Sylvester Marsh was born September 30, 1803 in Campton, New Hampshire.
He grew up on a farm in New Hampshire, leaving for Boston at the age of 19.
By 1826, Sylvester had established himself as a provision dealer.
In 1828, he worked in Ashtabula, Ohio supplying Boston and New York City with beef and pork.
Sylvester moved to Chicago in 1833, continuing in the provision industry until the Panic of 1837.
He stayed in Chicago and decided to give the grain business a try, actually building a substantial fortune.
Sylvester went on to invent many appliances that were incidental to meat packing, especially when it pertained to the use of steam power. One of his inventions was the dried-meal process that he named “Marsh’s caloric dried meal.”
Then he moved to Brooklyn, New York where he became an exporter, sending much of his dried meal product to the West Indies.
While ascending the steep Mount Washington on vacation in 1852, Sylvester lost his way, and conceived of the idea of building a cog railroad to its summit, believing that such an enterprise could be made profitable.
In 1811, John Blenkinship designed and patented a rack and pinion system. This system was used in the construction of the Meddleton Railway running between Middleton and Leeds in West Yorkshire, England. This was also where the first commercial steam locomotive “Salamanca” began operating in 1812.
Sylvester obtained a charter for his Mount Washington Cog Railway on June 25, 1858, but the American Civil War prevented any action until May of 1866. At the time, the construction of such a railroad was regarded as impossible, and Sylvester soon became known as “Crazy Marsh”; indeed, the legislature, in granting him a charter, further expressed their willingness to grant a “charter to the moon” if he wished. As a result, many people still refer to Marsh’s railroad as the “Railway to the Moon.”
Notwithstanding all this opposition, Sylvester persisted in building his cog railroad, relying chiefly on his own resources.
Sylvester knew that Blenkinship’s rack and pinion system could be used on a steep grade with a toothed rack rail.
In response, Crazy Marsh developed his own peculiar form of locomotive, one that was fitted with cog wheels (or pinions) that meshed with a toothed rack railing.
He called his new system a “Marsh Rack System.”
Mount Washington Cog Railway
Mount Washington has an average grade of over 25% and a maximum grade of 37.1%.
Sylvester’s plan called for a railway approximately 3 miles long ascending Mount Washington’s western slope beginning at an elevation of 2,700 feet above sea level and ending just short of the summit at 6,288 feet.
He also began building the Fabyan House Hotel at nearby Fabyan Station to accommodate the tourists Sylvester expected.
During construction, the workers wanted to minimize time when climbing and descending the ramp, so they invented slideboards fitting over the cog rack and providing enough room for themselves and their tools.
These “Devils shingles” as they became known, were approximately 35 inches long by 9.8 inches wide, made of wood with hand-forged iron and with two long hardwood handles usually attached at the down-mountain end. Common times for the descent of the mountain using these boards were about 15 minutes. The record was 2:45, an average speed above 62 mph.
Devil’s shingles were later banned in 1906 after the accidental death of an employee.
Sylvester’s first locomotives all had vertical boilers mounted on trunnions allowing them to be held vertical no matter what grade the track was on.
During the construction, Sylvester was visited by a Swiss engineer, who took away drawings of the machinery and track, from which he built a similar railway at Mount Rigi in Switzerland.
Even before the railway was completed, the first paying customers starting riding on August 14, 1868, referring to the ride as “Jacob’s Ladder.”
Construction reached the summit of Mount Washington in July of 1869.
Mount Washington Cog Railway officially opened August 29, 1869 as the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway.
Today, the railway is still in operation and is still the second steepest rack railway in the world.
The train ascends the mountain at 2.8 miles per hour and descends at 4.6 mph.
It takes approximately 65 minutes to ascend and 40 minutes to descend.
In 1879, Sylvester Marsh moved to Concord, New Hampshire due to ill health.
He died December 30, 1884 at the age of 81.
In 2012 the railroad had the highest passenger count in its history.
Now WE know em