Mt. Washington Cog Railway – The Little Engine That Could!

July 2015 – One of the most well known landmarks in New Hampshire is Mt. Washington, the tallest mountain in the northeast. And on this mountain rides one of the best excursions you can find anywhere: The Mt. Washington Cog Railway.

Ammonoosuc Train The Cog Railway Mt Washington New Hampshire

The Mt. Washington Cog Railway — what fun!

The brainchild of Sylvester Marsh, an inventor and grain merchant who made a fortune designing machinery for the grain industry in the mid 1800’s, the Cog Railway is a fantastic train ride that crawls straight up the side of the mountain. No switchbacks needed!

Coal fired steam engine Cog Railway Mt Washington

The coal fired steam engine burns a lot of coal and blows off a lot of steam on the way up the mountain!

Back in the 1860’s, after retiring from the grain industry, Sylvester hiked up Mt. Washington with a friend. On the way, he encountered the typically brutal weather that this particular mountain likes to dish out. Other hikers had died on the mountain just prior to his hike, and he and his friend were grateful to make it to the Tip Top House, a hiker’s hut at the top.

Ticket booth The Cog Railway Mt Washington New Hampshire

Folks come early to get tickets or confirm reservations.

He was astonished the next morning when the storm subsided and the views unfolded all around him. Most folks of that time never got to see much beyond their farm fields, and he wanted to share this incredible beauty with everyone living at sea level yet make it easier and safer for them to get to the top.

He set about designing a train that would use not just normal railroad tracks but a third rail in the middle that was made of chain links like a bicycle chain. A cog on the bottom of the train would turn and claw its way up the mountain using this third rail to inch along.

Life Magazine cover Mt Washington Cog Railway New Hampshire

The Cog Railway has graced a lot of magazine covers. This Life cover is from 1958, 89 years after the railway opened!

It was a clever idea, but the big railroad barons of the day openly laughed at him. He was a grain guy, after all. What could he possibly know about trains? Well, he was a man with a vision, and he opened the railway to the public on July 19, 1869.

It has been a huge hit with visitors to New Hampshire’s White Mountains ever since.

Mt Washington Cog Railway coal fired steam train engine

Sylvester Marsh patented his design for this unusual cog rail train

The construction wasn’t easy, and everyday the construction crew rode a cog train up to the end of the line, wherever the previous day’s construction had left off. At the end of the day, they each rode cog sleds down the mountain. These sleds had brakes, but still, what a wild ride that must have been!

Riding the cog railway down on sleds

When the tracks were being built, the construction workers would slide down the mountain on sleds at the end of the work day!

We got caught up in watching the outsanding PBS documentary video about the history of the Cog Railway in the museum before our ride. We gawked at the magazine covers and old photos and mock-ups of the train that were on display. Suddenly, a train whistle pierced the air, and we ran outside to see the bright red train chugging up the hill from its overnight storage spot in a cloud of steam and smoke. What a thrill!

Mt Washington Cog Rail train chugs uphill

Our train, Engine #2, comes up the hill to pick us all up.

The coal fired steam engine runs just once each day, at 9:15 in the morning. And it is the real deal — authentic 1875 technology at work!

The Cog Railway actually has five other trains and coaches that run up and down the mountain all day long. They operate on biodiesel and make the journey a bit more quickly.

Biodiesel trains at the Cog Railway on Mt Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire

Biodiesel trains make the trek up the mountain after the steam engine’s early morning run.

The 3 mile ride is a one hour trip on the steam train, but it’s about 20 minutes less on its biodiesel sisters.

The Cog Railway train car arrives at the station

This is a ride that’s fun for all ages.

Before we hopped aboard, our Engineer, Eggy, showed us the enormous pile of coal that would be shoveled into the fire by the Fireman, Ray, to keep the water boiling. Shoveling the coal is serious work, and Ray would be shoveling as fast as he could go during the steepest part of the climb, a 37.4% grade!

Engineer peeks out window Cog Railway Mt Washington New Hampshire

What a fun job!

Everyone aboard the train was grinning as Eggy blew the whistle. With a lurch, the train started the climb, pushing our coach car ahead of it. The engine car is built on an angle so it sits fairly level as it climbs up the mountain. The coach car isn’t, however, and we were pitched back in our seats and aiming for the sky!

A gorgeous view of the vast green valleys and mountains grew quickly behind us.

Cog Railway Train chugs up Mt Washington New Hampshire

Clouds of steam blanketed the engine as we climbed the mountain

In front of us, the cog rail was clearly visible in the middle of the train track as it snaked its way up the mountain. We crept up the mountain at the pace of a leisurely stroll, and noticed that each railroad tie was numbered. Our Brakeman, Kelly, told us that four people spend all day every day maintaining the tracks!

About halfway up we came to the Halfway House, a building that seems to sit at an impossible angle on the edge of the mountain. Situated at 4500′ elevation, the floor is actually quite level, it’s just that the pitch of the mountain is so steep it looks like the house itself is tilting!

Cog train tracks and halfway house Mt Washington New Hampshire

The “Halfway House” is at 4,500′ elevation

Not long afterwards we stopped for few minutes to get more water for the boiler. The water source at this important spot on the mountain is spring fed, and 300 gallons of water were poured into the tank with a gravity feed.

Then we reached the steepest part of the ride at a trestle called Jacob’s ladder that stands 25′ above a ravine. What does a 37.4% grade feel like in a train? Well, the seats in the front of the coach were 14 feet above the seats in the back of the coach — and the kids just loved struggling up and down the aisle between the seats!!

Jacob's Ladder trestle Mt Washington Cog Railway

Jacob’s Ladder trestle — the steepest part of the railway

As we climbed higher and higher, the views behind us became ever more expansive. Suddenly, we noticed people walking up a trail towards the train, and we realized that these folks had all hiked up from the bottom! The Cog Railway sells one-way tickets too, so undoubtedly some of these hikers would hitch a ride down after getting triumphant pics of themselves at the top.

Hikers coming up Mt. Washington Summit Trail New Hampshire

Hikers coming up the trail from the base of Mt. Washington

There was quite a line of hikers waiting to take selfies with the Mt Washington Summit sign at the top, and who can blame them. It’s quite an accomplishment to hike up. We felt a little soft for having ridden the train, but we had no shame, and we got in line and took pics with the summit sign too!

Mt Washington Summit

Hey, even if I didn’t hike I can still get a pic at the top, can’t I ?

We had about an hour at the summit before our train would start the journey back down the mountain, and we made a bee-line for the Mt. Washington Observatory where we took a tour of the weather station. Our guide, Kaitlyn, showed us the instruments that track the wind speeds and monitor the weather, and we were floored to learn that scientists actually live and work on the top of Mt. Washington year round, manning this station 24/7 in twelve hour shifts.

Kaitlyn Mt. Washington Observatory Weather Station New Hampshire

Mt. Washington has the most fearsome weather in the world, and our guide, Kaitlyn, explains how scientists live and work there, monitoring the instruments 24/7 !

They work for 8 straight days on the mountaintop and then have 6 days off, and they live all together, dormitory style, with a comfy common room, kitchen and bedrooms that reminded me of my college days. Volunteers can participate too, and we got a kick out of seeing two grey haired volunteers coming into the dorm after their shifts. The fun for them, they said, besides the working at the weather station itself, was that they could enjoy the hiking and outdoor activities of the White Mountains all summer long.

Kaitlyn then took us up through a hatch and out onto the roof of the observatory where we saw the wind vanes in action.

Climbing up the Mt. Washington Observatory Weather Station New Hampshire

Mark climbs up towards the roof deck where the wind vanes are mounted.

The highest wind speed ever recorded at a manned weather station occurred right here back on April 12, 1934, when a wind gust hit 231 mph. I had heard a story long ago that the wind vane was blown right off the mountain when that wind gust hit, but we discovered that’s an urban legend.

Four volunteers — the founders of the observatory — were manning the station that day, and they actually retrieved the wind vane from its spot on the roof and verified that it was functioning correctly and that its readings were accurate. Having the instrument blow right off the mountain makes a much better story, though!

Mt Washington Observatory Wind Vanes

The wind vanes on the top of the Mt. Washington Observatory

Since that time, a bigger wind gust was recorded in Australia during Cyclone Olivia in 1996. However, that happened on an unmanned weather station, so, awesome as it was, it doesn’t have quite the same mystique!

Before long, we heard our train whistle blowing again, and it was time to go back down the mountain. Still flushed with excitement from seeing the inner workings of the Mt. Washington Observatory, we quickly got swept up in the incredible marvel of coasting a big train engine and coach full of passengers straight down a mountain without losing control.

Fog shrouds the Cog Rail train at the top of Mt Washington New Hampshire

We had fog at the top, but that didn’t dampen our spirits one bit!

The train and coach are always oriented in the same direction with the train engine located below the coach. On the way up the mountain, the train engine pushes the coach. On the way down, the Engineer in the train engine uses compression brakes to slow the train and the Brakeman in the coach uses disc brakes to keep the coach from bumping into and pushing the train down the hill. It kinda reminded me of the brake action on our truck and trailer going down a mountain!

Our Brakeman, Kelly, worked constantly the entire way down the mountain feathering the brakes. She had two big wheels in front of her, one to make big adjustments and one for fine tuning. We were at such a steep pitch that it looked like she was leaning way back even though she was standing straight!

Brakeman controls the brakes on Mt Washington Cog Railway New Hampshire

Heading back down, our Brakeman, Kelly, feathered the brakes with two huge wheels. She isn’t leaning back, by the way. It’s the coach that’s on an angle!

The noise of the brakes and the shaking in the coach were quite dramatic, and we watched in amazement as Kelly worked at the wheels.

The jobs on this train follow the old tradition: first you become a Brakeman, controling the brakes in the coach, then a Fireman, shoveling coal into the hopper to keep the fire blazing to boil the water, and then you can be an Engineer, driving the whole thing.

Up ahead of us we noticed that two of the biodiesel trains were at the junction area in the middle of the mountain. They were passing each other as one was coming up the mountain and the other was going down.

Two trains pass at Mt Washington Cog Railway switching station New Hampshire

Two trains pass at each other at the switching station

We found out later that the dance of the six Cog Rail trains is a carefully choreographed ballet that is overseen by the director of operations who runs the whole show by radio. Each train leaves its station, going either up or down, at a very precise moment so pairs of trains can meet in the middle where a switching station allows two trains to be side by side and pass each other on parallel tracks.

The Cog Railway Mt Washington New Hampshire

A train climbing up the mountain passes us as we coast down.

Soon we were passing a train that was headed up the mountain. We took pics of them as they passed, and they took pics of us!!

Passenger takes a photo of passing Cog Railway Train Mt Washington New Hampshire

We all got photos of each other!

When we finally reached the bottom and got out, we hung around for a while to admire our little train. It huffed and puffed and made all kinds of noises as the steam spewed out around it. We noticed there was a lot less coal in the hopper than there had been on the way up, and Ray’s and Eggy’s faces and hands were dusted with soot. But their beaming smiles gave away what fun they have with their jobs.

The Cog Railway crew inspects the coal fired steam engine train

The train crew and the team of mechanics tune up the engine every afternoon.

It turns out that their day starts well before the 9:15 ride, because it takes them over an hour to warm up the engine and get the water in the boiler up to temp. After the ride is over, they spend hours going over every part of the train engine, lubing the moving parts and tightening anything that has rattled loose.

Meanwhile, the biodiesel trains were waiting their turns to go up the mountain.

Cog railway trains lined up and ready to go_

Biodiesel cog trains lined up and ready to go

The biodiesel engine trains are much simpler, of course. The engines themselves are 600 horsepower John Deere engines, and the ride is smoother, quicker and a lot less noisy. But there is a romance to the old steam train that enchanted us completely.

Mt Washington Cog Railway train climbs the mountain

What an absolute blast this ride was!

If you find yourself in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a ride on the Cog Railway is an absolute must. This fun little excursion is sure to put a smile on your face!

RV camped in Mt Washington National Forest

The White Mountains are a beautiful area for camping,
and the Cog Railway was a huge highlight during our stay there.

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Taking the Mail Boat Ferry to Maine’s Cranberry Islands

June 2015 – So far our travels in downeast Maine and Acadia National Park had far exceeded our expectations. The sights, the smells, the cute towns and the beautiful coast had all been intoxicating, and we were sure it couldn’t get any better. But it did!

Maine coast harbor at dawn

The Maine coast at dawn – magical!

The best way to see the northern Maine coast is by boat, and I had been scouting around for ways to get us out on the water. The colorful sailboats looked so inviting in the early morning light. The water beckoned, and I wanted so much for Mark to experience Maine from the water on a boat, because it is nothing at all like Mexico or the west coast where we had done all our sailing together.

Sailboats at dawn in Maine harbor

Elegant and pretty…

There are all sorts of tourist boat rides available, from whale watching tours to schooner rides to cruises.

Dawn in Maine harbor with boats

What a spot…!

But when I saw that the local mail boat takes passengers to two of the tiny islands just off Mt. Desert Island, I knew I’d found just the thing. This mail boat is exactly that, a small boat that delivers the mail to the folks who live on nearby Cranberry and Islesford islands. It also picks up and delivers all kinds of other things too, including people.

Mail boat ferry to Cranberry Island and Islesford Maine

Beal & Bunker’s “Double B” Mail Boat

We hopped aboard with a small rag-tag group of people in the early morning and stood in the back watching the shore disappear. Once the boat got a ways from shore, Ted, the ticket man, whipped out a smartphone and ran our credit card for our tickets. “I can’t get a signal on shore, but I can get one out here,” he said, handing us back our card. How funny!

We passed some beautiful sailing yachts bobbing on their moorings and we passed some lobster boats as well. The wind felt fresh in my hair and cold on my cheeks. Ted told us how this ferry, the Double B, runs every day of the year. In many ways it is a lifeline between the people on these two small islands and the rest of Maine.

I hadn’t really noticed that we were surrounded by men on the boat who were carrying lunch pails, but when we got to our first stop, Cranberry Island, everyone around me suddenly piled off the boat and up the steep stairs onto the dock. Every single one was a fellow heading to work with a lunch box. How cool is that!

Workers get off Beal & Bunker mail boat ferry Double B on Cranberry Island Maine

Workers get off the boat to climb up onto the docks…

No sooner had they all gone up the stairs than a group of schoolkids came down the stairs!

Everyone on the mail boat knew each other, and the adults on the boat welcomed the kids eagerly. Each child had a backpack and was dressed for school — and each was wearing a lifejacket too. Ted and the other adults checked that all the kids they expected to see were aboard, and then the schoolbus / mail boat headed back out to sea. These kids live on Cranberry Island but go to school on the island of Islesford!

“If there’s a kid missing,” Ted said, “We have all the parents’ phone numbers!”

Schoolkids board Double B mailboat ferry on Cranberry Island Maine

Schoolkids come down to the mail boat to head to school on Islesford

Ted explained that no matter what the conditions, the “Double B” mail boat ferry runs — unless it is just too dangerous. This past winter was a doozy, and he described one day where the ocean spray was huge as the boat pounded through the surf, and the water froze in mid air. It built up on the boat’s windows so fast that the captain couldn’t see a thing and had to turn around.

Lobster boat docking at Cranberry Island Frenchman Bay Maine

A lobsterman comes into the dock at Islesford

But this boat is a vital link for these islands, and when we landed in Islesford, we were amazed to see a brand new washing machine on the dock waiting to be loaded onto the mail boat. We weren’t sure why a brand new washing machine would be leaving the island instead of arriving, but maybe it had to be returned!

How do these folks do their shopping, I asked a local woman on the dock. “We live and die by Amazon,” she joked.

Wharf in Islesford Maine

Islesford wharf

Islesford is a tiny island with just a handful of inhabitants. As we walked up off the docks, we were greeted with a sign that made two things clear: 1) The mosquitos are so fierce that they carry people away, and 2) the speed limit for cars on the island is 15 mph!

Mosquitos and 15 mph speed limit on Islesford Maine

This is a low key and slow paced kinda place…
if the mosquitos don’t carry you away!

Actually, a bumper sticker made a third thing clear:

10 771 I'd rather be on Islesford bumper sticker

This is a very quiet island, and after the school kids and their teachers had disappeared from view, we wandered around the docks and then up the street a bit.

Lilacs arching over Maine harbor

Islesford is a jewel of an island.

There isn’t really a town center, but we passed the tiny Islesford post office and Islesford Market, which share a small store front.

Then we came across a welcoming building that had a sign over the door, “Neighborhood House.” There were picnic tables out front, and since we’d gotten an early start to the day, and our tummies were rumbling, and neither of our moms was around to say we had to wait, we sat down and ate our picnic lunch despite it being barely 10:00 a.m.

Neighborhood Center Islesford Maine

This village has a Neighborhood House — neat!

We continued our stroll after lunch and found ourselves in front of a sign that said, “Islesford Artists.” This was a gallery dedicated to artists from the island, and the the curator, Katy Morse Fernald, showed us some beautiful paintings. Upstairs there was a loft room that once housed her husband’s lobster traps and line and buoys. He was a sixth generation lobsterman from the area!

Islesford Artists Gallery Mt. Desert Maine

The upstairs gallery room at Islesford Artists used to be storage for lobster traps and bouys.

We got chatting with her about the lobster industry, and we were very surprised when she said it is currently fluorishing in Maine. She attributes this primarily to the overfishing of the predator fish as well as to the increase in the minimum sizes for lobsters so they are a little older when they’re caught and have had a chance to reproduce more. I hadn’t realized that lobsters have predators. I guess I just never imagined a large fish chomping away on a crunchy lobster, shell and all!

Dinghy on a mooring ball Frenchman's Bay Maine

Life is quiet out here

After a few hours on Islesford, the mail boat came back on its rounds and we caught a ride to Cranberry Island. The mail boat goes round and round between Mt. Desert Island, Islesford and Cranberry Island all day long, and a passenger ticket is good for as many rides between the destinations in one day as you wish to take!

Cranberry Island (“Great” Cranberry) is a little bit bigger than Islesford (“Little Cranberry”), but not much. The Cranberry General Store was at the top of the dock and had a restaurant where people were having lunch.

Cranberry Island General Store Maine

Cranberry Island General Store — just a bit bigger than the one on Islesford!

Walking the quiet roads on Cranberry Island, we passed several pretty homes and quite a few stands of purple lupine wildflowers.

House on Cranberry Island Maine

At one house there was a goose who was very enamored with her own reflection in a basement window!!

Goose admires herself in a window

A goose admires herself.

Back at the town dock, we walked for a little ways along a pebble beach that was lined with washed up seaweed.

Pebble beach and seaweed Islesford Maine

Pebble beach near the town dock on Cranberry Island

The mail boat had returned to Cranberry Island by now, and we watched Ted and the captain unloading their deliveries from the roof of the boat. Coolers full of fresh food were destined for Hitty’s Cafe, a popular restaurant that is a few streets back from the town dock. There were also quite a few bags of potting soil and a lot of boxes destined for the post office. A pickup truck was there to pick up a lot of the goodies, and it had a stack of US Mail sorting bins that were headed back to Mt. Desert Island.

It was quite an operation, and one that goes on all day long everyday, year in and year out, as small goods and packages get moved between the islands of Mt. Desert, Islesford and Great Cranberry. We watched a larger commercial boat delivering a big heavy construction vehicle onto another dock. The “Double B” is too small to carry vehicles, but it seems that vehicles are delivered one at a time here!

Loading and unloading Bunker & Beal Double B Mail Ferry boat in Cranberry Island Maine

Unloading deliveries for the folks who live on Cranberry Island

Soon it was our turn to climb aboard. We stood to the back watching other people come onto the boat, and we recognized some of the people we had seen in the morning.

Then, we looked up and noticed a guy with a long beard walking down the dock carrying a big drum. Next to him was a young boy with an equally big drum. They set them down in the boat and then disappeared. Then some more people came with similar drums and then more and more. Soon there was a huge stack of these drums right in front of us on the boat!

The stack kept growing! At long last the boat was loaded, drums stacked high, and then a fellow in a blue shirt jumped in. It turned out it was Beau Lisy, the school music teacher on Islesford, and he had just finished teaching the kids a segment on west African music. He lived on Mt. Desert Island and commuted via this mail boat out to Islesford School once a week to teach music to all the kids.

Bongo drums loaded onto Double B mail boat on Cranberry Island

Of all crazy things — the boat gets loaded up with African bongo drums!

Beau was a professional musician, and he performed in Northeast Harbor and in other venues in the Mt. Desert Island area in Maine in addition to giving private music lessons and teaching music at this little island school.

He was a super guy to talk to, and as he described bringing out professional music friends of his to introduce the kids to various styles of music — a classical music trio and rock musicians and west African drummers and more — how cool for these island kids!

Bongo drum music teacher on Double B Islesford Mail Ferry Boat

Islesford School’s creative and adventurous music teacher,
Beau Lisy!

The funny thing is that all of Beau’s musician friends had to carry their instruments on the mail boat too, even in January!!

This wonderful excursion on the Double B mail boat was a true highlight in our visit to Mt. Desert Island. If you travel to Mt. Desert, whether by RV or by other means, plan a day trip out to the Cranberry Islands via the mail boat. You’ll be traveling the way the locals do, right alongside the mail, the small packages, the food coolers, and maybe even the bongos too!

Captain of Beal & Bunker ferry Double B pilots to Cranberry Islands Maine

The Cranberry Islands were lovely, but the mail boat rides were the highlight of the day!

The Double B mailboat sails out of Northeast Harbor. Our tickets were $32 apiece for one day of unlimited rides between the islands. Each leg is roughly 15 to 30 minutes. Before getting off at each stop, check with Ted or the captain for the times for the next ferry. They don’t always go around in a circle but double back once or twice during the day between Islesford and Cranberry Island.

You can take bicycles for an additional small fee, and we watched two French Canadians loading and unloading their bikes on one leg of our trip — easy! However, we found that the islands were small enough to get a flavor of each one on foot.

One other tip — dress in layers, as it can be chilly out on the water and quite warm as you walk around inland in the sunshine. There are places to get lunch on Cranberry Island.

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Related blog posts from our travels

Small ferry boat travel in the Caribbean’s Grenadine Islands! – A fun way to scoot between these jewels of the Caribbean

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Joseph Branch Railriders – What a ride!

Rail riding bicycle for two

A Joseph Oregon “Rail Rider” — What a blast to ride!!

July 2014 – While roaming around the backside of the pretty town of Joseph, Oregon, we came across a guy working on the most unusual looking tandem bicycle.

It had two seats side by side and was sitting on the old railroad tracks of an unused railway line.

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