Union Leader Publisher's memoir shares episodes of summers on the rails on Mount Washington

Special to the Sunday News
August 04. 2017 7:01PM

Author Joe McQuaid was an engineer on the Mount Washington Cog Railway when this photo was taken with his boss, Mrs. Ellen Teague. She assumed ownership after the death of her husband, Col. Arthur S. Teague. 

"Cog Days - A Boy's Life and One Tragic Summer on Mt. Washington" by Joseph W. McQuaid, 123 pages. $15.95, Plaidswede Publishing.

The "Cog" days brought back to life in this nostalgic, warts-and-all memoir are long gone, but they're definitely worth reliving through Joe McQuaid's recollections of his teenage summers in the latter half of the 1960s immersed in the remote world of the Mount Washington Cog Railway.

Reading this slim but fact-crammed volume, it becomes obvious that those four summers working at the Cog left a host of indelible impressions with McQuaid, considering the detailed memories he retained through the subsequent decades of a deadline-driven professional life as reporter, editor and ultimately Publisher of the state's dominant daily.

Having heard some of these stories over the years (full disclosure: McQuaid and I have been colleagues and friends since the summer of '72), it was good to see them show up in context, woven into the whole tapestry of his time and life at the Cog. 

We learn at length about the nitty-gritty of what it took to drive these trains up and down the challenging steep inclines leading to the summit of New England's highest peak, the downward journeys being especially fraught with danger when gravity is king and needs to be throttled every step of the way.

We learn all about daily life for the crews - colorful characters who came from near and far each summer to operate the trains - and the Arthur Teague family, owner-operators of the railroad at the time, at the rustic base station, a world all its own some miles from civilization and about 2,700 feet above sea level.

McQuaid's jobs ran the gamut from lunch-counter attendant and dish washer in the base-station cafeteria at the start of his rookie season, to brakeman, fireman, and in his final summer, engineer.

His starting pay was "the princely sum of 80 cents an hour." Obviously, he wasn't in it for the money.

For someone who by his own admission is not mechanically inclined, McQuaid does a fine job explaining the ins and outs of all that was involved in running this unique railroad in the era before labor-intensive, coal-fired steam locomotion was largely replaced by less romantic diesel power (and operators who don't require adult supervision).

Hard to imagine this setup described in "Cog Days" playing out in today's highly regulated environment:

Sturdy little steam engines, some built in Manchester, pushed Cog trains to the summit for more than a century. Now most have been replaced by quieter diesels.

"It was a place where up to 56 passengers rode in a car that was slowly pushed rather than pulled up the steep slopes by the engine and then backed down behind it, entrusted to a brakeman who might be all of 16 or 17 and whose job was to deftly and precisely wrestle and maneuver the car's chain-pulled brakes to keep its weight off the engine on the steep three-mile descent.

"I often wondered if the typical Teddy Tourist and his family (all tourists were Teddys to us, or 'goofers') had any clue as to the dangers involved in their ride and the trust they were placing in our young hands. For most, I think they did not. In fact, I think few among the Coggers had a true appreciation for the dangers inherent in their job."

The book is more than a personal memoir of a vanished way of life; it also pays homage to a bona fide member of the Greatest Generation: Col. Arthur S. Teague, whose family owned and operated the Cog from 1962 to 1983.

As McQuaid summarized it in his preface, "Beyond recalling an exciting time for teenagers, this story is a remembrance and belated recognition for an extraordinary American whose own post-college summers were spent in those mountains and whose call to service in World War II changed his life, the lives of thousands under his command, and the Cog when he returned to it."

McQuaid devotes a couple of chapters to Col. Teague's unsung World War II heroics as a battalion commander during the D-Day landing on Utah Beach and beyond. While this narrative detour seems out of place at first, it does serve to complete the profile of this remarkable man whose non-military life's work was inextricably intertwined with the Mount Washington Cog Railway.

The happy days of previous summers came to a screeching halt in 1967. "When the bad came to the Cog," McQuaid writes, "it came in waves, particularly in that one horrible summer. It was not so much an intrusion from down below, although it started with one, but a series of interior blows that would crush the Teagues, taking two of their family and leaving a third mentally fragile; see the deadliest crash in the railway's history; and ultimately make some of us grow up much faster than we would have liked."
A beautiful early fall Sunday evening ended in tragedy 50 years ago when an overloaded Cog passenger car derailed on the mountain. Eight people died. Gov. John King, left, inspected the wreckage. McQuaid's Cog Days memoir details the crash and its causes. 

I leave you to read for yourself the unsettling details of those events recounted in spare, to-the-point prose by McQuaid in the chapter entitled "Bad Summer." The passage of five decades has mellowed the impact of that devastating chain of events somewhat, but McQuaid's retelling still makes for heartbreaking reading.

The following summer was McQuaid's last at the Cog. Even though he passed the coveted engineer's test and got to run one of the trains with his own crew of fireman and brakeman, one senses that his heart wasn't in it any longer in the aftermath of the previous year's tragedies. And besides, life as a newspaperman in his father's footsteps beckoned.

Half a century on, it's good for us and posterity that McQuaid finally got these unique memories and appreciations down on paper.

"Cog Days" can be purchased online at www.nhbooksellers.com and www.bondcliffbooks.com, and locally at Gibson's Bookstore in Concord, The Toadstool Bookshop in Milford, and select North Country outlets. Barnes & Noble in Manchester will have it later in August.

Editor's note: Dirk Ruemenapp is executive vice president of the Union Leader Corp.

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