New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Cog Railway

The Mountain Washington Cog Railway is unique–it is the first cog railway built in the world, and it has the second steepest grade of any railroad in the world (it was first until the railway up Mount Pilatus in Switzerland was built).

Early photograph of cog railway.

In 1857 inventor Sylvester Marsh (1803-1884) climbed this mountain with a friend (Rev. A.C. Thompson, the pastor of the Eliot Church in Roxbury MA). When night came, bad weather was upon them (hurricane winds, freezing rain, etc.) and they lost their way. Finally almost completely exhausted, they came upon the Tip Top House.

Prior to this Sylvester Marsh had been involved in the meat-packing and grain-handling business. He had already built a  funicular railway up Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts (about 1/10 of the height of Mt. Washington).  He had already invented the mechanism to be used for the Mt. Washington Railway but had to fight through much opposition and ridicule to get his project approved. In 1858 he exhibited a model to the State Legislature, and received a charter to build it. (Reportedly one legislator suggested that he should also receive permission to build a railway to the moon).

The Cog Railway uses a “rack and gear” system that uses a toothed rack laid on the tie between the rails, and a gear on a driving axle of the locomotive that engaged the rack to secure between adhesion. Sylvester Marsh was awarded several patents specific to the Cog Railway. His earliest patent was dated September 10, 1861 and was for “locomotive engines for ascending inclined plans.” Another one, No. 44,965, dated November 8, 1864 is related to the atmospheric brake. Additional patents were awarded for improvements he made in the original.

In 1864-1865 he bought an inn called The White Mountain House and more than 16,000 ares of land in Crawford Notch. The base station was located where the Ammonoosuc River flowed onto his property.  The three mile railway right-of-way up the mountain was acquired by eminent domain.

First a turnpike had to be built to bring vehicles to the foot of the mountain (began in April 1866), following by the actual construction of the railway (began May 1866). The section to Waumbeck was completed in 1867 (3/4 mile), and to the top of Jacob’s Ladder in 1868 (1 mile). Finally the work was completed in July 1869.  The track and stations having cost about $150,000.  The railway was formally opened to the public August 14, 1868 when it was only completed as far as Jacob’s Ladder. Every piece of material for its construction (for both railway, locomotive and cars) had to be hauled up, through the woods by ox teams.

During the building of the cog railway, the workmen figured out a way of “rapid transit” to get back down the mountain using wooden plank “slideboards” that they called “Devil’s Shingles.” The slide-board was about three feet long and would rest lengthwise on the center rail. The braking mechanism was an iron handle that gripped the flange of the rail rightly. A dangerous practice, they were able to slide down the 3 mile long track within minutes. The death of an employee resulted in the railroad discontinuing that type of conveyance.

The first public trial trip of the engines upon the Mount Washington Railway, was on August 29, 1866. The guest riders included a large group of railroad presidents and other managers. In 1868 Sylvester Marsh was one of the officers of the Mount Washington Railroad, along with J.E. Lyon of Boston, Hon. Henry Keyes of Newbury VT, Judge Upham, Hon. Onslow Stearns and Nathaniel White of Concord NH.

In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant, with his family visited Mount Washington. They ascended the railway and were pleased with their trip. During 1870 about five thousand persons were carried over the railway to the top of Mt. Washington. [See Granite Monthly, story in Feb 1903 by Alice Bartlett Stevens].  President and Mrs. Hayes made their fifth visit to the summit in 1877 (however it is uncertain whether they used the cog railway, or private car. In the summer of 1882 the railway carried up eleven thousand people to the mountain top.

The first locomotive (Old Peppersass) that was designed by Mr. Marsh was built by Campbell and Whittier of Boston MA (owned by Charles Whittier), and was used until it wore out. It was exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, and continues to be on exhibit in New Hampshire. It had a vertical boiler and no cab.   The present type of locomotive was designed by Walter Aiken of Franklin NH. In 1883 the Manchester [NH] Locomotive works built the engine for a train for this railway.

In 1872-73 Mr. Marsh built the Fabyan House, on his property near the entrance to the base station. This hotel burned in 1951.

In 1867 a Swiss Envoy visited to see the railway and the Swiss Government asked for his help. In 1871 the Cog Railway was built at Mt. Rigi, in Switzerland, constructed from drawings and models provided by Marsh. In 1905 a similar cog railway was built up Uncanoonuc Mountains in Goffstown NH. This railroad is no longer in existence.

In 1976 the Mt. Washington Cog Railway was designated a National Historic Engineering Landmark.  The railway has been running continuously since 1869, except for a few years during the World Wars (i.e., 1918 and 1943-45).  The “Jacob’s Ladder” section (a trestle 25 feet high that angles upward at a grade of more than 37%) had to be rebuilt after the 1938 hurricane. It is a 3 hour round trip, with a 20-minute stop at the summit. Dress warmly as even though the weather may be mild at the bottom, the wind chill factor and fog at the peak will make this necessary.

New Hampshire Historical Marker #45,  was placed in 1967 at the base station road about 5 miles from the intersection of US Route 302. The marker states: “Completed in
1869 for $139,500, this unique railway was built through the genius and
enterprise of Herrick and Walter Aiken of Frankin and Sylvester Marsh
of Campton. Over three miles long, the average grade to the 6,293-foot
summit is one foot in four. Made safe by toothed wheel and ratchet, it
is the second steepest in the world and the first of its type.”

P.T. Barnum called the view at the top of Mt. Washington,
“the second greatest show on earth.” (And indeed it is). The photograph
shown above was taken in the 1930s by my father, showing the cog


*Additional Reading*

The Cog Railway (Official Site)

Last Run of Old Peppersass

Sylvester Marsh and the Mount Washington Railway

Mt. Washington Cog Railway History

1. The White Mountains: A Handbook for Travellers, A Guide to the Peaks, etc., by Moses Foster Sweetser; J.R. Osgood and Company Publishers; 1876
2. Mountain Washington in Winter, Or the Experiences of A Scientific Expedition….,” by Charles Henry Hitchcock, Published by Chick and Andrews, 1871
3. The Bay State Monthly; Vol III, May 1885, No. II
4. Exercises at the centennial celebration of the incorporation of the town of Littleton, July 4, 1884; by J.E. Rankin; Littleton NH, 1887


Thomas Marsh m. Mary Missing
Alexander Marsh (1628-1698) & Mary Belcher (1639-1678)
John Marsh (1678-1745) m. Sarah Wilson (1684-1747)

John Marsh, son of John & Sarah (Wilson) Marsh b. 14 Oct 1702 in Braintree, Norfolk Co MA and d. 7 Nov 1755 in East Haddam CT; he m. 30 July 1727 in Dorchester, Suffolk Co MA to Submit Woodard. She b. 7 Dec 1704 in Dorchester MA and d. 1 Apr 1788 in E. Haddam CT.
Children of John & Submit (Woodard) Marsh:
1. Elizabeth Marsh, b. 30 Apr 1729 in Braintree, Norfolk Co MA
2. John Marsh, b 22 Feb 1731 Braintree MA
3. +Edward Edmund Marsh, b. 19 Apr 1733 Braintree MA
4. Alice Wilson marsh, b. 5 Dec 1735 in Braintree MA
5. Submit marsh, b. 16 Aug 1738 in Braintree MA
6. Lemuel Marsh, b. 3 Aug 1741 in Braintree MA
7. Sarah Newton Marsh, b. 30 July 1745 in Braintree MA
8. Anna Marsh, b. 2 May 1748 in Braintree MA

Edward Edmond Marsh, son of John & Submit (Woodard) Marsh, b. 19 Apr 1733 in Braintree, Norfolk Co MA and d. 30 Dec 1811 in Campton, Grafton Co NH; He m. bef 1758 to Eleanor Holmes. She b. 1737 in/of Hadlyme CT.
Children of Edward E. & Eleanor (Holmes) Marsh:
1. Edmund Marsh, b. May 1758 E. Haddam CT;
2. +John Marsh, b. 1763 poss E. Haddam CT
3. Woodward Marsh, b. abt 1765 in CT;  was of Hadlyme CT; m. 7 Jan 1788 to Mary Cone
4. Holmes Marsh, b. abt 1767 in Campton NH
5. Sylvester Marsh, b. 1768 Campton NH; d. 22 June 1794
6. Newton Marsh, b abt 1770 Campton NH, d. abt 1773
7. Christopher Marsh, d. poss. W. Roxbury MA
8. Sarah Marsh, b. 1774 Campton NH
9. Alice Wilson Marsh, b. 1780, Campton, Grafton Co NH
10. Ebenezer Marsh
11. ?

John Marsh, son of Edward Edmond & Eleanor (Holmes) Marsh of East Haddam CT with his wife Mehitable (Percival) Marsh, traveled up the valley of the Merrimack River to settle in Campton NH in 1782. They settled on the east bank of the Pemigewasset River. History states they had 11 children.
Children of John & Mehitable (Percival) Marsh:
1.Newton Marsh, b. abt 1802 in Campton NH; m. Julia –. Had ch: Christopher (b abt 1833) and John M. (b abt 1842)
2. +Sylvester Marsh, b. 30 Sep 1803 in Campton NH, 9th of 11 children

Sylvester Marsh, was born 30 September 1803 in Campton, Grafton Co NH, the ninth of eleven children. He died 30 December 1884 in Concord, NH of pneumonia, and is buried in Blossom Hill Cemetery. He grew up in Campton NH (15 miles north of Franconia). At age 19 he left home, walking to Boston (about 117 miles). In 1827 he ran a meat stall at Quincy Market.   He was fascinated with railroad travel, being one of the first passengers on the first steam railroad from Albany to Schenectady New York. In 1833 he moved to Chicago Illinois, where he first opened a butcher-shop and then a meat packing-store on Dearborn Street between Lake and South Water Streets (at 340-6 N. Water Street). In 1837 he left for Dunkirk NY, returning a few years later to Chicago where he partnered with George W. Dole, as Dole & Marsh. He patented several devices including a lard-rendering device.   In the 1850s he invented a grain kiln that prevented spoilage of grain during storage, and spent a great deal of time experimenting with how to dry corn, using grain dryers.

He married 1st) 4 April 1844 in Monson MA to Charlotte D. Bates, dau of James & Eliza “Betsy” (Davison) Bates of Munson MA. They had three children, one dying young. At age 52 a widower with two children, he married 2nd) 23 March 1855 to Cornelia H. Holt, from St. Albans VT, daughter of Lumas T. Hoyt. They had three daughters. He and his family
removed to Jamaica Plain MA (a suburb of Boston).  In 1861 he returned to Chicago IL. In 1863 he moved to Brooklyn NY where he remained until 1864 when he removed to Littleton NH to work on building the Mt. Washington Cog Railway.   He lived there 15 years before removing to Concord NH. [Seee additional biography written by his great-grandson, Richard Joslin]
U.S. Census > 1860 United States Federal Census > Illinois > Cook > Chicago Ward 9
Sylvester Marsh 54 M Grain Dealer NH
Cornelia Marsh 34 F VT
John F. Marsh 15 M ILL
Mary E. Marsh 13 F ILL
Sylvester Marsh 4 M Mass
Geo H. Marsh 8/12 M Mass
Anne E. Ronno 28 F Servant Mass
Martha Dodge 24 F servant ME M Servant VT
U.S. Census > 1870 United States Federal Census > New Hampshire > Grafton > Littleton
Marsh, Sylvester 64 M W Railroad BUilder 40,000/24000 NH
Marsh, Cornelia 43 F W Keeping House VT
Marsh, Sylvester 14 M W attending school MA
Marsh, Cornelia 9 F E Attending School IL
Marsh, Jessie 5 F W at home MA
Marsh, infant, 1/12 F W NH
Clark, Mary 18 F W domestic Servant, Canada
U.S. Census > 1880 United States Federal Census > New Hampshire > Grafton > Littleton > District 96
Marsh, Sylvester W M 75 railroad manager NH NH NH
Marsh, Cornelia W F 54 wife keeps house VT Conn VT
Marsh, Jessie A. W F 15 dau at school NH NH VT
Marsh, Harriet A. W F 10 daughter at school NH NH VT
Sullivan, Sarah W F 23 employee, does house work NH NH NH
Children of Sylvester & Charlotte D. (Bates) Marsh:
1. John F. Marsh, b. abt 1845 IL
2. Mary E. Marsh, b. abt 1847 IL; she resided in New York, and died 20 August 1852 at the age of 36.
3. child who died young
Children of Sylvester & Cornelia H. (Holt) Marsh:
4. Sylvester Marsh, b. abt 1856 MA; in 1870 living with parents in Littleton NH
5. George H. Marsh, b abt 1859 MA, prob. died young
6. Cornelia Marsh, b. abt 1861 IL
7. Jessie Marsh, b. abt 1865 MA
8. Harriet Marsh, b. abt 1870 Littleton NH

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4 Responses to New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Cog Railway

  1. Pete Baker says:


    This article requires verification. Although Sylvester Marsh actually built the first cog railway. It was not his idea. A gentleman by the name of Walter Aiken actually conceived the idea and built models. Marsh followed through financially and got credit.

    Aiken was also responsible for the automatic knitting machine that made women’s stockings. He had several other patents as well.

    I take particular interest as Walter Aiken as he is the great great grandfather of my high school roommate, Lawton Bourn Jr., who is now living in Laconia, NH.


    • Janice Brown says:

      Thank you for both reading this article and replying to it. Unfortunately ALL of the *primary evidence* that I have reviewed shows that the Cog Railway system was Sylvester Marsh’s idea. He was also an investor with patents that included cogs in them. He also was the person willing to put money behind it to make it happen. I don’t see the same mechanical (cog-related) knowledge in Walter Aiken’s inventions which were mostly knitting machine patents until later when he was asked to help build the cars that rode on the Cog Railway. And in fact the first published news item that indicates Walter Aiken was responsible in any way for the IDEA was not published until after Sylvester Marsh was dead.

      There is an exhibit page posted on the New Hampshire Historical Society, and even they do not come out and say that Walter Aiken indeed was the inventor of the Cog Railway. I am afraid there simply is not enough evidence for me to change my mind. 🙂


  2. Pete Baker says:

    Janice – Have you heard of Herrick & Walter Aiken? It has been recorded that Herrick conceived the idea of a cog railroad in the late 1830’s. Marsh in 1852. I have learned that there was conflicting info on whose idea it really was.


    • Janice Brown says:

      Pete, I did hear of Herrick and Walter Aiken. I have seen the conflicting info. I just don’t have conclusive proof that anything changed. The Herrick question was raised after Sylvester Marsh died, not during his lifetime. Mr. Marsh is the name on all the paperwork that has to do with the cog railway, and so until I have time to research the Aikens, my story is going to stand as written. Just an FYI, the official Cog Railway web site history shows Sylvester Marsh as the inventor and creator too.

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