Mount Washington—New Hampshire’s highest peak—is rumored to have the worst weather in the world. The forecast alternates between ferocious winds, blizzards, and pounding sleet. Mount Washington gets so foggy that a native tribe in the area thought that the ever-present mist was a sign that the peak was home to a Great Spirit. In 1852, famed investor and New Hampshire native Sylvester Marsh got stranded in a dreadful storm while scaling Mount Washington and nearly perished in the elements. Marsh’s brush with death inspired him to use his wealth to construct a railway that would offer safe passage to the summit of Mount Washington.
Sylvester Marsh was met with quite a bit of resistance when he first proposed a railway that would chug up the side of a mountain. In the mid-1800s, virtually all United States railroads were built on relatively flat ground. Marsh embraced an innovative cog system that would use a locomotive to push train cars up the side of Mount Washington. In 1858, Sylvester Marsh presented his ambitious design plans to the New Hampshire legislature so that he could receive a charter to execute his idea. Lawmakers rolled their eyes at Marsh’s seemingly outlandish project. Despite many vocal dissenters, Marsh did receive a charter to begin construction on the cog railway.
The Civil War caused a slight delay in the construction of the Mount Washington Cog Railway, but in 1869—the project was completed. Marsh’s 3-mile-long railway with a gradient of 37.4 percent gained international acclaim. Cog railways began to pop up in mountainous regions of Europe. The summit of Mount Washington was home to two hotels. Guests who were fortunate enough to experience a rare sunny day could take in a stunning panoramic view of the White Mountains from the most lofty peak in New Hampshire.
The Mount Washington Cog Railway was undoubtedly an engineering marvel, but it did creep along at a snail’s pace. Impatient rail workers who wanted to get their work done in a flash resorted to using small rickety sleds that they dubbed the Devil’s Shingle to race down the mountain. Some say the Devil’s Shingle could travel as fast as a car on a modern highway. Workers would inch up the mountain aboard the sluggish cog railway, only to race back down again in the Devil’s Shingle at breakneck speed.
In 1929, disaster struck when the cog railway changed owners. The new owners decided to fire up a long defunct locomotive lovingly referred to as Old Peppersass. Old Peppersass had a unique boiler that looked like a bottle of hot sauce. The unusual boiler won the locomotive a spot at two World’s Fairs. Antiquated Old Peppersass suffered a broken cog wheel that caused the locomotive to derail. A photographer documenting the resurrection of Old Peppersass perished in the accident.
The Mount Washington Cog Railway continues to operate to this day. It is quite a bit safer and more efficient than it was in 1879. Unfortunately, the rotten weather atop Mount Washington continues to roil visitors.