New Cog, Same Old Tricks – Historic Railway Marks 130th Birthday

*Note: This audio essay first aired on KRCC (Colorado Springs’ NPR affiliate, 91.5 FM) on June 24, 2021. The link to the program is here; the audio file and the text from the essay are below.

Guts, smarts, and money. 

Those three things helped make the cog rail in Manitou Springs happen. 

The guts came from a Civil War veteran. 

The smarts were imported from Switzerland. 

And the money was born of mattresses.

The result? A beauty of a rail line that turns 130 years old this week. The cog’s first trip to the top of Pikes Peak ascended on June 30, 1891. 

Despite the steep 25 percent inclines it has to climb, it took only 13 months to build the highest railway in North America. The idea for the cog is mostly credited to a man who went by “Major” John Hulbert, a veteran of the Civil War and former mayor of Manitou Springs, who convinced mattress magnate and businessman Zalmon Simmons of the Simmons Mattress Company (and Wisconsin) to spend $1 million to build the rail line (which is about $30 million in today’s money). 

The specially designed gears — which look like a sun with rays extending outward — were invented in 1882 by Dr. Roman Abt of Switzerland. 

You can actually still see one of the original engines. If you’ve ever driven into Manitou Springs, you’ve passed by “Old No. 2,” the great black big engine of the Manitou & Pike’s Peak Railway built in 1893. 

The cog rail was in continuous operation from 1891 until 2017, when the attraction took a three-and-a-half-year pause for $100 million in repairs. 

New cogs, new gears, new cars, so much of the new new. But after the grand re-opening last month, one thing was clear. 

You don’t need to teach an old cog new tricks. Not when those nine miles from the Manitou depot to the top is just so spectacular. 

Until our next mountainside chat — be good, be well, and no matter what, climb on.

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