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Coffin: Cog Railway Disaster

On Sept. 17, 1967, the Mount Washington Cog Railway went off the tracks high on the Northeast’s highest mountain. Eight died and seventy two were injured.

Rutland Herald editor Kendall Wild assigned me to the story. And with a 35 millimeter camera and notebook, I reached the railway’s base station around 8 the next day on a warm cloudless morning.

Railway officials told a crowd of reporters that no access to the wreck site was allowed. Yes, an engine and flatcar were going up to bring the wrecked engine down. But the injured and dead had already been evacuated.

So as the work train began to chug toward the mountain I leaped onto the flatcar. I was the only reporter who did, and by then the train was going so fast the engineer and crew had to tolerate me. Fortunately, I’d brought my parka.

We chugged up the steep incline to the crash site, above tree line, five thousand feet up the sixty two hundred and eighty eight foot mountain where the battered engine lay on the rocks.

Cog engines push instead of pull their passenger cars and the derailment of the locomotive had left the car free to slide down the steep track. Gaining speed, it jumped the tracks from a low trestle.

It took four hours for the crew to get the engine back on track – while it took just minutes for the sunny morning to turn to eighty mile an hour winds and driving snow.

On the trip down, as we crossed the famed Jacob’s Ladder trestle, the wrecked locomotive started to ride up over the flatcar. And for one terrifying moment, it seemed we might have to jump 60 feet to the rocks below, or be crushed by the engine. But the men got the wrecked locomotive under control.

On approaching the base, I jumped from the train before it stopped, and got away with my notes and camera. Next morning the Herald had the first pictures taken at the wreck site, all over page one. Such was what Ken Wild’s Rutland Herald expected of its reporters.

I vividly recall seeing the battered engine on the jagged rocks as the gales and driven snow of the most sudden winter in memory roared in – and a woman describing how she’d survived in the wreck for three hours, trapped beneath the body of someone who had not.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian whose specialty is the Civil War.
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