Skip to main content

A Tale of Two Cogs

Mar 18, 2024 08:40PM ● By Story and Photography By Lisa Ballard
My first encounter with a cog railway was in 1975 as a high schooler. It annoyed me. After three days slogging up the northern side of Mount Washington on a late-August orientation camping trip, our small troupe of weary, muddy, backpack-laden students crested the summit to find a sea of tourists, some of whom had driven up the auto road and others who had chugged up via the cog railway. While eagerly availing myself of the hot water in women’s bathroom, I spied three couch potatoes who had probably never hiked a step in their lives but who wore T-shirts emblazoned with “This body climbed Mount Washington.” “You did not,” I thought, as I followed them outside and then watched them board the train for the ride back down the mountain.

Then I looked a little closer. The cog railway was no ordinary train. Reminiscent of a circus car, it had only one red and gold passenger car with a white star under each window. The passenger car attached to a small black engine with a huge smokestack that looked like something out of the 1800s. In fact, it was.

Crazy Marsh’s Contraption

Though more widespread in Europe, there are only two cog railways in the United States, the one up Mount Washington (6,288 feet) and the other up Pikes Peak (14,115 feet) near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Both ascend prominent, steep, and often moody mountains that a normal train could not. In addition to two railroad tracks, a third notched center track provides traction going up and braking going down. As the train moves along the tracks, teeth (cogs) on gears rotate into the notches.

The first cog railway—the Middleton Railway—debuted in 1812 in the United Kingdom around the introduction of the steam engine to provide enough traction to transport coal. The Mount Washington Cog Railway, the first in the United States, was built shortly after the end of the Civil War, ironically by a hiker.

In 1857, a retired wealthy inventor named Stuart Marsh recruited his pastor to hike up Mount Washington with him. The weather was perfect at the trailhead, but as the two cleared tree line, a fierce storm bore down on them. They barely made it to the summit, taking shelter in the stone Tip Top House. After his life-threatening debacle, he vowed to make a way for people to ascend the mountain more safely. A year later, he asked the New Hampshire legislature to grant him a charter for a steam-powered cog railway from what’s now Marshfield on the west side of the mountain to the summit. The legislature thought he was crazy but granted the charter anyway, adding that after reaching the summit he could “keep going to the moon!”

The construction of the three-mile-long Mount Washington Cog Railway was a challenge, with wild weather only part of the equation. The terrain was equally as daunting, particularly a vertical boulder field at an elevation of 4,725 feet. To traverse it, Marsh designed a 300-foot-long trestle that traveled 25 feet above the ground, ascending at over a 37 percent grade. It was dubbed “Jacob’s Ladder” and remains the steepest railroad trestle in the world. The railway was completed in 1869.

An avid hiker, I climbed Mount Washington on a number of occasions after that high school trip, but the thought of taking a train to the top wasn’t on my radar until my son Parker became a train-obsessed grade schooler. It was a memorable ride. Pushed uphill by a biodiesel locomotive, we steadily climbed up and up, leaving the trees and traversing the alpine zone. The engine fascinated Parker, who eventually fell asleep. I couldn't stop ogling the ever-expanding view of the surrounding peaks and acres of alpine wildflowers. It was an eye-popping hour.

As we climbed, oohs and aahs emanated from the little train car. I glanced at the other passengers, most of whom would never experience passing through Mount Washington’s precious alpine zone on foot. It changed my opinion of the cog from lazy-man’s aide to mountain climbing marvel. There was something nostalgic about chugging upward into the clouds on a train from two centuries ago. I gained an appreciation of Marsh’s ingenuity, and the other passengers got a firsthand look at some of the rarest flora and largest mountains in the Northeast that they will always remember.

Powering Up Pikes Peak

Last June while visiting Colorado Springs, I received an invitation to go up Pikes Peak via the other mountain-climbing cog railway. The plan was to ride up in the train and then ride mountain bikes down the auto road, which sounded like a fun way to spend a day. I was curious if the Pikes Peak cog, officially known as the Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway, was similar to the Mount Washington one.

The Colorado cog is both America’s highest railway and the world’s highest cog railway. Its base is in the village of Manitou at an equivalent elevation to the Mount Washington summit. Like its New Hampshire counterpart, it was built in the 1800s (about 20 years after the Mount Washington cog) and by an inventor, Zalmon Simmons, after a harrowing climb. Simmons is best known as the patriarch of the Simmons Bedding Company, but he also invented the insulators that protected the telegraph wires that ran up Pikes Peak to its summit, which he needed to check. Instead of hiking, it took him two miserable days on a mule to get to the top. He figured a cog railway would provide a more civilized way to enjoy the views.

Using little more than mules, hand tools, and wheelbarrows, a crew of 150 men went to work constructing Simmons’ railway, which climbed 8.9 miles and 7,600 vertical feet. It took three years and was completed in 1891. A church choir from Denver was among the first passengers to take the new train to the summit. The extraordinary experience inspired one of the choir-members, Katherine Lee Bates, to pen the poem America the Beautiful.

The ride up the Pikes Peak cog was indeed beautiful but quite different than the Mount Washington cog, and not only due to its higher elevation, longer length, and Rocky Mountain location. Instead of one passenger car, there were three linked together without a separate smoke-belching locomotive to push it upward or hold back downward. The modern railcars were self-contained, similar to a city train except that their cog mechanisms could handle up to a 25 percent grade, the steepest that this cog needed to climb.

I took my assigned seat inside the forward-most car about three rows from the front. The train was noticeably quieter and smoother than the Mount Washington cog as we ascended through towering conifers and impressive boulder fields. Whereas scientists estimate that some black spruce “krummholz” (twisted shrubs near the tree line) on Mount Washington are 200 years old, some of the stout weathered bristlecone pines beside the Pikes Peak tracks are over 2,000 years old!
There was more wildlife to watch, too. I saw several elk lift their heads to watch us pass. A yellow-bellied marmot sunned itself on a rock, and several bighorn sheep grazed placidly on alpine sedges a couple hundred yards from the tracks.

The two cogs did have one important thing in common, the possibility of bad weather. The Pikes Peak cog cleared the trees at about 12,000 feet above sea level, giving us a fleeting glimpse of several majestic nearby mountains. We soon entered pea-soup fog as the temperature dropped. Shortly afterward, the conductor announced that the summit was closed due to ice. Our ascent would end at Windy Point (14,000 feet), an abandoned stone hut that dates back to the construction of the railway. No bike ride down, but I was happy for another look at the wildlife and those ancient trees from the warm, dry train.

Neither cog railway would likely be built today due to the cost and intrusion to the peaks they climb. However, during the Industrial Revolution and the dawn of mountain tourism, the Mount Washington and Pikes Peak cog railways allowed people to visit those prominent mountaintops in a safer manner. They still do. One might argue that it’s not worth the environmental impact, but since the cogs are part of our history and they teach visitors to love those magnificent mountaintops, they are something to appreciate and enjoy.

Insider Info

Here are a few things to keep in mind whether you’re planning to climb Mount Washington or Pikes Peak via cog railway:

Both cogs run year-round and likewise both are subject to cancelation or abbreviated ascents due to inhospitable weather. There are no restrooms on the trains, so plan accordingly. The Mount Washington cog takes 45 minutes to 1 hour one way. The Pikes Peak cog takes one hour and 10 minutes one way. It takes about the same amount of time to go up and to come down.
Expect significantly colder and windier conditions at the summit than at the base. Dress in layers—bring a warm hat, insulating mid layer, weather-resistant outer layer, and gloves. Wear sturdy hiking shoes or sneakers, not flip-flops or other open-toe footwear. Leave your umbrella at home due to potentially strong winds. Make reservations well in advance to ensure a seat at the departure time you want. Note: The Mount Washington cog discourages hikers who want a ride down. Carry-on items should be small enough to fit on your lap. No pets or strollers. Bear spray, mace, and other pressurized irritants are prohibited. No smoking or alcoholic beverages.

Mount Washington
Cog Railway

Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway <>

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Image's free newsletter to catch every headline