Today, an old old cog railway in New Hampshire
carries us past danger. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
September 19, 1969: Ellen
Teague, president of the Mount Washington Railway
Company, rose to address the American Newcomen
Society. "Journey back with me to July 3, 1869,"
she said -- the day the first cog railway ever ran
to a mountain top. And so, that night, she
celebrated the centenial of this remarkable old
Mount Washington is no ordinary mountain. It rises
abruptly, from a base fairly near sea level, 6300
feet into the sky. It's the highest mountain in the
northeast quadrant of America. Two things seem to
draw us, like magnets, to its top: One is a
perfectly spectacular view. The other is the worst
weather on earth.
It reaches up into what meteorologists call
gradient winds, winds free of surface obstructions,
purely driven by high-altitude pressure gradients
-- like the powerful Westerlies that boost you to
London two hours faster than you can fly back to
The wind has reached 231 mph on Mount Washington.
Weather can change, in a blink, from calm, warm,
and sunny to a winter blizzard. By 1869, when the
cog railway went in, three men and one woman had
already died on the mountain.
The center of the track is a long rack of gear
teeth. A gear on the locomotive engages those teeth to
drive the train upward. The grade reaches over 34
percent -- far too steep for friction to hold iron
wheels to a track -- so steep the locomotive has to
be bent at the cab to keep the boiler horizontal.
Ellen Teague ran the railroad from 1967 to 1984.
Then it passed to Joel Bedor, who now keeps this
remarkable tradition intact after a century.
On a sunny day in the fall of 1954 I was on a
three-day pass from Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. I'd
set out with a friend from my barracks to climb the
mountain -- on foot, not by cog railway. We were
young men escaping the oppressive safety of a
peacetime army. The 39th and 40th Mount Washington
deaths had occured a few months before -- climbers,
like me, caught in an avalanche.
But we reached the summit without incident. We saw
the important observatory and weather station
that's been there since the mid-19th century. We
saw the cog railway making its stop. We gazed
across New Hampshire and Maine toward the Atlantic.
No menace that day. Yet the death toll has risen
even faster since then. In 1994 Sarah Nicholson,
skiing on the mountain, looked up and saw a huge
block of ice falling toward her. She might've skied
out of its way, but it broke up and spread out
around her. She became the 115th victim of that
lovely, treacherous place. But, all the while, the
old cog railway remains. It is a fine, and safe,
piece of human ingenuity, still mocking the lure of
danger around it -- after 126 years.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Teague, E.C., Mount Washington Railway Company:
World's First Cog Railway, Mount Washington, New
Hampshire. New York: American Newcomen
Howe, N., Mount Washington, Fatal Attraction.
Yankee, February, 1995.
As to the safety of the cog railway itself, five
people have died on the railway -- none in recent
years, and all in extraordinary circumstances.
Three were using the center cog rail as a kind of
slide and riding on a tiny flat sled called a
I am grateful to Joel Bedor, President of the Mount
Washington Railway Company and Mount Washington Inn, for
counsel on the history of the railway; to Pat
Bozeman, Head of Special Collections, UH Libraries,
for providing the affecting Howe article; and to
meteorologist Warren Culbertson for explaining the
importance of the Mount
Washington meteorological station.
The following website gives a fine overview of the
Mount Washington Cog Railway:
Images from America Illustrated, 1882 (when
the cog railway was only 13 years old)
Stereopticon photo courtesy of
Mount Washington in the distance looms over a New
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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