Cog Railway


                                                                Links to Photos, With Extensive Captions,  are at the Bottom and will be addded

                                                                                        Mount Washington Railway Company

  by Robert W. Bermudes, Jr.

A living museum, the Mount Washington Railway Company—or, more familiarly, the Cog Railway, or simply “the Cog”—was chartered by the New Hampshire State Legislature in 1858 at the request of Sylvester Marsh (1803-1884). The charter allowed him 5 years to build his railroad.  Born and raised in New Hampshire, Marsh made his fortune in Chicago, in meatpacking and grain drying before moving to Boston for what he thought would be his retirement years. On an 1857 trip to his Campton NH, birthplace with his Pastor, Augustus Thompson, to visit an ailing brother, the two climbed Mount Washington in a storm that almost claimed their lives. Marsh believed “some easier and safer method of ascension” of the mountain could benefit tourists. It could also create a project he could share with his oldest son, engineering-minded (and later, engineering-trained), John Franklin. Thus, Marsh conceived the idea for the Cog Railway. (The 1852 date, sometimes attributed to Marsh’s climb, was an error introduced by out-of-state newspapers publishing his obituary.)

Although with sufficient means to build the Cog Railway by himself, Marsh knew the success of his endeavor required the support of local railroads to bring the passengers needed for the railway he proposed. The site of his railway was twenty-six miles from the nearest railroad station, in Littleton. To gain  financial support, and support for extending their railroads to his,  Marsh needed to interest the railroad men of northern New England. To Marsh, there was no more important man among them than John E. Lyon, president of the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad (BC&M).  Lyon initially was uninterested and considered Marsh “a crazy man.” 

With time, and an agreement that Marsh would demonstrate the practicality and safety of his railway at his own expense, Lyon and other railroad men agreed to consider Marsh’s idea. In August 1866, Marsh successfully demonstrated his unique railway on a quarter mile track at the western base of Mt. Washington. “Not even the croakers and doubters hesitated a moment to get on either the car or engine and make the trip.” After this demonstration, with financing and future railroad access for tourists assured, Marsh began construction of his railroad. To move supplies and men to the construction site, six miles in the woods from the nearest road, and later to be able to bring in passengers, Marsh applied for and received a state charter in 1867 for the construction of The Mt. Washington Turnpike. This road, later to be a profitable toll road, extended from the former Tenth New Hampshire Turnpike (now Route 302), the nearest public road, to the Cog Railway base station.

          With Lyon’s BC&M shouldering a large stake in the endeavor, Lyon assigned John Jarvis Sanborn, the railroad’s superintendent and former bridge builder, to supervise the construction of the Turnpike. When the turnpike was completed, the experienced Sanborn was made supervisor of the railway construction. With the five-year charter extension granted in 1863 about to expire, to meet the conditions of that charter, the proprietors called the railway essentially complete on August 14, 1868, and began to run passenger excursions part way up the mountain, to the top of Jacob’s Ladder. These excursions ran for the last three weeks of that summer, carrying about 600-700 passengers, some paying two dollars, others traveling free. The remaining track to the summit was completed in early summer 1869.

                                                                          Double clicking these images will allow you to enlarge them.

                   Broadside Announcing Opening of the Cog - 

                                                              Private Collection

  The first official passenger trip to the summit took place on July 3, 1869. In the early years, passengers arrived at the base depot by stagecoach from the local hotels, the Crawford House and the White Mountain House. That first season the roundtrip rail fare from the depot to the summit was three dollars. The roundtrip stagecoach ride from the Crawford House or White Mountain House to the base was another three dollars.

The trip to the base became significantly easier on July 4, 1876, with the inaugural run on the BC&M branchline from the Fabyan House to the Cog.  With the completion of this line, the Cog Railway started to pay dividends. Up to this time, either due to reinvesting or due to lack of income, the railway had not paid dividends to its shareholders. The first year of the branchline, the Cog paid a nine percent dividend. With the completion of the branchline, the Cog Railway began to fulfill the 1866 financial vision of the railroad men who had invested in the project. By 1885, it had returned eighty-eight percent .

The Cog Railway’s founder and president, Sylvester Marsh, was pushed aside by Lyon who gained control of a majority of the stock. Marsh continued as a figurehead president, until his death, but with little real authority. This was evident as early as 1870 when the Hitchcock/Huntington party requested of Marsh the use of the Cog Railway’s summit facilities for their stay in the winter of 1870-1. Marsh stated “he had not the authority to speak for the company.” Professor Hitchcock “went to Boston” to see Lyon for the necessary approval and Lyon immediately transmitted his approval. 

In the late nineteenth century, the Cog changed hands several times as the railroads of New England consolidated. The Boston and Lowell,  the Boston and Concord, the Concord and Montreal, and finally, in 1895, the Boston and Maine (B&M) came to own the Cog. In 1930, the B&M was still operating the old branchline to the base and the Cog (along with most of New England’s railroads). But by this time there was more to the Cog than just the railway. The Summit House on the top of Mount Washington was owned by the B&M. and leased to, and operated by, the Barron, Merrill, and Barron Company, as it had been since before 1900. Additionally, in 1925, the Barron company built a small cabin colony (the Kro-Flite Kamps) adjacent to the Cog base station on land leased from the B&M. In early 1931 the B&M ended their relationship with the Barron company.  They turned over operations to experienced (but bankrupt) hotelier Henry Nelson Teague (1875-1951).    For the first time, the same management would operate all three properties: the Cog, Summit House, and Kro-Flite Kamps. Teague purchased the three properties from the B&M in 1939. 

  While the B&M was an excellent steward of the Cog, Henry Teague significantly updated the operation. In the last year of the B&M management (1930), the Cog was still running on a timetable used during the stagecoach days; two roundtrip trains a day. In the depths of the Depression, with most passengers arriving by automobile, Teague added more trains to the schedule. In 1932 there were five trains departing the base between 8am and 4pm. In 1933, there were seven departures between 9:30am and 5:50pm, and by 1939 there were nine trains a day between 6am to 6:30pm. For those without automobiles, Teague arranged for buses or limousines to pick up passengers at the local hotels.

Business grew sufficiently so that, by the mid-1930s, Teague toyed with the idea of double-tracking the mountain to get more trains to the summit each day. The 1937 opening of the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway put that idea to rest. The tramway enabled visitors to quickly ascend to the summit of Cannon Mountain, a mountain with fine views and that was not clouded over as often as Mt. Washington. Despite the competition, business remained good at the Cog. Arthur Teague (no known relation to Henry Teague) worked with the B&M Engineering Department—the Cog and the B&M had a long beneficial relationship during Henry Teague’s tenure on the mountain—to design switches compatible with the complicated running gear of the Cog locomotives. Switches would enable trains to pass each other for the first time on the mountain. The first switch on the Cog was installed at the base in 1941 (just west of the present-day electrically powered, hydraulically controlled switch).  After its  success (with nine parts thrown by hand), two more manual switches were installed, one just above the Waumbek water tank (now gone) and one at Skyline (extant in 2011). Prior to the installation of these switches, each train ran on a separate section of the three miles of track: the bottom, or first, train ran from the base to Waumbek tank; the middle, or second, train ran from Waumbek tank to Skyline; and the top, or third, train from Skyline to the summit.  Passengers changed trains three times on their way to the summit.

When Henry Teague died in 1951, he bequeathed the railway, (then valued at $167,000), to his alma mater, Dartmouth College, the source of the 1939 loan he used to purchase the railway. The college kept Teague’s general manager, Arthur Teague (c.1910-1967) on in that post. The college left Teague to run the base, railway, and the Summit House, and the college leased and sold land on the summit. In 1961 Dartmouth  sold the Cog to Arthur Teague (except for part of the summit).  After Teague’s suicide in 1967, his wife, Ellen (1913-1999), inherited and ran the property.

    One of the best things she did to ensure the long-term viability of the railway was to hire Edward M. Clark (1924-2009) as general manager at the close of the 1973 season. Clark went immediately to work, making the winter of 1973-4 the first time work was performed at the base station in that season. This was necessary as Clark had been informed by the State of New Hampshire’s steam boiler inspector that the boilers of three locomotives would not pass inspection and therefore the railroad could not operate the next season. Clark and Val Sanders spent that first winter at the Cog installing new staybolts. These bolts  attach the firebox to the boiler and create the gaps that allow water to encircle the firebox. The three boilers passed  the state inspection and the Cog could operate in 1974. Prior to this year, any winter work required on the locomotives or other equipment was accomplished at the B&M’s yards in Lyndonville, Vt.

Clark and Sanders introduced two other Cog “firsts.” During their tenure, the “speeder” was developed to quickly move workers up the track (one is still in use as of 2010) and the “Spirit of ’76,” a diesel-powered locomotive for work crews was constructed. Unfortunately, this forward-looking locomotive was not credited as the labor- and time-saving device it would later become. In part due to this, Mrs. Teague fired Clark at the conclusion of the 1976 season. Clark’s diesel locomotive, paid for almost completely out of his own funds, was cut up and sold before it could be made to operate successfully on the railway.  It would be over 30 years before diesels were brought back.

  Ellen Teague sold the railway in 1983. A group of Littleton, NH, businesspeople purchased it for a reported $1,200,000. This group still owns the Cog and has continued to upgrade the system and equipment. They replaced the wooden trestle known as Jacob’s Ladder, the highest trestle on the line, with steel in the late 1980s. Two of the three manual switches installed in the 1940s were removed and replaced with hydraulic switches. These effectively eliminate the risk of human error in setting the switches (the only passenger fatality, in 1967, was attributed to a switch not correctly set). An eighteen-hundred-foot “passing loop” was created with the Waumbek tank its lower terminus. This saves the trains from having to “take the switch” to wait for passing trains. The first hydraulic switch was installed at the base station in 2002 and the passing loop switches were installed in 2003 (lower) and 2004 (upper).

The most notable change at the Cog Railway since its inception has been the introduction of diesel-powered hydraulic locomotives into regular passenger service. The first one ran in 2008. Two more diesel locomotives followed in 2009, and an additional one in 2010. Built in the Cog shops, these locomotives are powered by 600-horse-power John Deere diesel engines driving hydraulics. Burning about eighteen gallons of B20 bio-diesel fuel each trip and carrying just one crewmember, the engineer (the fireman is no longer needed to shovel coal) the diesels are cost-effective, faster, use less fuel, create less pollution, and promise the benefit of less maintenance than their coal-fired forebears.

 Into The Mist, 2003 Photo by the Author

The several books written about the Cog do not begin to touch upon the wealth of Cog-inspired mechanical- and human-interest stories. New England’s highest peak, the self-proclaimed home of the “World’s Worst Weather”, has inspired both dreamers and doers for centuries. P. T. Barnum may be forgiven his nineteenth century bravado when he said that the view from Mount Washington was the “second greatest show on Earth".  The human drama on, and occupation of, Mt. Washington—even if for only several months a year—created a stage more enduring than any Barnum could provide. It was on this stage that Marsh, Lyon, Sanborn, Teague, Clark, Sanders, and hosts of others created the Cog Railway drama, enabled it to be the second longest running man-made show on Mt. Washington and serve as a living memorial to the inventiveness of its caretakers. Their legacy has created a rich history that is only now starting to see the light of day.

Suggested Reading:

Bray, Donald H. They Said It Couldn’t Be Done. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1984.


Burt, F. Allen. The Story of Mount Washington. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College, 1960.


Hitchcock, Charles, H. Mount Washington In Winter, Or The Experiences Of A Scientific Expedition Upon The Highest Mountain In New England 1870-71. Boston: Chick and Andrews, 1871. Reprint, Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, Inc. 1986.

Chapter IV contains a history of the railway up to 1871.


Joslin, Richard S. Sylvester Marsh and the Cog Railway. Tilton, NH: Sant Bani Press, 2000.


Kidder, Glenn M. Railway to the Moon. Littleton, NH: Courier Printing Company, 1969.


Teague, Ellen Crawford. I Conquered My Mountain. Canaan, NH: Phoenix Publishing, 1982.