Editor’s note: Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of an accident that took eight lives on the Mt. Washington Cog Railway. As part of our anniversary coverage, we are excerpting a chapter from 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. Part One was published Sunday. Today is the concluding installment.
”It was panic. People were screaming,” Army Pfc. Harry Roemish, 24, of Hinckley, Ohio, said at the time. He and his wife, Pam, vacationing in New Hampshire, were aboard the Chumley train that Sunday afternoon.
“We hit the siding and it threw the engine off. It rolled off the track and we kept going down the hill. People were trying to kick out the windows — everyone could see what was happening.”
He added, “’We were really flying. The guys who jumped out the windows got hurt real bad. Then the car went off the track and slipped to the right ... I landed on my back and people were on top of me. I either fell through the window or the floor.’”
The weight of the people at the down-mountain end of the car finally forced it off the track entirely. The aluminum car, one of two that Arthur Teague had designed and built after the war to accommodate his growing business, lay split open against the jagged rocks on the mountainside.
While several newspaper accounts at the time, including my own, make mention of the two trains, the near-miss angle went unnoticed in the reporting and in the state report. The dead-head train had 19 passengers aboard. Some passengers said the two trains were fewer than 300 yards apart when the Chumley finally flipped over.
Barrett was qualifying as an engineer under Pliney Granger III. He remembers seeing something out of the corner of his eye. As he began stopping the engine, his brakeman jumped off the car (quite a feat on Long Trestle) and yelled for him to stop.
Barrett stopped and used a track phone to call to the base, saying the Number 3 engine was on its side but that he couldn’t see the Chumley car. From his angle, on the right side of his cab looking up, his view would be blocked.
Ralph Shackett, a passenger on the upbound train, said his attention had been caught by a sudden “big puff of smoke right in front of us.”
“I saw the car go shooting off into space. When it landed, it was lucky it didn’t go farther because it would have rolled three miles if it got going.”
Shackett followed the brakeman from the upbound train as he ran up the track. “I first saw people climbing out from broken windows.”
“People were scattered all over the rocky ground, bleeding and in shock. Some were wandering around. I saw a man and woman whose child lay dead beside them, helping a bleeding victim.”
A dazed survivor stumbled down toward Barrett’s train, asking for jackets and sweaters to warm the injured. “Receiving no response at first,” the Union Leader reported, “he told them, ’My little boy (age 3) is lying dead back there, won’t you help me?’”
Other passengers had crawled from the wreckage and were stumbling about. Moans could be heard, muffled by the wind on the mountain, now seeing its last daylight slipping away. A passenger later looked at his watch, which had smashed. The time read 5:26 p.m.
Pliney Granger stood watch over the dead-head train while Barrett made his way to the crash site. The experience changed his life. He would become an emergency medical technician. But his first triage experience was that afternoon helping a doctor.
Sports-car buff Dr. Francis Appleton of Gorham had driven his Jaguar up the Auto Road that Sunday afternoon — in just 12 minutes. Preparing to go back down (he already had his seat belt on), he was told of the crash. He grabbed his black bag and ran down the grease-slicked tracks to help. He would stay until the last of the injured had been removed.
Barrett heard and saw the worst. The Chumley was leaning on its side, with some people beneath it. He remembers picking up a stringer (one of the 20-foot timbers used to support the track bed) and jamming it to keep the car from falling farther. Sheer adrenaline must have taken over.
Ellen Teague would write of directing employees at the base to bring up the flatbed track car, the same one that had been used to carry down Art Teague’s gravestone. Her nurse training kicking in, she told them to round up all the pillows and bedding they could find and head up to the crash scene. She then drove down to Fabyans to the nearest phone booth and began alerting hospitals, doctors, police, and the state Public Utilities Commission.
The crash had cut the base-to-summit phone line. Barrett, using two track phones above and below the cut, relayed information between base and summit. He remembers State Trooper John Tholl (later a state legislator) driving all the way from Troop F in Twin Mountain, around and up the Auto Road, and then running down to the crash site.
He, Barrett, and others guided the wounded and dazed passengers to the dead-head’s car. A woman, cradling her infant, refused to board. She told Barrett she would rather walk to the summit.
Barrett spoke with her and she finally agreed to board, on one condition. She wanted Barrett to be the brakeman on the trip down. He agreed. Pliney Granger ran the engine.
In Littleton, Dr. Harry McDade readied an emergency team that extended across several hospitals in the North Country. McDade, already something of a legend for his work in attending to hikers and others injured in the White Mountains, would add immeasurably to his story that night. (He and Dr. Appleton, who had followed the injured off, and others would be commended by the state.)
Cogger Tom Norcott was among those who rode up on the flatbed. He said he tried to avoid going.
“I tried to talk my way out of it because of what I had heard on the (track phone) radios about the carnage, but was told there was no option to avoid the rescue. I remember arriving at the scene and seeing Gordie Chase who was in a state of shock as was Charlie Kenison.
“Gordie’s hands were badly burned with long shreds of skin hanging from his hands and fingers. Charlie was burned and in shock too. It was chaotic ... Folks crying and screaming and running around bleeding and in shock.”
Survivors, some badly injured, were loaded onto the flatbed and the dead-head train for the descent. Norcott got into the cab of the dead-head’s engine and sat in the coal tender. It was now dark. In the distance, he could see the lights of ambulances and other cars lined up along the base road.
Dan Noel, a member of the North Conway Rescue Squad, told the Associated Press in 2007 that he remembered that many people had substantial injuries like broken arms and legs.
“The first train down with the injured — they were stacked like cordwood,’” he recalled. “The thing that stuck in my mind was a man came up to me, and he said, ‘Gosh, can you make sure that my daughter gets off the mountain?’” Noel recalled. “And I said, ‘Yes, all the injured people, they’re taking them in the order of the severity of injury,’ and he said, ‘No, you don’t understand. My daughter’s dead. I just don’t want her lying up there overnight.’”
For Norcott, the scene at the base was nearly as chaotic as what he had seen on the mountain.
“More crying, fear and many folks wondering if their loved ones were alive.”
He met an older couple looking lost and confused. They had waited at the base while their son and grandchildren took the ride to the top. Norcott offered to take them to the hospital in Littleton. Their son was a doctor. He had broken his back in the crash, and his daughter had been pinned under the overturned car. She was not breathing.
The father crawled on his stomach and dug out the cinders from around her and gave her CPR. She survived, as did her brother, who was also injured.
Weeks earlier, after Arthur’s suicide, Jack Middleton had convinced Ellen Teague that she must get liability insurance for the railway. She gave him the okay, reluctantly, and Jack Middleton was able to purchase a $1.1 million policy. It was enough, in 1967, to settle all the death and injury claims. They were lucky.
Ellen Teague writes in her book that a veteran Cog engineer testified before the Public Utilities Commission that on the first run up the mountain some mornings, he would sometimes find a switch tampered with, presumably by hikers. The Appalachian Mountain Club trail crossed the tracks not far from Skyline.
Such switch tampering is certainly possible. There is no security mechanism to prevent it. But in my own years working there, and in all the time I have been in touch with other crew members, I never saw or heard of such an occurrence.
There have been a few occasions when a brakeman, racing to keep up with his train or showing off, has accidentally missed flipping a rail. But the last train through Skyline switch before the accident had two people throwing the switch.: Tom Baker and Nick Chykowsky. Nick was a local Cogger from Berlin. It was Nick who had accompanied Baker on the long walk down the tracks from the summit the day that Arthur Teague had died.
The two told state investigators that Baker was showing Nick how to brake and that they had been particularly careful in throwing Skyline.
Human error? For sure. But whether from the previous train crew or from a hiker, the fact is that Gordon Chase should have checked the switch as he was descending. I doubt he ever did so, and at the speed he was going, he might have missed it even had he been looking. Faster, he had told Kenison.
Aertsen and Kenison, along with Chase, said they looked at the switch and it appeared in the correct position.
In his book, “Railway to the Moon,” author Glen Kidder writes that “at a little distance, it is very difficult to make out much in the way of detail between the rails since the center cog rail usually is covered with grease and appears dark and therefore not very distinct.
“This situation is likely to be more obvious in the latter part of the day when the light is not so good. Thus the misplaced section of the cog rail might not have been readily apparent to the engine crew from their positions in the cab.”
The state PUC report concludes that the misplaced rail was the cause and that, “The failure of those on the engine to notice this, in view of the fact that they looked at it as the train approached, is very difficult to explain. Had it been noticed and the train stopped before striking it, the accident would not have occurred.”
Kidder and others also advance the idea that the overcrowded car actually saved lives and injuries because the passengers were so packed in as to cushion each other when the Chumley flipped off the track.
Post-accident, the PUC would mandate that all trains come to a full stop at the mountainside switches and that the brakeman check the switch before waving the train through.
Arthur Teague had designed much longer switch-outs, where trains could meet and pass each other in parallel, making the procedure much less subject to accident. He did not live to see them, but such a switch-out is now in place at Waumbek, with another planned for Skyline. Solar-powered, it requires little human action.
I left UNH and headed for the Cog after hearing of the crash. I wanted to help. I also wanted a reason to quit college. There wasn’t much to be done at the Cog. Post-Labor Day, only weekend trains ran and with the crash, even those had been temporarily halted. But this was the Cog. One fatal accident in 60 years? Why should that stop the trains?
Ellen Teague writes that it was very uncertain if the trains would run again that year. But the PUC allowed it, based on the preliminary finding of “human error” rather than mechanical problem.
The decision was based, too, on the pressure the state was getting from North Country tourist attractions. The Cog was the big draw. With the foliage season peaking, other attractions feared losing out if tourists heard that the Cog wasn’t running.— From “Cog Days, A Boy’s Life and One Tragic Summer on Mt. Washington.” Published by Plaidswede Publishing, Concord. www.nhbooksellers.com.