History, Experience, and Views: Mount Washington Cog Railway

I happened to be in New Hampshire a while back and took a ride on the cog railway up Mount Washington. This is the second time I’ve done so–the first was about 20 years ago give or take. The cog railway was the first such, following patents, and built in the late 19th century. It’s still in operation, a private enterprise which runs profitable (I presume) pleasure runs up and down the mountain. Nevertheless, things have changed since the first runs and even since the start of the 21st century!

Mountain in distance, people in foreground, with a bio-diesel train and passenger car easing down the rails
Two bio-diesel trains coming down to base camp at mid-day

The biggest change is that most of the trains are now bio-diesel. The Railway keeps a few coal-fired trains running each day, at either end. This is a good change for the environment, and I applaud it. It does make for a slightly different experience. Some of the differences are more welcome than others. The billows of smoke from the coal-fired engine are quite evocative–but can also make breathing harder. The bio-diesel engines are a LOT faster up the mountain and require much less human work. Bio-diesel thus doesn’t require someone tossing shovel after shovel of coal into the engine on the way up–or a brakeman carefully adjusting the brakes on the way down.

There’s a small museum at the base camp which showcases the history. Or check the website for some of the same information (albeit without the physical presence of artifacts).

The ride itself hasn’t changed as much. The passenger carriages sit 4-6 per row, 2-3 per side, with one carriage per engine at least at the time I was there. You sit facing up on the way up and facing down going down–with the seats angled for the return so that people aren’t sliding forward when we’re hitting the steepest pitches.

Man standing & others sitting in passenger carriage, most looking backward.
We’re fairly level–at the moment.

The engine is at the back–pushing on the way up and slowing on the way down (the bio-diesel, that is; the brakeman in the passenger carriage is doing most of the work of slowing things). The rails rise high enough that from the start the views are quite good.

The hiking trail up Mount Washington runs near the rails, so one can see hikers — and various signs and cairns left by previous visitors. And, of course, riders get to spend time at the top. This can be a mixed blessing–the top of Mount Washington is notorious for bad weather and, indeed, visitors are regularly greeted with something along the lines of “Welcome to the World’s Worst Weather!” The mountain lies in three storm tracks, and according to our brakeman sometimes when they reach the top of the mountain nobody wants to get off the train things are so bad! There’s a small museum in the summit all about bad weather on Mount Washington.

Fortunately for me and the others traveling the same day, it was lovely. A “top 10” type day. Definitely cooler but not cold as the winds had mostly died down. The majority of travelers had prepared and come with sweaters or jackets (which were also for sale inside). Here are some of the gorgeous views.

It’s expensive in monetary terms (so is driving the road up the mountain). And that doesn’t include the time it takes to get there. Is it worth it? Yes, but take into account that I did luck out with one of the most beautiful days possible at the top!

Oh, and if you do decide to go–take the warnings about GPS very seriously. Set your GPS for the restaurant near the road to the base camp, not the camp itself. I didn’t follow this (actually didn’t read it until afterward), and my GPS tried to send me off onto a dirt road around the other side of the mountain. I knew better and kept on 302 until I came to the right turnoff–but it was a close thing.

Travel and Virtual Travel

I’ve been away visiting historic sites, museums, and more which will appear on this site over the next months. Of course I’m also planning more visits, too, for myself first and to share after.

Most of the time, I make deliberate plans to visit sites. On occasion, I’m more spontaneous. In either case, however, here are some of the things I try to take into account:

Open Hours — this is probably the biggest thing to check in advance. If it’s a Saturday in the summer, you’re probably good if you head wherever around mid-day. Other than that, though, checking for a website and posted hours is always wise. I recently drove back through part of my state on a Monday in August and several historic sites near my route were only open Wed-Sat or such.

Directions — also a good idea to check on websites. I know this is an era of GPS, but GPS devices are not always right! Particularly for places located out in less traveled areas. I’ve been to two high-profile places eminently worth visiting and in very different locations both of which warn visitors that GPS can lead them seriously astray. (For the curious, the two places I have in mind are Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and the Mount Washington Cog Railway Base Station in New Hampshire; in the case of the former you might find yourself wandering around rather aimlessly while the latter can leave you on the wrong side of the mountain).

Cost — if this matters, check in advance. Some are free, including some absolutely wonderful places. Others charge, and the fees can rack up high particularly if you’re not on your ownsome.

Guided tours / demonstrations — these are often highly worthy of attending, but don’t happen just by chance. If you haven’t decided when to visit somewhere, see if they offer any thing for which day/time is key and take that into consideration.

Special events — these complicate parking (assuming you aren’t there early) and can create long lines, but they also offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Your call. Be aware that, especially if you’re not a local or extremely plugged in, you may not even be aware a special event is scheduled until you arrive. Yes, this happened to me. I had a general idea there was something on a particular weekend at a particular site, but I thought it was for Sunday not Saturday. It was great timing, but completely accidental (and I was there early, so I had no trouble parking)

Accessibility — if this matters, check. More and more sites are preparing to ensure people with various situations can enjoy as much as possible, but it’s still catch-as-catch-can (as some of you likely know better than I)

I could keep on going on, but will stop for now. The main thing is: if you’re interested in historic places, go visit, talk, look, smell, touch, feel, and store up memories. (And ask questions, too, but that’s a whole different can of worms.)

What makes a site historical?

Most Tuesdays I post about a historical site. What, then, is my criteria for determining what qualifies as a historical site? After all, there are a variety of measures. Today (since I’m off busily visiting more sites to post about in the future) here are the types of sites I have and/or will post about as historical.

Land/buildings managed by governments as historical sites or parks, etc. This category includes sites managed by the US National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, or the state & local equivalents. Ditto for other countries, such as Parks Canada (I visited a few of their sites recently).

Historical museums, whether located in original historical buildings or elsewhere. This includes museums operated by governments at sites, or local museums such as those run by historical societies.

Places whose owners/controllers/operators incorporate historical elements and celebrate history as part of their operations. This is a fuzzier category and likely to be highly subjective. An example of this is the Mount Washington Cog Railway. The base camp building hosts a small museum celebrating nearly 150 years of operations and showcasing what has and hasn’t changed. And depending on the brakeman/person’s preferences as the train goes up and down, passengers might hear about elements of the railway’s history.

So stay tuned, because examples of these and others will be forthcoming over the remainder of 2019, at least.

Finding Historic Places

For a slight change of pace, today’s post is about finding places to visit rather than highlighting one I’ve visited (or intend to).

It’s not that hard to find places–indeed, in some parts it’s easy enough to trip over them. But there’s a wide range of types of places to find and explore, based in part on any given site’s nature or type (ex. building v. land), owner (private, quasi-public, public), and funding (see previous).

At least in the United States, many states, counties, and cities have historical societies or other organizations who maintain places and sometimes maps bringing together sites regardless of who maintains them. At the federal level, the National Park Service operates a lot of historic sites, so does the Bureau of Land Management (at least in the west). And of course there’s the National Register of Historic Places, plus state equivalents, which keeps an eye on some (but may miss others). Many states and towns own historic buildings, and often operate within them. Academic institutions likewise. And there are a number of stand-alone non-profit entities which own and operate historic sites.

Things are, insofar as I can tell, similar to a degree in a number of other countries. There are national-level organizations operating some properties & local others.

And then there are too many who fall by the wayside. Certain ones tend to be very, very popular–others, not so much. And even those which are popular may need more upkeep than the operating entity can afford.

All of which means, to me, that I might as well visit places and absorb atmospheres now–because who knows what will happen later? And while I will occasionally grumble to myself about entrance fees, I know most of these organizations don’t have much money and need the fees to help keep the property up.

So as the weather turns, cooler or warmer, and climate change threatens many a place–visit those you can as you can. If you’re reading this, you’re likely interested enough in history that you’ll enjoy it.

Good travels to you!

Visiting Historic Places

History is everywhere. This morning? History. Yesterday? History.

The older a place is, the more unusual, and/or the more connected with someone famous (or infamous), the greater the odds it might survive in some form as a historic place to visit. Might. Most don’t. But some do, and that’s the subject for today’s ramblings.

Because these are places for inspiration, education, entertainment, and connection. Sometimes all at the same time and sometimes . . . not. I believe in visiting historic sites (granted, not all–there are some I’m never setting foot in, not no way not no how) and I’ve visited a lot. I don’t have a complete list of all that I’ve visited in my life — I come by the penchant for doing this honestly & remember going to some places when I was a pre-teen.

That said, I kept track of the places I went in the southwest while the Twisting the Border and other stories began sprouting in my mind. The list is below. Some I’ve posted about here on this blog already; some I’ll do so over the next year or so.

And in a week or two, I plan a smaller blitz of visiting–not in the southwest but the midwest, mid-atlantic, and northeast. Because I feel like indulging in a fest of visitations and learning, and as a side benefit for more material for the blog. One doesn’t have to visit in person–many sites offer a lot of information and images online on their websites. But there’s nothing like standing in a place and imagining what life was like back when (among other things, it can help improve appreciation for modern conveniences such as the flush toilet!)

So here are some of the places I’ve been. I’ll expand this list down the road, after I’ve already added to it.

Where have you gone? Where would you recommend visiting?

  • Alamo Mission, San Antonio TX (2017)
  • Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson (2014, 2015, 2016)
  • Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos NM (2017)
  • Barona Cultural Center & Museum, Lakeside CA (2017)
  • Cabrillo National Monument & Point Loma Lighthouse, San Diego CA (2017)
  • Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Nageezi NM (2017)
  • Chiricahua National Monument, Wilcox AZ (2017)
  • Coronado Historic Monument, Bernalillo NM (2016)
  • Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix AZ (2017)
  • Fort Craig National Historic Site, Socorro NM (2016)
  • Fort Davis National Historic Site, Fort Davis TX (2017)
  • Fort Lancaster State Historic Site, Sheffield TX (2017)
  • Fort McKavett State Historic Site, Fort McKavett TX (2017)
  • Fort Yuma Quechan Museum display, Winterhaven CA, (2017)
  • Huhugam Heritage Center (Gila River Indian Community), Chandler AZ (2017)
  • Huhugan Ki Museum (Salt River Maricopa-Pima), Scottsdale AZ (2017)
  • Jemez Historic Site, Jemez Springs NM (2016)
  • Kartchner Caverns, Benson AZ (2017)
  • Old Town San Diego, San Diego CA (2017)
  • Painted Rock Petroglyph Site, Dateland AZ (2017)
  • Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque NM (2017)
  • Pinos Altos NM (2015, 2016)
  • Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón Museum, Tucson AZ (2014, 2017)
  • Saguaro National Park, Tucson AZ (2017)
  • San Diego History Center, San Diego CA (2017)
  • San Diego Museum of Man, San Diego CA (2017)
  • South Llano River State Park, Junction TX (2017)
  • Spanish Governor’s Palace, San Antonio TX (2017)
  • Tohono O’odham Cultural Center & Museum, Topawa AZ (2017)
  • Valles Caldera National Preserve, Jemez Springs NM (2017)
  • Walatowa Visitor Center, Jemez NM (2016, 2017)
  • Yuma Quartermaster State Park, Yuma AZ (2017)

Art Imitating Life

There’s the old saying about life imitating art. I don’t recall hearing or reading a saying about art imitating life, but that’s probably because it’s seen as unnecessary. Of course art imitates art. The visual art world went all in a tizzy a century or two ago when painters made portraits, landscapes, and other works of art which deliberately skewed perspectives and altered things.

So let’s take the art imitating life as something of a given.

But . . . what parts of life do artists incorporate in crafting art? There are conscious and unconscious choices. Some may be easy, others political (to return to visual art, consider the portrait painters over the years who chose, potentially for financial return, to flatter their sitters), and others the product of long consideration.

Now, I write historical fantasy (and fantasy and magical realism, but mostly historical fantasy at the moment) — so I’m making a lot of imitative choices in the interests of authenticity and making the world realistic (apart from the particular variants of magic, which have their effects). None of the characters are me, and all are me, so I’m also imitating myself.

And in an homage to the current and previous dogs in my life, I’m imitating life by having a canine characters. In point-of-fact, the canine characters doesn’t look much like any of my dogs. Doesn’t act quite like them either (for one she’s much better trained, I must admit). But she’s there and her existence in the pages of the story owes much to my having lived with and loved dogs for many years.

So here’s to them!

Many Missions

A week or two ago, I discussed the Alamo (and camels!). It started life as a mission (Mission San Antonio de Valero)–long before it became a fortress, army outpost, or museum. And it wasn’t the only one built, used (worshipped in), abandoned or passed by, and then rediscovered or reconsecrated at a later date. There are many throughout the Southwest. Indeed, there are many around San Antonio. I’ve enjoyed incorporating references to them in a recent Twisting the Border story (probably set for release in December).

The National Park Service keeps a number of San Antonio missions open for visitation and exploration.

There’s Mission Concepción, (more formally known as Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña)–largely unrestored but boasting not one but two bell towers.

Or Mission San José, the “Queen of Missions, which shows something of the scale of churches as communities. It has a round bell tower stair which makes a brief appearance in my story. I wanted to have my viewpoint character climb it, but she declined. Sigh.

Then Mission San Juan Capistrano, which supported an active agricultural community in the 1700s.

And one of the oldest Texas missions: Mission Espada (Mission San Francisco de la Espada). According to the NPS, it has the most complete & original acequia system (and these are cool!)

I knew a little about the missions beforehand, but at some point in the past year or two, I also picked up a lovely book of photographs and supporting texts: A Sense of Mission: Historic Churches of the Southwest. Three of the San Antonio missions linked above appear in it. I’ve seen it listed with at least two different covers, so there are probably multiple editions. If you can’t get out to see some of the missions themselves (depending on where you live, etc) then consider picking up a copy or borrowing one through a library. Just a thought (after all, if you’ve wound up here there’s a fair chance you like some elements of history …)

Research, research, always research

I do a lot of research. I don’t always read books all the way through–I’ll flip through, focus on particular chapters, consult the index, and/or other techniques. And I readily admit to regularly consulting web sites as well. I prefer books and websites that offer some measure of research transparency–i.e. they show their work and how they came to certain conclusions (in other words they note which primary and secondary sources they consulted … or they are primary sources).

So with that in mind, here are a few of the sources used for my upcoming Twisting the Border installment, which is set on a steamboat headed down the Mississippi River. I write “a few,” because these are sources specific to this installment, or at most used for one or two others. Any source I use for more than three or so installments I add to the general list instead of the installment.

Allison, J. Thomas. Hudson River Steamboat Catastrophes: Contests and Collisions. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2013. — not the most useful for this work, but I did appreciate the discussion of things that could go wrong!

Buchanan, Thomas C. Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 2004. — very useful. I wish I could have drawn more on this explicitly rather than having it be part of the “iceberg” of the worldbuilding. I hope there are others out there using it for stories set along the Mississippi in the early-mid 19th century.

Carkeet, David. “How the Mississippi River Made Mark Twain… And Vice Versa.” Smithsonian Magazine (April, 2014). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/how-mississippi-river-made-mark-twain-and-vice-versa-180950193/ — fun, but as above more atmospheric than specific

And this next related to a very specific element ….

Sandlin, Lee. Wicked River: The Mississipi When It Last Ran Wild. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010. — also slightly more on the interesting than useful side, largely due to the type of story I wrote

Smithsonian Institution. “On the Water: Inland Waterways, 1820-1940.” http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/4_1.html — interesting & informative