'Cog Days': Remembering the Washington Cog Railway accident that killed eight people 50 years ago

By JOSEPH W. McQUAID September 15. 2017 8:21PM
Gov. John King looks on from the tracks the day after the crash as officials work around the derailed Chumley passenger car, propped up with timbers to aid in the rescue. (Union Leader file)

Today is the 50th anniversary of one of New Hampshire's deadliest accidents, a crash on the Mount Washington Cog Railway that claimed eight lives. As part of our anniversary coverage, we publish an excerpt from Union Leader and Sunday News Publisher Joseph W. McQuaid's new memoir, "Cog Days." McQuaid worked at the Cog for four summers. He had left for school just days before the crash.

A half-century on, I believe that what happened on the mountain on the late afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 17, 1967, was somehow pre-ordained. How long Arthur Teague had been ill, in mind and body, I don't know. But without his full attention to overseeing his complicated business, things had been slipping, even before his heart attack, and it would all come crashing down barely six weeks after his death.

That Sunday in September was a picture-perfect fall day. Everyone said so, even decades later. Hundreds of tourists had taken Cog trains to the summit. So many had extended their stay, rather than returning on the same train, that at 5 p.m. the summit still had more passengers waiting to descend than there was seating available on the last scheduled train down.

Almost 50 years later, there are still discrepancies as to what passengers were told about a "dead-head" or extra train that was being sent up from the base to handle the overload.

In several newspaper accounts, passengers said they had been told that the 56-passenger aluminum Chumley car would be the last one down but that a transfer would be made en route for some riders to move to the near-empty train that was on its way up to fetch them.

The state report on the accident that followed notes that the announcement was "that there would be another train coming up to take any other passengers who wished to remain on the mountain."

But it was getting late and people wanted to get down and on their way. The next day was Monday. Work and school called. So people crowded aboard the Chumley car.

The state report notes, "A number of people entered the car which has a seating capacity of 56 persons. It was intended to meet another train at Skyline, where the standees could be transferred in accordance with the usual custom."

I'm not sure what that "usual custom" was in 1967. Years earlier, before Art Teague had installed the Skyline switch, a wooden platform below Skyline was where passengers got off their train and moved to a shuttle for the short ride to the summit.

But on this late afternoon, any standees transferred from the Chumley would end up going back to the summit. At least, that's what the engineer on the dead-head train understood would be happening.

Larry Barrett was making his qualifying run as an engineer on the lightly-loaded train. He told me that his passengers were told no one would be getting off at the summit; they were there strictly to pick up the overload from the Chumley. But they never made it to the top, and it is unclear if any passengers remained at the summit.

As Charley Kenison remembers it, engineer Gordon Chase thought his friend, Frank Thompson, would be bringing up the dead-head and Chase wanted to save Frank some time by getting to Skyline platform first. In fact, it wasn't Thompson running the dead-head; and the transfer of passengers never had a chance to take place.

An exact count is unknown, but between 85 and 90 people crowded aboard the Chumley car, filling every seat and with many more standing in the aisle. Within 20 minutes, eight would be dead, including three children, one girl just two years old. Seventy-five to 82 more would be injured.

Gordon Chase had not been Art Teague's best hire. Chase had been in the Army during the war, although where he served I don't know. Why he had lasted so long may have been due in part to the simple fact that he was available in the spring and the fall, when most other engineers were not. Why Chase was still there that September afternoon had, I think, everything to do with Col. Teague no longer being there at all.

Paul Philbrick must have thought so. It would come out years later that he held himself partly responsible for the accident. Devoted to Teague, Paul fought with Ellen Teague and departed the Cog soon after Art's death.

Paul had stayed with the J.D. True family in Skagway, Alaska. In a letter to Jitney Lewis after Paul's death, True wrote: "He had convinced the boss to give that engineer involved (in the crash) another chance after being fired so one just figured this was why the different moods."

The "boss" was most likely Ellen Teague. In a series of letters to Jitney from Alaska, Paul was sharply critical of Mrs. Teague. He predicted she would promote one of her family to manage the Cog, that she would have to borrow money, and that she would eventually have to sell out to the State of New Hampshire, and that coal-fired engines would be replaced by diesel. His one prediction to come to pass has been the near-elimination of steam trains.

Jitney Lewis would hear the news of the accident on television. He had left for the season after the car accident that had injured his daughter and killed Lucy Teague.

Jitney told his son, Tim, that he had never qualified Chase to be an engineer. Yet there Chase was when I arrived in 1965 and there he was two years later, running an overloaded train with an inexperienced crew on a lovely fall day.

Chase usually ran the Number 1 engine, the Mt. Washington. But things change in the fall. Engines and cars, like crews, are swapped out of service for repair and winter storage.

On this day, Chase was in charge of the "3" engine, the Base Station. I had been the 3's brakeman a year earlier, with Lincoln school teacher Griff Harris running. This day, Griff Harris was running another engine. Margie Teague's fiancé, Tom Baker, was braking for Harris.

Chase was no Griff Harris. He had a rookie brakeman (Nat Carter) on the overcrowded car, and he had his fireman, Charley Kenison, sitting in the engineer's seat.

Also in the cab were Rusty Aertsen, who was a brakeman but had fired that trip, and Nat Carter's brother, Peter, another Cogger who was on a busman's holiday with his girlfriend, who was aboard the Chumley. It was Peter's 20th birthday.

Engines always slowed when going through a switch. That was especially the case for down-coming trains at the steep Skyline switch.

But this time, the switch at Skyline had been improperly thrown. A key short piece of rail that went over the main line cog rack to form the siding rail was in that position. You can see it in newspaper and police photographs taken the next day. It had been mangled from the force of first the engine and then the weight of the overloaded car going over it.

When Chase's engine hit the rail, the force lifted it up into the air and when it fell back, it tottered for a second and then, slammed by the overloaded car, it toppled off the track to the right on the down-mountain side.

This was extraordinary. The engine and its tender weigh about 18 tons. No one had ever seen anything like this since the Peppersass crackup of 40 years earlier. Eerily, the times were almost the same. The Peppersass had begun its fatal descent at 5 p.m.

Kenison remembers: "Peter (Carter) was told to get in the cab. Chase deemed that Nat had had enough training. I was told that I was running and he was going to make me an engineer (like him!).

"I had only run from the standpipe to the bunker with Dave Gordon before that. (While we did Chase's job and he sat at the ticket office.) The last thing that I remember is Chase screaming in my face because I was slowing down coming into the switch. Obviously no one was looking at the switch. When we hit, Chase and I wound up the brake and stopped. I think Peter and Rusty jumped at some point. Then the coach slammed into us and over we went."

Fifty years on, Aertsen remembers.

"On the way down, I was sitting in the fireman's seat looking back at Nat - it was an aluminum car. This was my first trip with Chase and I remember he was going very fast."

"I remember the engine going up, like when you drive too fast over a speed bump. The next think I knew the engine was on its side and the cab was split open. I couldn't see the car. I hit a rock on the way out so I ended up in Littleton Hospital."

In Philadelphia, Aertsen's father was told that his son was dead.

"The local papers had me listed as dead and my dad drove up thinking that was the case until he saw me at the hospital," Aertsen said.

Aertsen thought the train would be moving onto the Skyline switch for the upcoming train.

"I was told that Nat had jumped back on the car and set the brakes so the car didn't go into Burt's Ravine. There is no question in my mind that the stop-before-you-proceed rule (a rule ordered by the state after the accident) would have prevented this, even with Chase at the helm."

Peter Carter's memory is that their train wouldn't be going on the Skyline siding, that it was the last train going down, and that his brother, since deceased, did not get off to throw the switch.

A car by itself can weigh five tons. With its overload, this one weighed much more. The weight was apparently no problem on the way down from the summit to Skyline. Nat Carter told state investigators he used just one of the two brakes and all was well. But the extra weight may have added to the speed of the engine as Carter released the car brake entering the switch.

Nat Carter didn't think so. He told the state that his speed down the mountain was normal and that the engine slowed, as usual, entering the switch. Moments later, however, he saw the engine "pop up and down" and derail. He applied the left brake while a tourist moved to turn the right brake.

Carter said the car nearly stopped but then it, too, hit the mis-thrown rail and picked up speed. With the car partially derailed, the brakes were now useless.

Why a car so overloaded was allowed to leave the summit, even for a short distance, is hard to understand, unless you knew Gordon Chase. Heedless of safety concerns, he let an inexperienced brakeman deal with the crowd of tourists, all of whom surged onto his train.

I have come to believe that it was all of a piece with Arthur Teague's illness and death and the aftermath that left the Cog's operations in disarray. Had the colonel lived, he would have been overseeing operations, especially in the fall with his main men, such as Jitney Lewis and Bob Kent, gone for the season. And a healthy Arthur Teague, who had made battlefield decisions and knew his men, might have already let Chase go.

The state report notes that Chase couldn't understand why he didn't notice the wrongly-flipped rail. Kenison and Aertsen also didn't notice it.

But now there was a steam engine on its side and a half-on, half-off overloaded passenger car careening down the mountain, just as Larry Barrett's dead-head train pitched up over a crest at what is known as Long Trestle. People on each train could see the other.

The derailed Chumley car kept sliding down the mountain.

-- From "Cog Days, A Boy's Life and One Tragic Summer on Mt. Washington." Published by Plaidswede Publishing, Concord. www.nhbooksellers.com.

Coming Monday is Part Two: Panic and screaming.

AccidentsTransportationDeaths in the newsHistoryMt. Washington

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