Mt. Washington’s Cogs of Change: How a future hotel on New England’s highest peak could affect the East Coast bc mecca

The cog railway that snakes its way up the western side of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington has been a summertime staple for 148 years, bringing tourists to the top of the tallest mountain in the northeast for 360-degree views of the White Mountains. But in late 2016, it was announced by Wayne Presby, owner and operator of the cog railway for the past 34 years, that a new mid-mountain hotel might be added to the iconic mountain’s viewshed—potentially impacting access to the mountain’s much-loved ski lines.

Founded and built in 1869 by New Hampshire-born Sylvester Marsh, the cog is the oldest running mountain rail in the world. Over its lifespan, the rail has kept up with the times, including its most recent change in 2008—a conversion from steam power to a combination of steam and biodiesel in an effort to make the cog more eco-friendly. But Presby’s recent hotel proposition would take the cog’s evolution to a new level, and one that grinds some local people’s gears.

A group of skiers make their way up the cog railway in winter. [Photo] Dana Allen

If allowed, the construction of a 35-room hotel would take place by 2019. The proposed location of the hotel is 1,000 feet from the summit at Skyline Switch, just above the entrance to many ski lines in the Great Gulf ski zone. And, Presby hopes, the accommodations would provide a more luxurious alternative to the rustic mountain huts that have dotted the flanks of Mt. Washington for years.

“It is going to be more upscale than anything that is offered to tourists and hikers at the immediate moment on the mountain,” Presby explains. “There will be private rooms, showers, electricity, more food and drink items, washers and driers: all the modern conveniences that huts don’t provide. I would say it’s going to be very similar to a European mountain lodge.”

It’s not the first time that a larger-scale lodge would occupy the summit area of Mt. Washington. In 1872, the 91-room Summit House was opened for visitors until it burned in 1908. In 1873, the Tip Top House was built on the summit, where it remains to this day. Just below the summit, the Lake of the Clouds Hut houses summertime guests looking for more rustic accommodations. And, currently, the most prominent building on Mt. Washington is the Observatory, home to a weather station for climate research.

Despite the history of development on Mt. Washington, not all are in favor of continuing past behavior. A group of dedicated hikers, skiers and conservationists formed “Protect Mt. Washington,” to unite those not in favor of the hotel. Hal Wilkins, AMCA hut alumnus and member and a leading voice of the opposition, explains that his concern is about the general impression visitors would have of the alpine environment and the adverse environmental impacts the hotel could generate.

“Haven’t we seen enough?” Wilkins asks. “There are just a few pristine areas left on the mountain, particularly above tree line. We have learned to live with the cog—and with the Auto Road—and admittedly, the cog owners have made an effort in converting to biodiesel, so they are trying. But putting a hotel up there just seems inconsistent with the alpine environment.”

And to Wilkins, the precedent set by previous development is not a sufficient enough excuse for more construction. “There were hotels on the summit historically, so there is no shortage of buildings on Mt. Washington. But this raises the question, ‘Do we really need one more and in such a conspicuous location on the lip of Great Gulf?’”

Skiers and riders also fear the potential restriction of access to western Mt. Washington’s popular ski lines. Currently, the rail’s tracks provide bc enthusiasts with a convenient skinning route to some of western Mt. Washington’s best skiing. Starting in the Marshfield Base Station, skiers can wind their way up to the steeps of Airplane Gully, or take the mellower, sunnier route to Lake of the Clouds Hut. It’s unclear how the proposed hotel development will affect these paths, as the location of the hotel is set to be on the Great Gulf Plateau, just above the entrance to many of these beloved lines.

Many skiers and riders use the cog railway as a speedy way to ascend the mountain. [Photo] Dana Allen

Presby, meanwhile, is undeterred; pointing out that backlash from the opposition is in some ways confusing, considering that many skiers, riders and hikers use the cog infrastructure for parking to speed their access to the summit.

“I’m surprised by the opposition we’ve received from some individuals—I don’t think they realize how much we do for the hiking community—we have probably a half-dozen hiking trails that cross our property with no deeded rights, and we’re willing let people cross,” says Presby. “We also provide free parking in the summer and winter months to hikers, which is something even the federal government doesn’t do. We actively promote use, enjoyment and stewardship of the mountain.”

For now, Tyler Ray, Board of Directors member and Granite Chief of the Granite Backcountry Alliance—a coalition for backcountry skiers in New Hampshire and Maine—says access to ski lines is the real issue from the perspective of the alliance, but their role has not solidified given where the plans currently stand.

“The cog is the gateway to the west side and the summit of Mt. Washington,” Ray explains. “It’s the quickest way up and the most direct route. So it’s certainly important, but we are actively monitoring the issue right now, providing space for activist groups such as Protect Mt. Washington—who are focused solely on this issue—to take the lead, and we are letting the legal and permitting process run its course. When and if development does present an access issue, that’s when we would entertain jumping into the ring and having a respectful conversation with the various parties at the table.”

The permitting process is still incomplete, but that hasn’t kept Protect Mountain Washington from accepting donations to fund legal fees for a resistance. In addition to preparing for a legal battle, Protect Mount Washington has also created a petition on that has more than 8,000 signatures.

The reasoning behind the petition is stated in its description. “Not only is environmental degradation a concern, viewshed impact and life-safety are also threatened. Presby’s hotel visible for miles in many directions, will cast a shadow over the Appalachian Trail. Furthermore, underprepared hotel goers will be introduced to a mountain environment far from first responder systems and close to dangerously steep slopes.”

But without studies being completed and no formal impact analysis underway, it’s hard to say whether these concerns are real or just the reactions of worried stakeholders who don’t want to see their beloved mountain change.

And Presby makes clear that he also cares for the future of the Mt. Washington region.

“We hope that by providing this new facility, we can address overcrowding on Mt. Washington in an ecological fashion so that the added visitation by the tourists will be minimized,” Presby says. “The mountain is an important asset to us, and if we don’t run a professional outfit, people aren’t going to want to come to the mountain. It behooves us to run the most ecological, environmentally friendly operation that we can to make sure that the people visiting have a great experience.”

Change, however, is often a tough pill to swallow, and the benefit of development isn’t always equal across parties. If Presby’s hotel is built, will Mt. Washington’s culture change? For Hal Wilkins, the answer is clear: “The site will never be the same.”


  1. Where will the 35 toilets and showers drain into, the kitchen and laundry too? Perhaps the prestine Ammanoosic River or are they going to pack it out?

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