Review: McQuaid’s ‘Cog Days’ a nostalgic look at the famous railway

For the Monitor
Sunday, August 06, 2017

There are two ways to experience the thrill of climbing Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeastern United States. The first way is to buy a ticket and settle in for a breathtaking ride on the Cog Railway, which is the first mountain-climbing cog (rack-and-pinion) railway. The second way is to read the newly released Cog Days, written by Joseph W. McQuaid, who started working on the Cog when he was 16 years old.

McQuaid’s parents dropped a protesting McQuaid off at the Cog’s Base Station and promised to return at the end of the summer. Reluctantly, he started working with the girls at the lunch counter, but soon mastered the demands of being a brakeman and a fireman. He learned inside and out what it took to work on a train crew and take care of the Cog.

In crisp, straightforward prose, McQuaid describes the early history of the White Mountains, how and why they might have earned that name by the Abenaki Indians and by the early settlers. He recounts the beginning of the Cog Railway and its early development.

Then Art Teague, a World War II hero, bought the Cog in 1962 and nurtured it as a tourist attraction as well as a center of dedicated employees, workers who identified themselves as part of the Cog, or as Coggers. One sign of pride was to be seen wearing pants so dirty they could stand up by themselves. McQuaid spent four years as a Cogger until 1968, and concisely describes every aspect of what it took to run, repair and clean the railway. He speaks lovingly of the various engines and their characteristics.

His words also give life to many of the people he worked with, best described as characters, but whatever their idiosyncrasies, devoted to the Cog. And he writes movingly of the shock felt by the Coggers when their beloved Art Teague killed himself. Still reeling from his death, the Cog Railway took another blow. The Chumley car crashed, which killed eight people and injured 75 to 82. But the Cog recovered from the tragedies and runs to this day.

McQuaid, who became a lifetime journalist, uses well his ability to report this larger-than-life experience for himself and those around him.

(Christina Van Horn is a former Boston Globe editor who never met a book she didn’t want to read.)