Trip Report – Mount Washington Cog Railway – When Steam Ruled

Mount Washington Cog Railway is located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was the the first mountain climbing cog railway in the world when it was completed in 1869.

Passengers are carried on The Mount Washington Cog Railway starting from the Marshfield Base Station to the top, three and a quarter miles up the mountain, with an average grade of 25%, with the maximum of 37.41%!

Mount Washington Cog

A Mount Washington Cog Railway locomotive makes its way up the mountain – Yard Goat Images Photo

Steam on the Mount Washington Cog Railway

The Mount Washington Cog Railway was 100% steam powered until 2008, when its first home-built diesel locomotive went into service. Additional diesels are now in operation, and steam is usually relegated to just one trip per day.

I was fortunate to visit in October, 2008 to witness some of the last days of steam on Mount Washington Cog Railway. As part of a photography group, we were given permission to hike up the mountain. Starting from Marshfield Station, we climbed nearly halfway up,  which allowed us to capture dramatic images of trains coming up and down the mountain. From our vantage point we could also see Jacob’s Ladder and trains disappearing out of sight over the top.

That was not the original plan for the day’s activities, but looking back, I’m happy it turned out that way. There are two ways to be carried up the mountain. One is the Mount Washington Cog Railway itself, and there is also a toll road. The road was completed in 1861, eight years before the Mount Washington Cog Railway.  Because riding on the Mount Washington Cog Railway only allows a minimum amount of time at the summit, our choice was to drive, thereby staying longer. We planned to carpool up the mountain and set up our cameras near the end of the line.

Our day on the Mount Washington Cog Railway

The toll road is only open when it is deemed safe by the operators. Heavy snow in the higher elevations over the preceding several days forced a closure, so we went to Plan B, and that was to hike up.

After gaining permission, we set out. It should be pointed out that there is no actual “trail” along the Mount Washington Cog Railway. While there are several marked trails going to the summit,  but none of these follow the cog line, so don’t ever try hiking up there without getting permission from Mount Washington Cog Railway. You will be trespassing and asked to leave.

Although the terrain was steep, the footing was fairly easy, as there had been some recent excavation that had not grown over in most areas.

Trains on the Mount Washington Cog Railway usually go up and down in pairs to save time at the passing track switches. The first locomotive pushes its single wooden car, followed a few minutes later by another. As we climbed, it seemed there were always trains in view, either below or above our position, so we stopped frequently to get shots of the smoky action.

Mount Washington Cog

Feeding the fire for the climb to the top of Mount Washington – Yard Goat Images Photo

We climbed almost to the snow line, which was just above Waumbek Tank. The steam locomotives stop here for water on the way up. Waumbek is also the site of the lower switch to the passing track. The switch was rebuilt in 2003 and operates on solar power.

It was here that we caught our first glimpse of the first diesel employed on the Mount Washington Cog Railway. It had been completed earlier that year in the railway’s own shops. The noisy diesel painted in “John Deere green” resembled something more at home in a farm field. The other photographers had some rather unkind words about this machine each time it passed us that day. We speculated about how the advent of diesels would forever change the Mount Washington Cog Railway experience.

Indeed, since that day in October 2008, the railway has nearly replaced all of its steam locomotives with diesels. As of this writing, Mount Washington Cog Railway was advertising just one steam trip per day at 8:15 AM.

Change is never easy, but the conversion from steam makes practical sense, just as it did for most commercial railroads. The folks who run Mount Washington Cog Railway point out that their customers are there to ride to the top of Mount Washington, and the vast majority don’t give much thought to the type of locomotive.

I’m just glad that I had the opportunity to enjoy and capture the sight of many steam locomotives going up and down the Mount Washington Cog Railway at the same time – something that is no longer possible. More importantly, I’m happy to share these images with you on our DVD Steam in the Mountains – Volume 2, I’m sure you’ll agree that steam power on Mount Washington is a beautiful sight.

Thanks, Steve Mitchell, Yard Goat Images

Mount Washington Cog

Steam in the Mountains DVD Combo

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