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.

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