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Old 06-15-2009, 03:02 AM   #1
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Default Extreme Railfanning: Shooting the last days of hourly steam at Mt. Washington

It was the world's first successful mountain climbing railroad when it opened in 1869, the same year the US transcontinental railroad was completed. At the time, it was a hair-brained idea that became an engineering marvel. One hundred and forty years later, funky-looking little steam engines still push wooden coaches to the top of New England's highest peak. The Mount Washington Cog Railway is a living piece of engineering history that has demonstrated to generations of young people that when humans put their minds to work, dreams can become realities.

Unfortunately, time and the realities of today's society have finally caught up with The Cog. Environmentalists complaints about coal-burning steam engines and pressures for low costs and increased profits have taken their toll. A year ago, the railway began to experiment with a diesel-hydraulic locomotive. Within months of when it was rolled out, it was obvious that it was more than just an experiment. It was quickly announced that two more were under construction, for delivery in the early summer of 2009. While the early talk was of a happy balance of steam and diesel to please the bean-counters, the tree-huggers and the historians, the most recent news has been more ominous. The folks at the railway are saying that when the new diesels roll out later this month, just one trip per day will be run with a steam engine. All others will be diesel-powered. With the diesels able to run on a 2-hour cycle, the steam engine just gets in the way.

With all of that in mind, I've spent the last couple of years intent on documenting the end of the steam era up there. For those who have never been there, The Cog is one of the more challenging railroads in North America to photograph. Sure, lots of folks have Base Station shots and parked-at-the-summit shots. Unfortunately, the most interesting stretches of the line are far more difficult to reach. The railroad is just 3 miles long, rising from about 2700 MSL at Marshfield Station, to roughly 6250 MSL at the summit....or about 3600 vertical feet of climb. It is built almost entirely on wooden trestle and nearly half of it sits above tree line. The grade averages 25%, and tops out at 37.41%. As you might expect, the primary challenges to photography are terrain and weather. The mountain is steep, but that's just the beginning. Above treeline, it gets very rocky...and those rocks are large, slippery and sharp. There are no easy trails to follow. The weather is foggy most of the time and the winds and temperatures can be extreme. Weather forecasts for the summit only go out 36 hrs and are WAGs (Wild-Ass Guesses) at best. When you go up there, you have to prepare well and keep in mind that people die on Mt. Washington every year. There's a list posted at the summit that's intended to burn that fact into your brain.

Last year, I made my first attempts at shooting the trains on the mountain. In July, I rode the train to the summit and hiked around on the Homestretch Flats, about 400 ft below the summit. In the fall, I twice hiked up above the Waumbek Water Tank, which is about 1 mile from the base and 1100 ft vertical. That hike is like doing the Empire State Building...by the stairs!

This year, my goal was to shoot the more extreme stretches of the line....the ones above tree-line. Jacob's Ladder, Long Trestle and Skyline Siding were all on my list. Rather than kill myself attempting to hike UP to those spots, my goal was to ride the train to the top and hike DOWN, shooting as I went. Finding suitable weather was the most difficult task. I first tried it solo on May 30th of 2009, with mediocre results. The summit was in the clouds by the time my train reached the top and it just went downhill from there....literally. At one point, I found myself standing on a bluff at 4700 MSL with an approaching thunderstorm. There is little shelter up there. For 30 minutes, I was buffeted by strong winds and pea-sized hail. The rest of the time, it was just foggy, windy and cold. Here are a couple of shots from that trip:

This is what the place looks like most of the time:
Image © Kevin Madore
PhotoID: 285978
Photograph © Kevin Madore

Just minutes before the thunderstorm!
Image © Kevin Madore
PhotoID: 286110
Photograph © Kevin Madore

During a merciful break in the fog:
Image © Kevin Madore
PhotoID: 285844
Photograph © Kevin Madore

And of course, the infamous "Steam-Killer":
Image © Kevin Madore
PhotoID: 285821
Photograph © Kevin Madore

Undefeated, I vowed to try it again, and went looking for some company. On June 13th, I again rode The Cog to the top accompanied by fellow RP'er Dennis Livesey. Dennis had never been to The Cog before and wanted very much to see it before the demise of hourly steam. While the weather wasn't perfect, the summit was not fogged in and we did get some sunny breaks. We were able to shoot all of the locations we wanted and found some pretty decent shooting positions. As I'm sure Dennis will testify, it was a long, tiring day, but well worth the time and cost. Hopefully, he will chime in on this thread with his own experiences and images from his day on "The Rockpile".

Here are a few of mine:

The Homestretch Flats. Some great vistas here.
Image © Kevin Madore
PhotoID: 287554
Photograph © Kevin Madore

Image © Kevin Madore
PhotoID: 287384
Photograph © Kevin Madore

Image © Kevin Madore
PhotoID: 287536
Photograph © Kevin Madore

Skyline Siding. Steam meeting steam for one of the last times.
Image © Kevin Madore
PhotoID: 287386
Photograph © Kevin Madore

Long Trestle....The drop-off behind the trestle is 1800 ft. As Dennis put it: "This scene just screams Cog Railway".
Image © Kevin Madore
PhotoID: 287388
Photograph © Kevin Madore

I'll probably post a few more as I find some interesting ones that look like RP material.

It is not difficult to understand why steam is going away at The Cog. The advantages of the diesels are obvious:
  • It makes the summit in 40 minutes with no stops vs an hour and 10-15 minutes for steam.
  • It burns 18 gallons of biodiesel on one trip vs 1 ton of coal for a steam engine.
  • It does all of the braking for the entire train on the descent vs separate braking systems for steam ops.
  • It has lots of safety features and electronic monitoring systems that don't exist on the steamers.
  • It doesn't shower the customers with cinders.
  • It doesn't need a state boiler certificate or a licensed boiler operator.
  • It starts with the push of a button.
  • With the quick cycle time, the railway can operate all day with 2 diesel, vs 3 steam engines.

Unfortunately, aside from all of the obvious economic and environmental advantages, it completely lacks the historical magnetism and character of the steam engines. Time will tell if this is a good decision for the owners.

Watching the last days of steam on the mountain, I cannot help but wonder if somewhere, the spirit of railway founder Sylvester Marsh is watching over all of this. And is that a gleam in Sylvester's eye....or a tear?

My RP stuff is here.

Link to my Flickr Albums. Lots of Steam Railroad stuff there from all over the US.

Last edited by KevinM; 06-22-2009 at 02:33 PM.
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Old 06-15-2009, 05:45 AM   #2
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Kudos for documenting it so well for those of us who never got a chance to get out and do it ourselves. Nice shots.
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Old 08-04-2009, 01:53 AM   #3
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See what happens when you wait. I have climbed the mountain in the summer and camped over in the winter but never went on the Cog. Now I have to go with the diesels.
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