Tuesday Sites

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.

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