CONCORD, N.H. — The world’s first mountain climbing train opens its 143rd season Saturday, chugging tourists, nature lovers and thrill seekers up the highest peak in the Northeast United States.
New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Cog Railway first reached the mountaintop in 1869, and today also bears the distinction of being the second steepest climbing train in the world — after the cog train that climbs the Gemmi Pass in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps.
The train ride up and down three miles of track is an hour each way. Riders also get an hour at the mountain’s 6,288-foot-high summit to walk around and visit the observatory.
“We find people who visit from Europe and distant areas of the country are looking for things to do in New England well past foliate season,” said Cathy Bedor, whose family co-owns the railway. “The view is the same — glorious whether it’s summertime or fall. And it can be a whole lot more dramatic in November and early December.”
Bedor said the only inclement weather that shuts down the railway are the high winds Mount Washington is notorious for, but they have to be about 70 mph or stronger for operations to cease. Some people prefer to ride “the cog” in the worst weather possible, she said.
“The worse the weather, the more they want to come,” Bedor said. “They want to have to hold onto something when they get up there.”
Campton native Sylvester Marsh was inspired to design the railway in 1852, after getting lost near the summit and nearly perishing during an impromptu overnight in harsh weather. Before being hailed as brilliant, he was scoffed at by New Hampshire lawmakers for his crazy notion of building a railway to the top of “the rock pile.”
Marsh, who made his fortune in Chicago’s meat-packing industry, approached the legislature for permission to build the railway, and lawmakers granted his request but also derided his plan. They said he might as well build a railway to the moon, according to historian and author Glen Kidder.
Still, Marsh forged ahead, using oxen to pull building materials through Bretton Woods and six miles of forest to reach the base of the mountain. The process of building the all-trestle rail to the summit was painstaking. But 17 years after his fateful night on the mountain, Marsh launched the cog-driven train “Old Peppersass” on July 3, 1869.
The Presby and Bedor families have owned and operated the cog railway in the White Mountain National Forest for nearly 30 years. Bedor said that with the opening Saturday, the trains will run weekends until Memorial Day, then on a daily basis into December.
Bedor said the two families are caretakers of a piece of history that has continued to evolve through the advent of coal-fueled steam engines to the four locomotives powered by biodiesel fuels that came on line in 2008. The railway also features solar-powered switches.
“We have our foot in three different centuries,” she said.
Rates for the three-hour round trip are $62 for adults, $57 for seniors 65 and up, and $39 for children ages 4-12.