THOMPSON and MESERVE’S PURCHASE — For a fourth year, the Mount Washington Cog Railway will serve as both inspiration and backdrop for whimsical as well as practical creativity when it hosts the Railway to the Moon Steampunk Festival.
The Aug. 17-18 festival, which is free, showcases the continuing popularity of steam power and the fascination many people have with it as a celebration of the past and as the basis of an alternate future.
Among the highlights of the steampunk festival will be sculptures by Todd Cahill and presentations by Bruce Rosenbaum, who has been dubbed the “Steampunk Guru” by the Wall Street Journal and the “Steampunk Evangelist” by Wired Magazine.
The men, who both live in Massachusetts, said they’re looking forward to coming back to the Cog, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
The Cog was the brainchild of Campton native Sylvester Marsh, who, after getting lost and nearly losing his life in trying to summit Mount Washington in 1852, came up with the idea for what became the first mountain-climbing rack-and pinion railway in the world.
Initially sneered at by lawmakers as “a railway to the Moon,” the Cog has become one of the most popular attractions in the White Mountains and the state.
Although the Cog has phased out nearly all of its steam locomotives and replaced them with more efficient, eco-friendlier ones that run on biodiesel, steam power remains its metaphorical blood.
Rosenbaum, who is returning for his second appearance at the Steampunk Festival, said the fascination with steam power is understandable.
Steam, he said, “kind of propelled us into the Industrial Age and gave humans the ability to move and work beyond their own bodies and the bodies of animals.”
It also drove the invention and construction of more machines, some very clever in design and function and occasionally featured in “The Wild Wild West,” one of Rosenbaum’s favorite TV shows.
The 1960s show struck Rosenbaum — who several years ago built the Grand Garnisher, the mobile and “largest and most complicated cucumber slicer in the world” for Hendrick’s Gin — for its use of futuristic applications of steam technology and because it was something that he and his late father enjoyed watching together.
Some three decades old, steampunk is a reaction to cyberpunk, said Rosenbaum, which also combines science and technology, but with a somewhat darker edge and vision.
Steampunk, in general, is “a retro-future spin” on what the Victorian period might look like “if they had our modern technology, how it would have changed the world,” said Rosenbaum.
A “re-imagineer,” Rosenbaum and his wife Melanie have filled their homes with modern appliances that he has rejiggered to look old.
Currently residing in Palmer, Mass., the Rosenbaums are doing an adaptive re-use of a former church in steampunk fashion. Their efforts were featured in 2018 on the Netflix program “Amazing Interiors.”
An exhibition of Rosenbaum’s machines, including homages to Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, is currently on a world-wide tour. The machines are made up of period objects that would have been important to those authors in their daily lives and/or were significant in their writings.
“H.G. Wells comes back as his own time machine,” said Rosenbaum, adding that the machines represent “a really great way for kids to rediscover the visionary people who, like Wells and Verne, kind of predicted these great ideas and inventions a hundred years before they were actually invented.”
“You need to have science fiction,” Rosenbaum explained, “before you even have science fact.”
As well as introducing a new generation to the world’s great science-fiction writers, Rosenbaum uses steampunk to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education.
For people of a certain age, the world can be a difficult place, with technology beyond the comprehension and control of many of them.
But with its clearly visible gears and levers and kinetic action, steampunk lets millennials reset their lives, giving them the option of connecting with the machines in a tactile way, said Rosenbaum.
Cahill, whose Steamachine Sculpture studio is located in Waltham, Mass. and whose “on-the-bench” projects include “The Brandilary, a mechanical brandy warmer” and a beer-bottle fountain, said he was thrilled to be coming back to the White Mountains.
In the past, he has set up steam exhibits at Clark’s Trading Post in North Lincoln and at the home of steam-engine aficionado Dave Dearborn in West Campton.
The Campton shows, he said, were “legendary” in their celebration of steam.
Cahill has become “particular about what shows I do now,” because “the one thing about messing around with steam machines is that everything is heavy.”
More into the “steam” than the “punk” of steampunk, Cahill said steampunk shows attract younger audiences than steam-engine shows.
Both kinds of shows, however, “have always attracted eccentricity,” said Cahill, “and it is entertaining to be witness whilst I preach the historic and anecdotal benefits of steam engines. The backdrop of the mountains at the Cog and the sound of the steam whistle echoing off of those mountains is something that one cannot get elsewhere.”