Back on Track

It’s their eyes you notice first. Eyes that peer with watery brightness out of coal-smudged faces. Eyes that love, more than anything, the sight of a little locomotive billowing black smoke against the looming backdrop of Mount Washington. These are the eyes of men who know trains. One look at that plume of smoke and they can tell you about the fire–how hot it is, whether it needs stoking. They know how an engine’s running by the sound of her. They can estimate speed with their eyes closed. These are the men who run the trains, the men who build and repair the trains. These are the coggers.

They say the Cog Railway gets to you. It gets under your skin, all over your clothes, into your lungs. Works its way into your soul. They say when you’ve been a cogger it’s hard to be anything else–”once a cogger, always a cogger.” These are the men who know. They are the keepers of the dream, the crazy dream that began one stormy night in 1852.

Sylvester March was lost. He’d been climbing, and he’d hit bad weather–mean Mount Washington weather. He managed to stumble his way to the shelter of Tip Top house at the summit, and then, the story goes, he realized there had to be a better way. The challenge appealed to Marsh’s inventive streak. This Campton native, who’d made good in the Chicago meat-packing industry, had an idea–he’d build the first mountain-climbing railway in the world. People said it was impossible. They called him crazy Marsh. When he applied to the state for a charter in 1858, some legislators suggested a railway to the moon instead–it seemed about as feasible.

Like a good stubborn Yankee, Sylvester Marsh ignored the naysayers and set about doing the impossible. With significant help from inventors Herrick Aiken and Herrick’s son Walter of Franklin, Marsh worked out the details of operation for his cog-driven train. By 1865-’66, Marsh had managed to rally enough reluctant investors to join him, and building began. The task was daunting. Every bit of equipment had to be hauled 25 miles by oxen. And then another six miles in to the base through dense forest. For three years Marsh persevered. On July 3, 1869, the first train climbed to the summit.

The coggers know this history. And they know all the facts. For 120 years this train has chugged and rattled its way to the top of Washington’s 6,293 feet. It has hauled passengers along three miles of continuous wooden trestle, the longest in the world. One stretch of track called Jacob’s Ladder boasts a grade of 37.41 percent–the second steepest in the world. That’s 1,980 feet to the mile. Or a 13-foot difference between the heads of the people at the front and back ends of the coach. It takes a ton of coal and 1,000 gallons of water to get an 18-ton engine up the mountain. Today, this coal-fired mountain-climbing steam railway is one of only two in the world. Depending on who you talk to, the Cog is the biggest or second biggest tourist attraction in the state. In 1976 the railway was declared a Historical Operating Landmark by the Civil and Mechanical Engineers. P.T. Barnum called it the second greatest show on earth.

Coggers recite these facts, the “firsts,” “seconds,” and “onlys,” again and again. Like any good story that gets told and retold, Crazy Marsh and his railroad have become legendary. Coggers cling protectively to their history, acutely aware that they are at work on an operating museum. Their pride is fierce. The spirit of Sylvester Marsh lives on in the men who return, year after year, to run the trains–the same way they’ve been run since that very first ascent. “We’re keeping the dream alive,” says one engineer.

But it’s not a dream anymore. It’s real and it’s dirty and it’s noisy. Especially in the engine. “It’s like living inside a bass drum,” says engineer Bob Milliken. “Those metal cabs’ll knock the teeth right out of your head. Sometimes the seat rocks so much it hurts to sit on it.” The noise is ferocious. “You gotta remember those things have no suspension in’em,” says machinist Joe Orlando. “It’s solid wheels to the frame–no springs at all. That means you feel every bump.” And you hear it. Eighteen tons of rattling metal. Milliken stuffs his ears with cotton to block some of the noise. Then he hangs his head out the window. “So I can hear what’s going on with the running gear, not with the rattling cab,” he explains. “You can hear if a valve is going out of time or if something’s getting loose.”

Good engineers know what to listen for. First thing in the morning, down in the engine house, hammer in hand, each engineer checks his engine, tapping and listening. “It looks like a person’s going like hell across a giant xylophone,” says engineer Dave Kurz. “It’s amazing how many bolts there are to check. If the piece is tight, it makes a certain twang. If it’s loose, there’ll be a dull thud.” Engineers check and recheck their trains, top and bottom, every run.

It takes three years to learn what to listen for. Most engineers start as brakeman in the coach, acting as tour guides, watching the track on the way down. “That’s probably one of the trickiest jobs,” says engineer Steve Giordani. “It’s like trying to break your car on a roller-coaster hill. But there’s no pedal. You have to wind them–like the steering wheels on a big ship. In the flatter areas, the brakeman releases the brake and pushes the engine. In the steep spots, he’ll take the pressure off by applying more brake. Basically, the coach controls the speed of the engine on the way down.” That’s something that surprises a lot of tourists–”goofers” as the coggers like to call them. For safety reasons the coach and engine are not attached. Each has its own braking system so the coach can actually descend independently if need be.

The brakeman also throw the switches. Installed by Henry Teague, who owned the railway from 1931 to 1951, the switches allow two trains to pass one another. The process is tricky. Each switch involves nine moves. “It’s like a complicated dance step,” says Heather Preston, a brakeman who eventually became the Cog’s only female fireman. “If you mess up, you trip and fall and probably hurt something. Some of those pieces of metal weighed more than I did. You’re suppose to throw a switch in a minute, but I’ve worked with some guys who couldn’t do it even if you gave them five.”

Once a brakeman knows his job, he may become a fireman. The fireman is the guy who slings shovelfuls of coal into a 2,000-degree fire with one arm, while yanking open the 40-pound door to the firebox with the other. “It takes four shovelfuls to cover the fire,” says Giordani. “That’s for maybe 45 seconds to two minutes.” Into the tender goes the shovel, then out to the side posed at hip level, as the fireman shifts position, grabs the door, heaves the coal into the blasting heat, closes the door, turns back to the pile and begins again. Dust flies. The train clatters brutally. The fireman repeats his performance, same motions, same rhythm. Then he checks the plume. He watches for the cloud to disappear. And he starts again. Shovelful by shovelful. One full ton of coal per trip.

Meanwhile the engineer keeps everything balanced and moving at a steady 4 mph. Water and fire, water and fire–the men work as a team, holding the steam pressure steady at 180 pounds. The engineer calls the shots. “He’s the quarterback,” says one engineer. Most seasons there are seven teams of three working the Cog, one for each 17-foot locomotive and the coach it pushes. Engineers must be good managers; the way each crew works its train is crucial.

“The Cog has the best safety record of any railway in this country,” says owner Wayne Presby. There’s been only one accident involving passenger fatalities in 120 years of operation. But that day in September 1967 still haunts many coggers. “I try to keep it out of my mind,” says manager George Trask, who’s worked the Cog off and on for four decades. “It was human error, pure and simple.” Some say a hiker tampered with the switch; others, that a careless crew is to blame for the derailment.

Bobby Trask, George’s son, remembers seeing the bodies of the nine victims carried off the mountain. “It’s something that sticks in your mind forever,” he says. “I get nervous every time I go up. You can’t take anything for granted.” Today Bobby Trask is train master and has been a cogger for 19 years. According to some, he’s the one who really runs the place. “I do just about everything,” he admits. And nobody qualifies as an engineer until Bobby gives the OK. “there’s a tough written test, too, that the state gives,” says Trask. The state also does annual inspections, and the tracks are walked and checked by the track foreman every week. Still, much of the responsibility for safety lies with the engineers. “And if they aren’t ready, I don’t qualify ’em,” says Trask. “I can tell. It’s an attitude, the way they do things.” Bobby rides in the cab and watches every move. “I make ’em real nervous,” he says.

“Engineers should always be a little nervous,” says Milliken. “You’ve gotta ask yourself all the questions before you get in the cab. You’ve gotta know what could happen before it does, so you can do what needs to be done without thinking.” Engineers know their jobs. “That’s the thing about the people we hire,” says Trask. “They’re intelligent and they’re caring. It might not seem that way, but when they get on that train, they are. That’s what makes the Cog–the people.”

It’s been that way for a long time. Especially during the Teague era when people, usually college students, came back year after year, bringing their families, creating a family of coggers who were as devoted to the train as its owner. Arthur Teague (no relation to Henry), who started work on the Cog in 1933, managed the railroad after Henry’s death in 1951 when it was under the ownership of Fartmouth College. In 1962, Arthur Teague became owner. “Best boss I ever had,” remembers George Trask. “He never asked you to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.” Others remember him as the real mechanical mastermind of the place.

On May 6, 1983, an era came to an end. Ellen Teague, who had managed the railroad since her husband’s death in 1967, sold the Cog to four New Hampshire natives. “She had a few offers,” says Cathy Bedor, marketing director and wife of current co-owner Joel Bedor. “She wouldn’t sell to just anyone. She felt these were he boys. Natives who would stay here.” They may have been natives, but these men weren’t coggers. They were entrepreneurs. “It was a business venture at first,” says Presby. “Since then, it’s become much more. We feel we’ve been entrusted with a great public trust.” Since then, too, Joel Bedor and Wayne Presby have become sole owners of the operation and are trying to rejuvenate Sylvester Marsh’s dream, which had faded badly over the years.

The trouble started with Arthur Teague’s death. His wife Ellen took over, determined to run the place as he had. “I think her heart was in the right place,” says Dave Kurz. “She meant well, but she was not a good manager.” George Trask concurs, noting that “she let things run downhill.” Things didn’t change much when the New Hampshire boys took over. The first year, ridership was at 47,000; the next, it dropped to 44,000. By 1985, ridership was down to 39,000. Presby describes the problem as “lack of capacity.” Others explain it differently. “I think they all thought it was a bigger gravy train than it turned out to be,” says George Trask. “They wanted to take money out without putting anything back in.”

Some point out that these new guys were spending money, but not in the right places. “Everything was cosmetics,” says Kurz. “There was a method to their madness, but the money was going into the wrong stuff.” Take the frames for example. “They were being held together with weld upon weld upon weld,” says Kurz. Or the boilers. “They wanted to put money into fixing up the old ones,” says shop manager Mike Kenly, another Cog veteran. “The boiler inspector wouldn’t let them. Those things were 80 and 90 years old. The life of a boiler’s suppose to be 30 years. They were really causing a lot of trouble. And boiler problems are not easy to fix. It got so we had only two operating trains.” The tracks suffered too. “You lose one year of track work, and you actually lost five,” says Bobby Trask. Some engineers even worried during the late ’70s and early ’80s that unqualified people were being put to work on the trains.

Finally, two of them wised up,” says George Trask. They realized they better do something.” In January 1986, Presby and Bedor became sole owners. According to Presby, a difference of philosophy triggered the buy-out. “Those two thought they were addressing the problems; we didn’t think they were,” he says.

So–things seem to be getting back on track at the Cog these days. “In our first seven months we succeeded in putting a fleet of two operating engines back to a fleet of seven,” says Presby. He reels off other facts. “We switched from DC to AC power and finally got reliable electricity up there–instead of running off two small hydro-electric generators. We’ve got a crew year-round now working on the trains. We’re working on the coaches. We’ve got plans for major track work.” Presby likes to point out that Marsh was an innovator. “We want to maintain history as well as make improvements,” he says. There are plans for passing tracks and possibly electric switches. Parking space at the base has been increased. There’s talk of a hotel. And Presby’s still trying to convince just about everybody that a train to haul spring skiers is a good idea. The list goes on.

There isn’t a trace of coal smudged on his face, but Presby’s eyes have this light in them. Once a week he leaves his lawyer’s desk, puts on jeans and heads for the base of Mount Washington. He may get dirty yet. “I hope I’m a cogger for life,” says Presby. “I think that’s the kind of dedication this place requires.”

Most coggers are feeling better about things on their mountain lately. “Things are getting back to where they should be,” says Bobby Trask. “slowly. But we’re getting there. For a while there, you’d go into town and people’d snicker at you. Now working at the Cog is something to be proud of again.” A lot of that has to do with the guys at the base, the handful of coggers who live with the train year-round. Kenly and his crew are constantly rebuilding the trains, piece by piece, hand-making each part to fit its engine using century-old equipment. Peter Steady attends to the coaches. Robert Clements and the track crew know every bump and twist in the trestle; they replaced 30-40,000 board feet of lumber last season. These guys don’t say much, but the pride is there. The summer coggers call them brilliant. Wizards. They can fix anything. These are the men who are rebuilding the Cog. Finally.

As they look ahead, the owners stress two things: safety and preservation. “Passengers are riding on history,” says Presby. Last year the Cog had its best season ever–58,000 riders. Each one paid $32 for the historic ride. Presby figures they can up ridership to 90000 with the improvements they’re considering. But some feel the Cog cannot be operated as more than a break-even operation without cutting corners and sacrificing safety. “It just doesn’t generate enough capital to make the needed improvements,” says Walter Mitchel, the clerk in charge of the Mount Washington post office. He’s observed life at the Cog for 28 summers. “It’s been limping along since 1931,” he points out. Like many others, Mitchell wonders what would happen if the owners decided to sell. Would the state take it over? Presby argues, though, that the Cog can work as a viable business venture. Which isn’t to say that all the changes will happen.

Like the oil idea. It’s come up every now and then through the years, this idea of converting the engines. Presby does not like to talk about it. “We really don’t know if it’s going to happen,” he says. “But we are considering it.” “Oil is more reliable than coal, which can be stubborn,” says George Trask. It also burns cleaner and is cheaper–coal is more than $100 a ton. “And it’d make maintenance a lot easier,” acknowledges Kenly. “Those cinders get into everything,” Everybody agrees that for the owners, the ultimate goal is better economy. Besides, it would still be steam-powered.

Yes, but it would be oil-fired. The engineers are adamant. “I hate it,” says one. “It would mean the end of a tradition,” says another. “the art of firing would be lost.” “It’d be the kiss of death for the railroad,” says Kurz. “Yea, it’s still steam,” he acknowledges. “But it’s tainted steam.” Presby points out that nothing is definite. At least some of the decision will depend on a survey he does this summer to find out just what draws people to the mountain.

“Look,” says Bobby Trask–and if anyone knows, he should–”I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years. A lot. People come here from Korea, from England, from Japan. They come here for the steam and the coal. They don’t go t Pike’s Peak. They come here.” When Pike’s Peak converted from steam back in the ’50s, coggers point out, ridership actually decreased.

It’s the smoke plume that brings them back, according to most coggers. And for the coggers themselves it’s the other coggers, the other people who love that smoke, that keep them coming. “I think any company would envy the enterpersonal relationships, the support that forms here,” says Walter Mitchell. “It’s really quite impressive.” Most of the summer crew members eventually go on to full-time jobs. Milliken’s an aerospace engineer. Kurz is a chief of police. Another engineer now works for the FBI. One’s a doctor, one’s a carpenter. Giordani, like many current coggers, is a student the rest of the year. They are scattered all over the country.

But some ex-coggers still come back to work an occasional weekend or vacation–they call them weekend warriors. And many coggers stay in touch through “the cog vine.” They love to reminisce about Cog life. The late nights, the early mornings. The White Mountain sunsets watched from the last train of the day as it descends from “the top of the world.” They love to recite their favorite “goofer” questions: “That’s not real coal, is it?” And they say they’ve never worked harder. Never had more pride in a job. Never felt the same comradery. Never been this dirty. They say they’ll never forget the thrill of getting 18 tons of engine up the mountain. They can still feel the rattle and smell the grease and smoke. That’s what they say, these men who know trains, these men who love the Cog.