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Great-grandson goes In Search of the Real Sylvester Marsh
BRETTON WOODS, N.H. - Sometimes the branches on the family tree grow beyond the reach of the present generation, but in Richard Joslin's case, he always knew who his great-grandfather was and what his claim to fame.
"Sylvester Marsh is my great-grandfather," explains Joslin, who lives in Cambridge, Mass.
Marsh is also the founder of the Mount Washington Cog Railway, which this summer celebrates the 140th anniversary of the day an oddly-shaped steam engine called Peppersass, became the first cog-driven train in the entire world when it climbed the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington.
It would become one of the most enduring tourist attractions in the White Mountains and beyond, a lasting tribute to a man with a dream and the means to make it come true.
"When I was growing up, I was always aware of who he was and what he did," Joslin said.
But it wasn't until a little over a decade ago that he became curious enough about his great-grandfather to look beyond the family stories and the myths and legends of Marsh and see what gave him the drive to want to conquer Mount Washington.
"I found that history books were repeating what previous generations had said," Joslin said. "So I decided to go back and do some research and found that the story was embroidered over the years."
Seeking to set the history of the Cog back on track, Joslin published a booklet in 2000 called 'Sylvester Marsh and the Cog Railway.'
"There is a surprising amount of information available," Joslin said. "He spent all his adult life (being written about) in newspapers and as you may know, the Cog became a retirement project for him. He thought it would be great to play with a railway."
Sylvester Marsh was born in Campton, NH in 1803, the ninth of 11 children.
"He was a farm boy and he took off to Boston when he was 19-years-old," Joslin said.
Marsh's first job was working on a farm in Newton, Mass., butchering livestock that was later sold from a stall at Faneuil Marketplace in Boston. As he grew older and learned more, Marsh set off toward the west in 1828, learning the meat packing industry and how to ship it back east.
"In 1833, he ended up in Chicago, which back then was an even smaller town than Campton," Joslin said. "He got involved in meat packing and that led to shipping grain."
In that era, it was difficult to ship grain from the Midwest back to the east coast, but Marsh figured out a way to dry the grain so that it could withstand the weeks it took to be moved across country.
By 1850, Marsh sold his meat packing business and returned to New Hampshire. In 1857, he set off to climb Mount Washington, an experience that would have a tremendous impact on the mountain and the Granite State.
"It was a good day when he set off from the Crawford House," Joslin said "but as he continued climbing, he ran into a horrendous snow storm above treeline and when he reached the summit, he stumbled into the TipTop House."
Early the next morning, along with the other guests at the hostelry, he rose to watch a spectacular sunrise.
"Suddenly, there was God's world," Joslin said.
Marsh began thinking of ways to bring people to the top of Mount Washington and decided that a locomotive would be the ticket.
He brought his plans for a mountain climbing railroad to the New Hampshire Legislature in 1858 and although one lawmaker declared that Marsh "might as well build a railway to the moon," they granted him a charter to build the railroad.
"He didn't expect that reaction," Joslin said. "He was used to innovation and finding mechanical solutions."
It would take several more years and the end of the Civil War for Marsh to get investors and the funding needed for the project.
On July 3, 1869, after three years of carving a 3-mile railroad to the summit, Old Peppersass was fired up and became the first locomotive to get to the top of Mount Washington.
By then, Marsh was in his 60s, but he wasn't finished with mountain climbing railroads and soon began planning for a cog railway to go to the top of Mount Lafayette in Franconia Notch.
"He got a charter for it and he even got approval to get into the notch and build a railroad to Littleton," Joslin said, which was to have been called the Franconia-Littleton Railroad.
It would have been a boon to the fledgling tourist industry in the notch at the time, with the plan to take visitors from the Profile House on a ride up to the 5,260-foot summit of Lafayette.
But that dream was never realized, Joslin said, as Marsh mourned the loss of both his sons, John Franklin and Sylvester Jr., who died rather young.
"It knocked the steam out of him," Joslin said. "He never built that railroad up Lafayette."
Sylvester Marsh lived out his years in Concord, NH and died in 1884 at the age of 81.
In an interesting footnote, Joslin said, Marsh's boyhood home in Campton has been reclaimed by the forest and the Marshfield Station at the base of the railway looks like it was 140 years ago."
The site of Marsh's meat packing business in Chicago is now the site of the 96-story Trump International Hotel and Tower, the second tallest building in the United States.
"Things have changed and they have not changed," Joslin said.