth College and one of the first graduates of its Amos Tuck School of Administration and Finance. His colonelcy was honorary; he’d been a private in the Spanish-American War.
Pressed to buy the cog railway, Colonel Teague not surprisingly pleaded poverty. The Boston & Maine then airily presented him with the cog railway and a mortgage for $100,000. When the Colonel pointed out that he lacked cash to operate the line, the Boston & Maine put $10,000 in the bank for him. In return for an IOU of epic proportions in the midst of the worst depression in American history, Henry N. Teague had acquired an unprofitable mountain railway with train sheds full of more or less viable antiques.