It's a long way down..... This image, made back in 2008, gives you the view that Mt. Washington Cog Railway passengers have as they descend Cold Spring Hill, just below the Waumbek Water Tank. Of course, the passengers typically see a locomotive sandwiched between them and this rather scary view....this is roughly a 30% grade. The steepest grade on the line is 37.4%, up the line, nearly a mile behind my camera position.
Take note of the track construction. First and foremost, the entire line is built on wooden trestle. That's to minimize the number of contact points with the very uneven ground.....which gets more and more uneven as you go up the mountain. Second, you'll see that the line features rather light, 25 lb rail, or at least it did back in 2008. Note also that the rail sits on top of timbers to build it up to the cog rack. Back in 1869, when the line was originally built, it was just old-fashioned strap rail. In 2020 however, both the light, 25 lb. rail you see here and the underlying timbers are being replaced with very robust, 100 lb. rail, which can better handle higher traffic and heavier equipment. Last, but not least, there's the cog rack in the center. This is what differentiates this line from a normal railroad. Twin cogwheels on each locomotive and coach mesh with this rack to provide the necessary traction to climb and descend the steep hill. These cogwheels are deep enough to ensure that two teeth are always fully meshing with the rack. Originally, the cylindrical spokes in the rack were tubular steel, but recently, they were upgraded and are now solid steel, with about the diameter of a boiler staybolt. This railroad uses what is known as the "Marsh Rack System", which is named after Sylvester Marsh, the guy who invented the system and constructed this railroad back in 1869.
Just after the Civil War, when this railway was built, this whole area was extremely remote. The men who built the railroad had no way to commute to their homes, so they spent a lot of time here and lived in a bunkhouse near where the base station is now. When their work shifts were done and they found themselves on the upper reaches of the mountain, they needed a quick way to get down....and there was no regular train service. The innovative coggers found a way. They developed a tiny sled that was about 3 feet long and a foot wide. Made of wood with metal bracing, the little sleds had a channel on the bottom that fit over the cog rack. On either side, there were friction levers which put pressure on the sides of the cog rack, and served as brakes. Known officially as "slide boards", many of these little sleds had built-in tool boxes, so workers could transport their personal effects with them. They literally positioned these little sleds over the cog rack and slid down the mountain, often one after another, in groups. The average time to descend the 3.1 mile railroad was about 15 minutes. Given human nature however, there were some who decided that slow, easy slides down the hill were just not exciting enough and contests of speed developed. After a while, things got a little out of control. One guy apparently managed to descend the entire railroad in just 2 minutes and 45 seconds. That's an average speed of over 65 mph, so the top speeds were likely over 70. Needless to say, there were accidents. I've found records of at least 4 fatalities related to the use of what became known as "The Devil's Shingle." By about 1920, the NH Legislature took action to put an end to the nuttiness, and outlawed the slide boards. The railway also made changes to the cog rack, in order to discourage such activity. If you want to see what it looked like, just do an internet search on "Devil's Shingle." It is yet another fascinating aspect of the history of Sylvester Marsh's "Railway to the Moon."