Cog Railway Development Proposed Atop Mt. Washington
By Jamie Sayen
Climate-stressed species, forced to search for cooler climes to survive, often must disperse in a northerly direction, or, as in the case of high-elevation ecosystems, move uphill. The alpine species and natural communities at the summit of Mt. Washington, the highest mountain (elevation 6,288 feet) east of the Rockies, have nowhere to go as the climate continues to warm. Their survival depends upon our success in quickly reducing atmospheric carbon levels.
The Cog Railway line from its base camp to the summit forms a vertical scar on the western face of wild Mt. Washington. As the Cog’s engine, now fueled by diesel, but powered by coal from 1910 to 2008, claws its way up the mountain, it emits black plumes visible from miles away. In 2021, the Cog carried 150,000 tourists to the summit on the 60-acre Mt. Washington State Park, an over-developed, congested nightmare atop the mountain that claims to enjoy the “world’s worst weather.”
On March 4, 2022, Wayne Presby, owner of the Cog, announced a proposal to offer “upscale accommodations,” consisting of 18 Pullman-like cars situated about 500 feet below the summit on the 99-foot wide Cog-owned right-of-way that runs from its base camp to the summit. Nine of those cars would provide sleeping quarters for 70 people, and five others would serve meals and alcoholic beverages. The other cars would house bathrooms and high-end shopping opportunities. These cars would operate from May to October and be stored at the Cog’s base station during the winter.
The Cog plans to spend nearly $14 million to build this luxury resort it calls Lizzie’s Station. It will construct two 500-foot long platforms on either side of the existing rail line near the spot where 20-year old Lizzie Bourne perished in a storm on September 13, 1855. If built, hundreds of thousands of tourists will debark there, greatly increasing threats to the area’s alpine vegetation.
Presby, who has owned the Cog outright since 2017, told an Associated Press reporter “the project would partly fulfill his vision of bringing back hotels that once graced the mountain in the 1800s.” Prices for sleeping, dining, and shopping at nearly 5,800 feet will also reflect the glorious era of the Gilded Age that Presby wishes to revive.
Lizzie’s Station represents Presby’s latest attempt at high elevation hospitality. In December 2016, the Cog Railway announced plans to open a 35-room hotel and restaurant, the Summit House, in July 2018, the 150th anniversary of the Cog. The hotel would be located within the Cog’s 99-foot right-of-way at the terminus of the rail line just below the summit, and it would be open from May to November.
Hikers in the White Mountains immediately cried, “enough is enough.” A grassroots group called Keep the Whites Wild secured 20,000 signatures opposing this hotel for the ultra-rich. Numerous established conservation groups joined the opposition, including American Alpine Club, Friends of Tuckerman Ravine, The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society of New Hampshire, Appalachian Trail Conference, and Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). Presby retaliated by refusing the AMC access to a helicopter landing spot near the AMC’s Lake of the Clouds Hut, and a leader of the grassroots opposition was threatened with arrest if he set foot on Cog property.
Opponents of the Hotel proposal raised a variety of issues, including its impact on the viewshed and its potential to exacerbate the unpleasant congestion at the Summit that has discouraged many a hiker, including me, from returning to Mt. Washington. Presby responded that the promotion and commercialization of Mt. Washington’s summit, and its consequent crowding, congestion, and demands for more facilities, renders his project a “higher priority than conservation.” His advice to hikers who dislike those impacts? “Maybe you shouldn’t be climbing on Mount Washington.” He blamed hikers and backpackers for damage to the alpine zone, not his annual 150,000 Cog passengers.
Recently, Presby acknowledged that the public opposition to the Summit Hotel played a major role stopping the project. Rather than abandon his dream for high-elevation overnight accommodations, Presby entered into discussions with the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office to amend the Cog’s ROW easement. The Lizzie’s Station proposal is the fruit of secret, 18-month negotiations with the Parks and Recreation, a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (DNRC) which manages the overdeveloped, 60-acre Mount Washington State Park.
Presby unveiled the Lizzie’s Station proposal at the March 4, 2022 meeting of the Mount Washington Commission, an advisory group to DNCR to which he belongs. Sarah Stewart, Commissioner of DNCR, introduced the Cog slide show and expressed her hope that this new development would increase visitation to the congested state park. Phil Bryce, Director of Parks and Recreation claimed: “It’s a very good deal for everyone.” Bryce, along with the notoriously tight-fisted NH government, supports revenue-generating development of the public commons. Several pro-development members of the Commission expressed enthusiastic support.
Right now, there are far more questions than answers about the proposal and its impacts. The Cog’s slideshow glossed over the inevitable ecological impacts upon fragile alpine ecosystems.
Lizzie’s Station would be situated just outside the State Park near the Nelson Crag Trail crossing of the Cog’s tracks. It will require the drilling of a new artesian well, construction of a 16,000-foot wastewater pipeline to the Cog’s base station, the upgrading of a fiber optic cable whose trench was dug from the base station to the summit in 2007, and a new transfer switch on the rail line.
All Cog passengers will debark on an 80-foot long platform at Lizzie’s Station. They will have the option of a short, steep hike to the summit, or continuing to the traditional terminus at the summit in a free electrically-powered Cog shuttle.
The Cog and its partners in NH state government make the usual developers’ claims about the project’s benefits: jobs and prosperity to a poor region. Presby also promised that pressure on the heavily congested State Park will be “gone.” Cog riders, and other visitors to the Summit, can use the Lizzie Station restrooms and spend their money at the pricy dining cars and gift shop. Thus far, the State has raised no concerns about sharing tourist dollars with an upscale competitor.
A beautiful summer weekend often brings 5,000 visitors—hikers, Cog passengers, and tourists driving up the Auto Road—to the summit. The Conway Sun reported that the Cog’s proposal “supports anticipated growth in the number of visitors without creating unpleasant congestion.” How this miracle cleansing of already intolerable congestion can be achieved by increasing the number of daily and annual visitors is yet to be revealed.
Presby claims, “There’s a demand for it. People want to stay up on the mountain.” This may be true, but for every neo-Gilded Age visitor willing to pay the price, there are thousands of ordinary citizens who demand that the health of the alpine summit be protected from all development. These citizens demand that the Forest Service and the State of New Hampshire place land health ahead of profiteering on sacred, wild spaces.
Congestion is powerful evidence of the State’s mismanagement of Mt. Washington State Park. Limiting access, not additional development, is the way to reduce congestion. The State covets the revenue the over-crowded summit generates, and therefore is unlikely to throw the money-changers out of (or off of) the summit Temple.
Opponents of Lizzie’s Station worry about the implications of the expanded development on the 99-foot Cog ROW. The Coos County Planning Board, which must approve the project, requires a 25-foot buffer on the ROW, effectively limiting the Cog’s use to a 49-foot wide interior swath. The schematic drawing for the Lizzie’s Station platforms will fill most, if not all, of the 99-foot width. Does that mean that there will be no buffering between the massive development and the adjoining White Mountain National Forest alpine flora? Or, is the Cog trying to acquire more land from the WMNF to serve as a new buffer? So many questions, so few answers. Just trust us, the Cog’s messengers imply.
Opponents worry that construction crews and hotel guests could damage rare alpine plants, including Bigelow’s sedge, and stress the American pipit, an arctic bird that builds its ground nests in the area of the proposed development.
There are only 13 square miles of alpine tundra east of the Mississippi River, and Mt. Washington is home to the largest and most significant tract. A few years ago, a botanist who studied the recovery of alpine flora from the disturbance caused by the fiber-optic trench the Cog built in 2007 found no recovery because the disturbance was ongoing. The replacement of the 15-year old cable by a new one, as envisioned by the Lizzie’s proposal, can only exacerbate the problem.
The Lizzie’s Station project must secure the approval of the abutting White Mountain National Forest. The Supervisor of the WMNF, Derek Ibarguen, is a member of the Mount Washington Commission. He was surprised to learn of the Lizzie proposal and the State’s 18-month secret negotiations with the Cog at the March 4 Commission meeting. Otherwise, he remained mum during the Cog presentation.
The WMNF has a statutory–and moral—obligation to protect the alpine flora and fauna from climate change and current and anticipated levels of congestion and overuse. It should acknowledge that human aspirations are circumscribed by natural limits. These lands rightfully belong to the flora and fauna that are hardy enough to flourish there.
Should the White Mountain National Forest acquiesce to this latest desecration of Mt. Washington, the campaign to turn the WMNF over to the National Park Service to establish an 800,000-plus acre White Mountain National Park would gain millions of dollars of free national publicity. National Parks do not allow logging, energy development, new hotels, off-road motorized vehicles, or other major recreational uses inside the park. Moreover, if the WMNF became a National Park, the higher public profile would make it politically much more difficult to develop private inholdings and increase the chances of getting funding to acquire these inholdings for public protection.
Citizens must transform the Lizzie proposal into a national discussion on the most effective ways to remove threats to Mt. Washington.
In recent years, citizens from New Hampshire, New England, and across the nation have defeated both the Summit House proposal and the Northern Pass, a massive Hydro-Quebec powerline originating from James Bay and targeted to run the length of New Hampshire. The initial public reaction to the Lizzie Station has been strongly negative. Those who believe that the climate-stressed alpine summit of Mt. Washington must be protected from proposed—and current—overdevelopment must take the lead in organizing local, regional, and national campaigns to achieve enduring, forever wild protection for Mt. Washington.
Wayne Presby believes his legacy will be to have returned the summit of Mt. Washington to the Gilded Age. He has thrown down the gauntlet. Appeasement and half measures will not thwart the commercial onslaught.
The Cog’s scar on Mt. Washington’s western face, its huge carbon footprint, and the ever-intensifying congestion at the Summit that is so harmful to alpine ecosystems are relics of the nineteenth century’s exploitative land ethic. Citizen action is required to protect and preserve Mt. Washington and its denizens. It is time to relocate the Cog from wild Mt. Washington and to a museum, where it can no longer harm a national treasure. No more sacrifice zones on the public commons.
Stop the Lizzie Station project before it gets off the ground!
SIDEBAR: MT. WASHINTON COMMISSION MASTER PLAN UPDATE
The Cog’s slide presentation on March 4 asserted that its Lizzie’s Station proposal is in keeping with the Mt. Washington Commission’s (MWC) 1971 Master Plan. This is a fair assessment: an outdated proposal to further exploit the Summit is consistent with an embarrassingly obsolete master plan.
In September 2019, the Appalachian Mountain Club, The Nature Conservancy of New Hampshire, and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests wrote to Sarah Stewart, Commissioner of the NH Department of Natural and Cultural Resources: “[W]e believe that any further development on the summit needs to be guided by an up-to-date master plan.”
The Mt. Washington Commission has just begun to develop a ten-year master plan for the State Park. A central focus will be on how to handle current congestion and infrastructure problems on the summit in the next decade. The Cog’s slide presentation claimed that the Lizzie Station proposal “Supports anticipated growth and helps reduce the concerns about the number of visitors to the summit.”
Several commercial interests are represented on the Commission that advises a New Hampshire agency that has enthusiastically endorsed the Lizzie’s Station proposal. We can expect the State will push for a new master plan that will contort itself to claim that “anticipated growth” in Cog visitors is part of the solution to reduce congestion problems that have gone unaddressed by the State for decades.
Information on the Mt. Washington Commission and the master plan process can be accessed at: https://www.nhstateparks.org/about-us/commissions-committees/mt-washington-master-plan-and-resources.
See this slideshow assembled by Chris Matera in 2017 that addresses the problems with the WMNF, including clearcutting (but not the Cog and its Lizzie’s Station Proposal as it predates the proposal): Read or download here.
 A memorial at the site of her death states she was 23. Nicholas Howe, Not Without Peril; 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire (Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2000), 24.
 Michael Casey, “Owner of Cog Railway Proposes Lodging in Mount Washington,” Associated Press, in Boston.com, March 13, 2022.
 Ryan Wichelns, “The Fight Against a Hotel on Mount Washington,” Backpacker, May 22, 2017.
 John Koziol, “Cog Railway Owner Says Proposed Hotel Would Include Settlement with the State,” Manchester Union-Leader, March 7, 2022.
 Casey, “Owner of Cog Railway Proposes Lodging in Mount Washington.”
 Letter: Appalachian Mountain Club, The Nature Conservancy of New Hampshire, and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to Sarah Stewart, Commissioner of the NH Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, September 23, 2019.
A native of New Jersey, Jamie discovered his passion for Wild Nature surrounded by meadows and forests near his home and on a family outing in an old growth forest in the Quebec wilderness. In 1986 he bought a log cabin in northern New Hampshire where he still lives.
In 1985 Jamie became involved with Earth First!, and his “Preserve Appalachian Wilderness Proposal” appeared in the May 1987 issue of the Earth First! Journal. The following year, working as a reporter for the local weekly, he stumbled upon news that former Diamond International timberlands were for sale. Jamie quit his job and formed first “Preserve Appalachian Wilderness” (PAW) and later “Northern Appalachian Restoration Project” (NARP) to fight the destruction of wild areas and spectacular old-growth in northern New England. NARP published the Northern Forest Forum from 1992 to 2002.
Jamie continues to advocate for big wilderness and continental-scale wildlands networks. He is an author who has written Einstein in America, You Had a Job for Life, and numerous articles, and he currently working on a history of the forests of Northern New England from the time of the glaciers until today.