SYLVESTER MARSH and the MOUNT WASHINGTON RAILWAY
The life of Sylvester Marsh spanned the American industrial revolution. His work, especially this railway, reflects it.
Born on September 30, 1803, Marsh was the ninth of eleven children. He grew up on a family farm in Campton, New Hampshire, fifteen miles south of Franconia Notch. At age nineteen, like many from this area, he left for the City and the West. He walked 117 miles to Boston. Marsh worked his way up in the provision and meat trade. In 1827, the year after Boston's Quincy Markets opened, Marsh ran a stall there. He became fascinated by the technologies he saw developing around him. He once spent two days examining America's first mill city, Lowell, when its construction had just started. When the locomotive DeWitt Clinton hauled cars from Albany to Schenectady, opening the first steam railroad in the North, Marsh was a passenger.
In 1828 he went west on the newly completed Erie canal to settle in Ashtabula, Ohio. He continued as a provision dealer and he began packing meat. In 1833 he moved to Chicago, Illinois, a frontier town with 300 inhabitants. He continued in the provisions and packing trades. Consequently, he's one of the founders of Chicago meatpacking. An 1850 Chicago newspaper told about Marsh's new steam-operated, three-story plant: "for the business of packing it is perhaps the best house in the city.... He sells his beef in Boston, at which place his brand is so well known and so highly esteemed as to sell rapidly at the top of the market without inspection." Marsh later patented a lard-rendering device.
By the 1850's Chicago was becoming the largest grain port in the world. A problem in shipping grain, especially overseas, was its tendency to sour or spoil while in storage. "A perfect safeguard against the heating of corn has been discovered by our fellow citizen, Sylvester Marsh, " reported the Chicago Tribune, describing his new 60-foot tall grain kiln. "Having secured a handsome fortune, he ceased packing beef and pork in 1853. For the last several years he has devoted a large share of his time, and not a little of his income, to experiments upon drying corn. ... The effect of his discovery upon the demand of our great staple in Europe can scarcely be over-estimated," Of eleven U. S. Patents Marsh received, six were for grain dryers. "Marsh's Caloric [meaning using heat] Grain Dryers" and his grain shipping company provided him a substantial income.
At age fifty-two Marsh, a widower with two children, married Cornelia Holt, originally from St. Albans, Vermont. A workaholic all his life, he now resolved to retire. With his family he moved to Jamaica Plain, a suburb of Boston. The sudden inactivity caused a physical upset. He called it "dyspepsia." Soon he was eager for a new project.
In the summer of 1857, accompanied by his Boston pastor, he went for a tramp in the White Mountains. A few years earlier, railroads had reached Gorham, north of the mountains, and Littleton to their west. Tourism was under way. A carriage road built part way up the east side of Mount Washington was believed to have been abandoned. (Completed in 1861, it is now the Mount Washington Auto Road.) On a clear August afternoon the two men hiked up Crawford Path. Above the tree line they were suddenly overtaken by a terrific storm-hurricane winds, freezing rain and premature darkness. Staggering, sometimes crawling, the lost their way until they stumbled into the Tip-Top House, exhausted. Marsh had found his mission: to provide "some easier and safer method of ascension."
His first intention was to build a funicular railway like the one just put in operation in Massachusetts at Mount Holyoke, one-tenth Mount Washington's height. Cars would be pulled up the mountain by a series of cables and stationary steam engines. Soon Marsh realized that "chain of such length could not sustain its own weight, much less draw up a load of passengers" and " there was no means of getting the engines into place." He concluded he needed an engine that could propel itself up the mountain as the roadway was built.
Marsh developed several variations of cog locomotives and track systems, working them out in model form. He explained to reporters, as one wrote, "The appliance of cogs to a railway track is by no means a new idea, the very first railroad built in England having used them." Marsh was referring to the level steam railroad developed by John Blenkinsop at Leeds in 1812. Blenkinsop's cogwheel design was illustrated in many mid-century engineering textbooks.
Marsh's final scheme, described in the patent for which he applied in 1858 and which was granted in 1861, shows a locomotive powered by a central cogwheel gripping a center notched rail. Four outer wheels have neither power or braking ability, but only support and guide the engine. The light engine is geared down to attain the power needed. For safety, multiple braking systems are included. His friend, Holmes Hinkley, then New England's largest locomotive manufacturer, agreed that Marsh's hill-climbing locomotive would work.
When in June 1858, he applied for a State Charter, Marsh demonstrated a wind-up model of his invention to the New Hampshire legislature. Few of them could imagine his proposal. He was taken aback by their "universal burst of laughter." One wit made the famous sally: "Let him build a railroad to the moon!" The episode heralded several years of public disbelief and ridicule. Letting him "fool away his own money," the State granted him a five-year Charter to build such railways on Mount Washington and Mount Lafayette.
For three years, unexpected demands of his Chicago business interests prevented further work on the project. In 1863 Marsh returned to get a five-year extension to his State Charter. He patented refinements to his cog system: a revolutionary air-brake which would be as important for the train's safe descent as his earlier design was for its ascent; and an open-rung cog rail which would allow snow and debris to fall through.
In 1864-65 he bought an inn, the White Mountain House, and more than 16,000 acres of land in Crawford Notch. The base station is located where the Ammonoosuc River flowed onto his property. The three-mile railway right-of-way up the mountain was acquired by eminent domain, the main reason for the State Charter.
A major hurdle remained: to make the railway feasible, hundreds of tourists were needed every day. The base station would be remote, deep in a forest twenty-five miles from the nearest main-line railroad, the Boston, Concord & Montreal (BC&M) in Littleton. How would people get there? Where would they stay? To Sylvester the solution was obvious: extend the BC&M to the Cog Railway and build a big hotel nearby. A journalist who interviewed him wrote, "passengers will take [railroad] cars in New York, check their baggage to the Tip-Top House, and with only one change of trains, see the sun rise in Gotham one day, and from the top of Mount Washington the next. ... Mr. Marsh proposes, as soon as his railway is completed, the erection of a large hotel."
Marsh described his vision in a letter to John E. Lyon, President of the BC&M. Lyon said he thought the letter "was from some crazy man." Reluctantly the BC&M agreed, if Marsh could demonstrate his invention worked, they would extend their line. They would ensure their commitment by taking stock in his railway company. This would lead to Marsh's greatest success - and his biggest disappointment.
The Marsh family moved to Littleton. In the spring of 1866, Sylvester organized and directed building the first 660 feet of track and cutting a six-mile road to this site. In Boston his son John Franklin Marsh, called Frank, oversaw building the experimental locomotive, later called "Peppersass," at the machine shop of Campbell, Whittier & Co.. Once built, Frank took it apart, brought it to Littleton by train, ox-carted it to the site and reassembled it. At the demonstration on August 29, 1866, invited railroad executives, engineers and reporters were pushed up and lowered down the section of track several times. "The engine works to a charm," reported the Boston Journal. "Not even the croakers and doubters hesitated a moment to get on either the car or engine and make the trip."
By August 1867 Marsh had constructed one mile of the trestle roadway. It was obvious the Charter's 1868 deadline was not going to be met. By agreement the BC&M's experienced bridge builder, John Sanborn, took charge of completing the line. To speed construction, the BC&M ordered a second locomotive, built at the Franklin, New Hampshire machine shop of thirty-six -year-old Walter Aiken. Aiken would build three subsequent locomotives, taking stock for payment.
On August 14, 1868, after the Jacob's ladder trestle was completed, the opening of the railway was celebrated. On July 3, 1869, it was finished to the summit. The Cog Railway and White Mountains tourism flourished. Sylvester Marsh became celebrated. The Boston Transcript called the first mountain-climbing cog railway in the world "one of the greatest wonders of the time." In 1976 it was designated a National Historic Engineering Landmark.
It's clear from what followed that the BC&M had decided, since their future was tied to this venture, it would be better if the strong-willed, independent inventor were not in charge. Over the next few years the BC&M backed Aiken as he gained control of the operation. Conflict between Marsh and Aiken grew, but publicly Marsh kept silent. He wrote, "I feared it would injure the reputation of the road if the public knew I was dissatisfied or had withdrawn from its management." Earlier Marsh hadn't complained when he was called a "lunatic." However, he found being reduced to a figurehead "humiliating." He remained President of the Mount Washington Railway (MWRY) the rest of his life, but he turned his energies to other projects.
In 1872-73, on his property at the entrance to the base station road, he built Fabyan House. A grand hotel, it was advertised to "well accommodate Five Hundred Guests." By 1876 three railroads converged at Fabyans; the BC&M from the west, the Portland and Ogdensburg from the east and a BC&M extension to the Cog base station. Fabyan House stood at the center of summer activity, and railroads connected the summit of Mount Washington with all major Eastern cities as Marsh had envisioned. (The railway extension was taken up in 1932. Fabyan House burned in 1951.)
In April 1867 a Swiss envoy came here to see Marsh's "experiment." The Swiss Government asked for his assistance. He gladly gave gratis patent drawings, photographs and advice. In 1871 the first European cog railway began operation on Switzerland's Mount Rigi. Since the MWRY's completion, 57 similar mountain-climbing cog railways and 120 mixed - traction railways (railways that can run both on level and up-and-downhill by cogwheel) have been built in 35 countries around the world. Almost universally the railways follow Swiss patents, improvements to Marsh's work at Mount Washington.
On December 30, 1884, in Concord, New Hampshire, Sylvester Marsh died of pneumonia. The Directors of the Mount Washington Railway published this notice in Concord's Daily People and Patriot:
that in the recent death of Sylvester Marsh, Esq. the President of the corporation from
the board of directors recognize the loss of an associate whose genius and thoughtfulness suggested and
originated the enterprise, and whose interest in its welfare and confidence in its ultimate success, whether
in adversity or prosperity, never flagged.
More than a century later, tens of thousands of visitors each summer still easily and safely ascend Mount Washington on Marsh's steam railway.
The summary was prepared for the Museum of the Mount Washington Railway, May 1998. It was researched and written by Richard S. Joslin, a great-grandson of Sylvester Marsh.
Many thanks to Dick Joslin for allowing me to include this account on my page.