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#3 Walter Aiken

Bicentennial Admin 200 Things about Norwich, Norwich Firsts

Walter Aiken

The first Cog Railway was designed and built by Norwich alumnus Walter Aiken.

Born in Dracut, Mass., Aiken began tinkering in his father’s machine-shop at an early age and had a natural talent for mechanics. Aiken, who attended Norwich from 1850-1852, took out more than forty patents. At the age of 22 he invented and built one of the first knitting-machines in the country. He pioneered the manufacture of knitting-machines that could produce four hundred pairs of stockings per day. He also invented a machine to make gimlet-pointed screws and latch needles which were sold extensively in foreign countries.

In 1855 he was approached by Sylvester Marsh to design and build the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway to the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. Marsh had previously presented his idea to members of the New Hampshire Legislature, but they laughed and said that he “might as well build a railway to the Moon.”

Mount Washington RailwayUndaunted, Marsh solicited Aiken to design the project. The task was not an easy one, as equipment and materials had to be hauled by oxen for 25 miles to Bretton Woods, and then another six miles through thick forest to the base of Mount Washington. But on July 3, 1869, ‘Old Peppersass’ became the first cog-driven train to climb 6,288-foot Mount Washington.

Though best known for his invention of the cog railroad, he also owned the “Hamilton Hotel” in the Bermuda Islands. His financial success made him well known to the First New Hampshire Regiment. During the Civil War he visited them at Camp Poolsville and distributed money among the boys in the unit, thereby embodying the Norwich tradition of “service to others.”

Submitted by George Kabel ’70