Railroading’s Other Sesquicentennial

Posted by Justin Franz
on Wednesday, February 27, 2019

One of the Mt. Washington Cog's 0-2-2-0 locomotives climbs Jacob's Ladder in 2009. Photo by Justin Franz.
In a few short months, the railroad world will be focused on a lonely stretch of desert in Utah to celebrate 150 years of transcontinental railroading. There will be speeches and fireworks and events that those lucky enough to attend are sure to remember for a lifetime.

But the 150th anniversary of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad is not the only sesquicentennial worth celebrating in 2019. This year, marks 150 years of operation for New Hampshire’s “Railway to the Moon,” also known as the Mt. Washington Cog Railway. To mark the occasion, the popular White Mountains tourist attraction has completed a cosmetic restoration of its first locomotive and will be holding special events throughout the year.

The fact that “The Cog” would thrive and survive for a century and a half would likely come as a shock to the members of the state legislature who gave its founder, Sylvester Marsh, a charter back in 1858. Marsh, a New Hampshire-born engineer, came up with the concept of a mountain-climbing railway in 1852 after he had nearly died trying to summit the northeast’s tallest peak. When Marsh brought his idea to the state, the legislators nearly laughed him out of the room. One of them said he “might as well build a railway to the Moon.” Figuring the only victim of Marsh’s plan would be his own wallet, the state gave him a charter anyway and sent him on his way.

The Civil War delayed Marsh’s plans, but by the mid-1860s he was laying tracks up the side of Mt. Washington. The railroad hauled its first paying passengers in 1868 and a year later, in July 1869, rails reached the summit. Years later, famous circus promoter P.T. Barnum rode the Cog and called the view from the top and the railroad that took him there “the second greatest show on earth.”

More than a century and a half after the first train roared up the side of Mt. Washington, the Cog still is one of the greatest shows on earth, especially when one of the quirky 0-2-2-0 locomotives are running. In the 2000s, the railroad acquired bio-diesels to replace most of the steam locomotives. Although the diesels are considerably better for the fragile alpine environment the railroad traverses, they are nowhere near as exciting to watch as the smoke-spewing, earth shaking steam locomotives that once ruled the hill. Luckily for railroad enthusiasts, the Cog still operates steam twice a day from May to October.

Three trains meet at Skyline Siding on the slopes of Mt. Washington in 2002. Photo by Justin Franz.
My first visit to the Cog came in the mid-1990s. My Dad and I were on weekend railfan trip to Vermont and New Hampshire when he announced that we were going to make a surprise detour. Late one October afternoon, I got my first glimpse of the spectacle that is the Cog and I was immediately hooked. We would return a number of times over the years to photograph and ride the railroad, but one trip in the fall of 2002 stands out in my mind. We got up early and headed up the Mt. Washington Auto Road to the summit. We parked our car and started scrambling down the hill toward Skyline Siding. As we approached the siding, we found two down-mountain trains waiting for one climbing toward the summit. Within a few minutes, coal smoke erupted from the treeline and the little train roared into sight — sounding everything like a 4-8-8-4 at track speed but in reality only creeping by at just under 3 miles per hour.

It truly was — and still is — one of “the greatest shows on earth.”

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