East Is West And West Is East And Never The Trains Should Meet
Like it or not, we tend to think of the American West as relatively new and raw and of the East as more refined and finished. It can be startling and sometimes amusing to have these stereotypes upset. Let me compare two tourist railroads that seem to exhibit all the wrong qualities, considering their Down East and Far Western locations. They are the Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire and the Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway in Colorado.
I must state up front that I am not without prejudices. I have a strong and irrational preference for the aged and obsolete over the sleek and modern. If some electronic wizard would invent a coal-fired computer with a throttle and a reverse lever, I might get into e-mail. As it is, I see little danger of my becoming a computer devotee. And so it is with mountain railways. I have visited Mount Washington four times over the past forty-five years. The rail line is not really near anything big or important, unless you think Laconia, New Hampshire, is big or important and 50 miles away is near. The backwoods setting is part of the charm but is no guarantee that old ways must be perpetuated.
But they have been. Look up at the slopes, and you see what appears to be a succession of slow-moving volcanoes. The tiny engines and cars are hidden by the trees, but the boiling columns of black coal smoke tell you that the cog railway remains in the service of King Steam. A ride up the track could make you believe little had changed since the time of Andrew Jackson. On a level track the locomotives look as if they’re running downhill. A glance under the boiler reveals a collection of gears, shafts, and rods that might be perfect for a modern sculpture created from “found objects.” The entire works shakes and vibrates, and the engine moves ever so slowly.
As you ride in a car, one of the old wooden ones, the engine pushes away behind you furiously. Steam blows out in a sharp-sounding roar from the four cylinders. Black smoke rolls lazily out of the old-fashioned cone-shaped smokestack. Despite a heavy mesh cover over the stack, cinders rain down on the car roof, and some manage to find their way down your collar. The car wheels jounce over the rail joints, and the window next to your seat works up and down in the same rhythm. Yet you feel safe, relaxed, and wonderfully happy as part of another traveling volcano ascending the broad slope of Mount Washington.
Today when we speak of steam railways, we normally speak of what once was, but the Mount Washington line is a miracle of preservation. Sylvester Marsh and his associates, who built it in the 1860s, could visit today and find the property remarkably unchanged. The locomotives have been rebuilt a dozen or more times, but their basic design remains unaltered. No one would pretend any of the engines are original. A few of the newer machines were fabricated in railroad repair shops, but they are all of the same design and pattern as the oldest ones, which date from the late nineteenth century. Coal has long since replaced wood for fuel, and some of the ornamental elements are now gone, but these are details. Many of the antique wooden cars I remember from my first visit in 1953 have disappeared, replaced by bland aluminum-bodied vehicles. But even they clunk along on four-wheel undercarriages.
What is rarely described about this operation is its rough-and-ready nature. There is no spit and polish here. The equipment is maintained in a safe and workmanlike manner but no more. The engines are caked with grease, oil, and cinders. Every surface shows years of hard use, with multiple dings and dents. The buildings, track, and platforms betray the marks of time. Best of all is the workshop, an area not seen by most tourists but the holy land for any true rail enthusiast. Frankly, it looks like a facility from the Central American jungle. One finds broken-down relics under repair in abundance, standing next to piles of lumber, castings, and broken bits of hardware that only the master mechanic could identify. The shop, with a transfer table and semi-open walls, reveals machine tools a museum would long to acquire.
This description would make most homemakers shudder. Oh, what a mess, it’s just like George’s workshop. And so it is, which is why folks like me who truly like old machinery are not put off by the scene at Mount Washington. We actually like it just the way it is, and we hope no good housekeeper will ever show up for a spring cleaning.
Let us go now to the other side of the continent to see the antithesis of the Mount Washington Cog Railway. Heading west, we might hope to find frontier villages, false-front stores, dusty streets, and not too much law and order. But of course that’s an old-fashioned view. The West has grown up and become civilized, perhaps more so than the outback of New England. I had no preparation for my visit to the Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway in 1990. I had been in and out of Denver before but never ventured down to Colorado Springs. I was on a tour with a group of rail historians. Our bus arrived early, and I set out on foot to see what was about. I walked down to the station platform to find it empty except for a young woman intently sweeping the sidewalk. I watched her for a moment and wondered, What is she doing? There wasn’t so much as a crumb or a leaf, but she swept on inch by inch. Oh, well. Then I looked over at the track. Clean ballast except for a black oil line down the center. I walked up the line and noticed no trash or weeds or debris of any kind. Some cars standing on the siding looked factory-new—bright, polished, not a nick or dimple on any surface. I walked on slowly, because the air is thin at this altitude. I was more puzzled than worried. Wasn’t I out in the Far West, where people pitch their beer cans and never think twice? I came up to a workshop. Tidy, square, almost dignified for such a utilitarian building. A huge door was open, so I walked inside. It was a jolt. I looked around at the polished floors and the incredibly neat workbenches. Tools were fastened in place on boards above the benches. No junk. No trash. No nasty old parts. Nothing! Everything was in its place. Something was very wrong. Maybe it was the mountain air; I felt lightheaded and confused.
Then one of the mechanics, in a spotless jumper suit, volunteered to show me around. He talked about stripping down the cars at the end of each season. How they refinish each surface. They tear down the engines. Anything shopworn is replaced. Oh yes, it was all diesel. Oh, how modern. No, many of the cars were actually twenty years old, but yes, they looked brand-new. Maintenance, you know, can do wonders. Yes, yes. Well, I had best get back to the station.
I retraced my steps. The young woman had vanished from the spotless, twice-swept platform. I caught up with my group. Our leader was introducing our host, the general manager of the Pikes Peak Railway, Dr. Walter Zellermann, from Zurich, Switzerland. Oho, I said to myself, now I know. It’s all very clear. It was my instant thought that Dr. Zellermann should never manage his line’s counterpart in New Hampshire. One picture-perfect railway in the United States is sufficient.