New Hampshire: Mount Washington Cog Railway Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Mount Washington Cog Railway was the first such railway ever constructed, and it became the model for other cog railways around the world. It continues to attract thousands of tourists and sightseers every year.

Site Office

Mount Washington Cog Railway

Route 302

Bretton Woods, NH 035899

ph.: (800) 922-8825, ext. 5; (603) 846-5404

Web site: www.cog-railway.com

Neither the hiking trails nor the automobile road offers the traveler such a carefree and scenic trip up Mount Washington as does the unique cog railway, in operation since 1869 except between 1943 and 1945. Thousands of tourists including celebrities like President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) and showman P. T. Barnum (1810-1891) have made the 6.2-mile, three-hour round-trip to the summit over the years. Barnum called the view from the top “the second greatest show on earth.” Current ridership numbers eighty thousand per season. The summit of Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet, is the highest point in New Hampshire, and the third highest point in the United States East of the Mississippi. The mountain rises near the town of Bretton Woods, about 25 miles north of Conway, in the White Mountain National Forest. The mountain was one of the first features of its kind to be noticed by European settlers in the seventeenth century, since clear weather permits the peak to be seen from the Atlantic Ocean, 75 miles east.

Darby Field ascended Mount Washington in 1642, accompanied by two Native Americans, in whose language the mountain was called Agiocochook. His feat was recorded in the journal of Massachusetts governor John Winthrop (1588-1649) and is the earliest recorded ascent by a settler from the Old World.

Construction of the Cog Railway

The idea for the Mount Washington Cog Railway came from Sylvester Marsh (1803-1884), of Campton, New Hampshire. Inspired by his hike up Mount Washington in 1857, Marsh put together a proposal for a cog railway, brought it before the state legislature in 1858, and was granted a charter. Work was begun on the tracks and on the first engine with its vertical boiler–originally named Hero. By May, 1866, Hero (now renamed Old Peppersass because of its resemblance to a sauce bottle) was in operation on the mountain, and although the tracks did not yet extend to the summit, the first passengers were able to take a short ride on August 29, 1866. By July, 1869, the tracks had been extended to the summit, supported by trestles, including the 300-foot-long Jacob’s Ladder. Most of Jacob’s Ladder was blown down in the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, but it was quickly rebuilt.

The cog railway has two outer tracks but differs from an ordinary railroad in the use of two inner rails joined by evenly spaced cross members in a ladderlike configuration. A large gear on the engine is turned by steam power so that its teeth engage the rungs of the “ladder” and force the train along upgrades that average 25 percent, but approach 37 percent in some spots. The passenger car is pushed upward by the engine behind it, but on the return trip, the engine goes first. For safety, the wheels all have independent brakes and a ratchet mechanism that prevents them from turning backwards. The engine and the passenger car are not coupled, and may separate slightly at times. The passenger seats are flipped over to give the passengers a clear downhill view during the descent. A round trip requires the burning of about one ton of coal and the conversion of one thousand gallons of water into steam. The train stops at an elevation of 3,800 feet to take on additional water from the Waumbek tank. (The name is the American Indian word for the White Mountains.) The tank gets its water from a well that has been drilled on the site. Until 1910 wood rather than coal was used as fuel. Old Peppersass remained in operation for twelve years, and then was removed from service and exhibited in various places. It made one last trip in 1929 but was wrecked on the way down the mountain.

After the death of Sylvester Marsh, the Mount Washington Cog Railway was owned by the Concord and Montreal Railroad for 10 years, and then by the Boston and Maine Railroad until 1931, when it was bought by Colonel Henry N. Teague.

Places to Visit

Marshfield Station at the base of the railway offers food and souvenirs, and houses a museum. Old Peppersass is displayed outside. A fire in 1998 destroyed the old station, but not the new one. An overnight hotel stay can be enjoyed at the Summit House atop Mount Washington, and nearby one can visit the observatory of the U.S. Weather Bureau, where the world’s record wind speed of 231 miles per hour was recorded on April 21, 1934.

For Further Information
  • Bray, Donald H. They Said It Couldn’t Be Done. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1984. Story of the cog railway, with emphasis on the technical side.
  • Burt, Frank Allen. The Story of Mount Washington. Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth, 1968. Covers earliest times until 1960. The author’s grandfather once published a newspaper at the summit.
  • Douglas, W. O., and K. Revis. “The Friendly Huts of the White Mountains.” National Geographic 120, no. 2 (August, 1961): 205-239. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas hiked in the Presidential Range, photographing the scenery and staying at Appalachian Mountain Club huts.
  • New Hampshire: A Guide to the Granite State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1938. Dated but very thorough guide to the state, with about a page devoted to the Cog Railway.
  • Poole, Ernest. The Great White Hills of New Hampshire. New York: Doubleday, 1946. White Mountains and their history, including many of the old Native American names.
  • Teague, Ellen C. I Conquered My Mountain. Canaan, N.H.: Phoenix, 1982. The autobiography of a former owner and operator of the Mount Washington Cog Railway.
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