The Incredible Cog Railway

A measly three miles an hour — hardly moving, really. But, wow, what an unforgettable ride it was.

I boarded the Cog Railway one chilly fall morning to make the 3,500-foot climb to the summit of Mt. Washington, just as people have been doing since 1869. Little has changed since then — passengers are still showered with cinders and soot and jostled and jolted on the trip up the steep mountainside. The trip down? Yikes. More on that later.

My first impression of the vintage steam locomotive was that it was oddly bent, the boiler slanting down in front. Easy to figure why — with the train going up the mountain at an angle, the slanted boiler provides a more or less horizontal, and thus even, heating of the water as it’s converted into the steam that powers the cog wheels.

The chugs and hisses you hear sitting in the brightly colored passenger car is the sound of expelled water vapor having done its work. Between that and the clanks of the cog, it gets noisy enough that you’re offered protection for your ears.

Each climb takes one ton of coal, which a fireman constantly shovels into the firebox. Black smoke belches out of the smokestack and cinders fly through the air. I did my best to flick the burning bits off my jacket before they singed.

At one point in the climb, the incline was so steep the front of the car was 14 feet higher than the rear. It took a bit of doing, but I managed to climb out of my seat and stand — only to find I was looking straight ahead, at the floor!

Near the summit we stopped on a side track to allow a returning train to pass. The locomotive was traveling in reverse, with the passenger car following and obviously pushing down on it. As I watched, the locomotive was actually separated from the car by several inches. It was then that I realized there was no mechanical coupling of the two. As a long-time teacher of physics, I had a problem with the non-connected nature of this arrangement.

OK, traveling uphill, “pushing” works. But … but what about going down the hill? All that steam power does nothing to thwart the unrelenting force of gravity. How durable can the brakes be on those tiny drive wheels? Suddenly, my wife’s decision not to ride seemed prudent.

The brakeman in our car reassured me and my fellow passengers. He explained that there were two huge brake wheels located on the rear wall of each car, which are used to control the descent speed of the car. I was also reassured by the fact that the Cog has been operating for some 136 years with no major failures.

My worry was interrupted by the sight of six bare behinds — a group of hikers was “mooning” us. Some sort of tradition, apparently. I wondered if this happens on frigid winter days. Legend has it that some of the Cog’s firemen score a “bull’s eye” with a piece of coal from time to time.

The ascent takes a little over an hour, including two stops, providing plenty of time to take in the views. On the right, the shape and size of trees change, getting smaller and thinner. On the left side the land drops away and steep chasms appear beneath the car as if it’s suspended in mid-air.

When at last we reached the summit, there was a 20-minute layover — time to enjoy the view that was spectacular in all directions. Then it was time to go.

The return trip was shorter, quieter and cleaner, and the brakeman demonstrated how well he could apply the mechanical brakes to keep the passenger car close to the locomotive. We never got more than a foot away all the way down. “Well done, sir,” I said.

The future of the Cog will no doubt mean a change of fuel, replacing coal, which is expensive and difficult to supply. I’m certain the EPA will welcome the end of black smoke, soot and cinders, but it all does have a certain Victorian charm that, I suspect, would be missed by many, including me. NH

Don Logan is a freelance writer and lover of trains — large and small — who lives in Milford.