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A Ride On The Cog Railroad

New England Trip Brings Reminders Of Home

A Cog Railway steam locomotive prepares to accept passengers for the 6,288 feet climb to the summit of Mount Washington. Photos by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

After my husband, Fred, and I had had enough of staying close to home for over a year, we decided it was time to take to the road again.

I would have been alarmed to see how close to comfortable we had become with the earlier situation, if not for our frequent drives on many back roads in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Erie and Wyoming counties in New York and Erie and Warren Counties, Pennsylvania.

During those short trips, we learned things about our area we didn’t know by driving on the roads we have either never been on or hadn’t driven for a long while. It was at this time, we learned we especially liked exploring dead-end and limited seasonal use roads, but only in good weather. We rarely had a plan for those close to home trips so this latest adventure was not much different. On the day we left, we knew we wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t much warmer than home, so we decided to go to New England. We had no idea what route we would take or when we would return, our favorite way to travel.

By this time, we have been traveling for about two weeks. We have spent three nights in New York state, six in Vermont and five in New Hampshire. Most of the time while we have been in New Hampshire, we have been touring in the White Mountains. This is the second day we have set out to ride the Cog Railway to the summit of Mount Washington, near Bretton Woods. With the help of our GPS, we had gotten onto a paved road that eventually became a very rough dirt road. When we got to the other end, our tire air pressure light came on, indicating we had a tire that was a little soft. At first the tire looked normal, but we were quite sure it wasn’t a coincidence that the light lit at that time.

When we got to the railroad, I went inside to get the tickets while Fred put air in the tire with the portable air compressor he had been carrying around for two or three years, or so I thought. When I called from inside the building, he told me the compressor’s packaging said it was not for the use of automobile tires. The tire was showing evidence of a leak and I had just purchased $154 worth of non-refundable, non-transferable tickets.

Pictured is part of the Bristol Mills Fish Ladder Restoration Project.

We ran into Wayne, a man who worked for the railway and who we had talked with the day before. Even though he wasn’t permitted to help customers during work hours or use railway equipment, he felt he may be able to find a co-worker who had a compressor in his personal vehicle. We boarded our coach, not knowing what we would find on our return.

When we stopped by the visitor center of Cog Railway the day before, we were told by the young woman selling tickets that the mountain is said to have the world’s worst weather and there were only 60 clear days each year. She told us we should not be concerned about visibility, because the ride was about the experience. We preferred to have both, the view from the summit of the highest peak in the Northeast and the experience and we were not disappointed. Well, that is one of us was not disappointed until we reached the top, when the conductor told us we had one hour before we had to be in our seats for the trip back down Mount Washington. Being a very curious guy and liking to look through his binoculars from every angle possible, Fred wanted more time.

Mount Washington Cog Railway was the first mountain climbing cog railway in the world. It opened to the public 152 years ago. It ascends the mountain at 2.8 mph and descends at 4.6 mph. Each passenger coach is pushed up the 6,288 foot climb by its own locomotive. The first biodiesel locomotive was developed in 2008. It took the shop crew about six months to build the environmentally friendly locomotive. One round trip uses 18 gallons of fuel, which is created by the conversion of vegetable oils and animal fats. Biodiesel fuel reduces emissions by 80% from conventional diesel fuel. Today, the railway runs two steam and six biodiesel locomotives. There are less than 100 operating steam engines in the nation and The Cog Railway currently has three of them. Firemen continuously load coal into the firebox as the steam engines climb the mountain. The crews work year-round to design, build and maintain all customized equipment from the trains to the tracks. The coaches are designed and built at the railway.

Passengers pass through four distinct climate zones during the climb. The summit zone is called Alpine Tundra, where about 42 feet of snow falls per year. The crew clears the tracks throughout the winter months to allow track maintenance to begin in the spring. The Appalachian Trail crosses The Cog Railway tracks. When visibility is over 60 miles one can see the Atlantic Ocean along the coast of Maine and at night the glow of the lights of Boston and Montreal can be seen. On the rare crystal-clear days, the peaks of the Adirondack Mountains, over 130 miles away, can be seen. On April 12, 1934, weather instruments at the summit recorded a wind velocity of 231 mph, the highest wind ever observed by man.

After visiting the upper visitor center, buying a windbreaker for me and a tee shirt for Fred, fighting the strong winds, snapping pictures and getting my husband’s usual two-person selfie, I was ready to get inside the shelter of the train car. My husband savored every last minute.

A view of Pineland Farms Garden near New Gloucester, Maine. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

We returned to our van after chugging down the mountain to find a note from Wayne telling us he was only able to get the air pressure in the tire up to 19 psi and where we should stop for air. After airing up the tire, we found lodging at the historic Merrill Farm Inn in North Conway, NH. We settled in and then looked around the town a bit before we had dinner.

Before leaving North Conway the next day, we stopped in at a couple of businesses. The first was a third generation-owned tire shop located on the edge of town where our tire was plugged. From there we stopped at the North Conway 5 and 10 Store. As I was paying for a puzzle I had purchased for my neighbor, I asked the cashier how old the store was and told her we had a very old 5 and 10 near where I lived in New York State. She immediately asked if it was Vidler’s and said she had visited the store on a trip to Niagara Falls. When the lady who was standing behind me heard Vidler’s mentioned, she came to attention and asked if I lived in Buffalo, where she had lived before moving to New England. I told her I lived near Jamestown, actually Randolph. Her eyes got big and she said “Randolph! My sister lives in Napoli,” which is less than five miles away from where I live. We had a brief conversation with her sister who was waiting outside, before we drove away.

From North Conway we headed east, stopping to snap a few photos of a lone tiny island in the middle of a large body of water with an angry sky above and where rain was falling in the distance. After driving for a while, I noticed a sign that said “The Garden is Open to the Public.” We turned around, parked in a small lot and walked through an opening in the wall. The scene that awaited us at Pineland Farms was spectacular. A professionally designed and well-maintained flower garden was hidden behind the wall. Over 130 varieties of perennials had been selected in a wide range of colors. They had been chosen to give color throughout the growing season. Thousands of annual flowers had been planted to add pops of color. Fruit trees and ornamental trees were located throughout, some in small groupings. Brick walkways wove through the beautiful plantings, as did short connecting pea gravel-covered paths. Rocks and boulders, fountains, statuary, arbors and pergolas were interspersed throughout the parklike setting. We learned a well had been drilled to supply water to inground irrigation.

After this breathtaking experience, we continued on for ten more miles until we arrived at Freeport, Maine where we booked a room for two nights. The next day we went to LL Bean, not because we are a big fan, but because that’s what we do whenever we are near a popular business, a landmark or an attraction. That’s how, in our earlier travels, we got to the Mall of America, House on the Rock, The Corn Palace and a few other points of interest that ended up not interesting us. We did make three purchases at the LL Bean outlet store across the street from the main location. We found it interesting that the first stop on the elevator in the main store was just a few feet above where we got on. It truly takes little to amuse us.

We drove outside of Freeport to see what we could see. We stopped to ask a woman who was walking her dog, if she could tell us of a place where we could get a look at the water. She directed us to an inlet where we walked around a bit and then traveled on. We passed in and out of several tiny villages, where we half-expected to see Jessica Fletcher of “Murder, She Wrote” fame. We stopped in Wiscasset so Fred could check out the dates on the rails of the train tracks. As we were walking to our vehicle, we noticed a sign that announced a $500 fine for being on the tracks. Shortly after we got back on the road, we passed Twisted Iron Customs where a row of cars dating as far back as the 1940s, some with propped-up parts, stood on a bank about 20 feet from the very busy road. My husband turned down the first side road, as is almost always the case when I see a scene I am compelled to shoot. The rush hour traffic made it difficult to go back, so I walked back 300 yards to get a picture for my classic car enthusiast friends, Todd and Wanda Johnson.

We happened on the Bristol Mills Fish Ladder and Dam on the Pemaquid River. Here we were acquainted with the alewife fish. Alewives spend most of their lives in salt water but return to fresh water to spawn. Each female produces 60,000-100,00 eggs. It takes just 3-6 days for the eggs to hatch. Young alewives return to the sea in large schools. The babies mature in the sea for three to four years before returning to their birthplace to spawn. Mature alewives are harvested for lobster bait.

Fish ladders help fish scale heights through a series of resting pools. The resting pools are separated by weirs or large flat stones that are angled to allow easier passage between the pools. The original Bristol Fish Ladder was constructed with granite slabs and wooden boards. In 1974 a replacement fish ladder was built. This ladder did not support the number of alewives attempting to migrate into the local watershed and was in desperate need of repair. It didn’t attract fish to its entrance and was not effective in adjusting water flow needed for fish to navigate the nearly 12 linear feet incline from the bottom of the dam to the top. In 2018 the residents of Bristol voted overwhelmingly to replace the poorly functioning ladder. The first phase of the new fish ladder was opened in April 2021, with fundraising continuing.

From there we had dinner on the waterfront of a small fishing village where our view was docks and rustic elevated buildings.

To be continued.

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