Where Econ Geeks Go on Tour

Yes, there are economics geeks. Mr. Hallock and I are two of them. As international affairs majors, we were required to study two years of economics: macro, micro, international trade, and international finance. And each of us took a few additional electives. So when we decided to go up Mount Washington on the cog railway this week, it seemed silly not to go to the Omni Mount Washington Resort for a tour. Why? You might know the Omni better as Bretton Woods.

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Still nothing? Maybe you know it for its skiing, which I have heard is incredible. But to me Bretton Woods will always mean the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference of 1944, which set up the Bretton Woods System and created the International Monetary Fund and part of the World Bank at the end of World War II.

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Forty-four Allied nations came to northern New Hampshire to discuss how to stabilize postwar monetary systems. (It seems a little cocky to plan for your victory a year early, but the D-Day landings had just been a surprising success.) From the hotel tour guide, we learned that the international delegates and their subordinates were instructed not to bring their families. The hotel had just been bought by the US government after being thoroughly run down and maltreated by the founder’s heir. The government had “fixed” everything by painting it all white, even the Tiffany stained glass, but they were not ready to put up thousands of guests.

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Yes, the Commonwealth of the Philippines was there, represented by Colonel Andres Soriano, a Spanish-Filipino industrialist who expanded San Miguel beer, founded Philippine Airlines, and served on General MacArthur’s staff during World War II. An interesting bit of trivia: he had been a Spanish citizen until the 1930s, when he officially became Filipino. After the war, he was also granted American citizenship.

Guess what? The delegates brought their families, of course. Of course! So the hotel employees had to sleep in tents and other temporary quarters to make room. There were originally only 230+ rooms in the Mount Washington Hotel because they had all been designed as huge suites, since the wealthy families of the Gilded Age stayed here for the whole season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. (These were the people who did not have their own “cottages” in Newport, of course.) Between 44 countries’ top delegates, their aides, and all their loved ones, the place was packed to the rafters.

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Jen sitting at the table—and in one of the original chairs—of the Gold Room, where the Bretton Woods Agreement was signed.

But back to economics: the delegates agreed to peg the world’s currencies to the dollar, the only currency they considered a strong enough shore of value to hold true in the upcoming tough times. The US agreed to make the dollar convertible to gold at a standard rate of $35 an ounce. If you are looking for the moment when the United States became a global economic superpower, this would be it.

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Check out this five dollar bill from 1950. Notice the promise to “pay to the bearer on demand”? Pull a five dollar bill out your pocket, if you have one. It doesn’t say that anymore. Also, the text in the top left corner promises that this bill is “redeemable in lawful money” at the Treasury or Federal Reserve. Um, yeah, not anymore.

Now, accounting for inflation, that peg price to gold is only about $485 an ounce in 2016 dollars, which is a third of today’s (8/25/17) spot price of $1300 an ounce. The US could not keep the dollar strong enough to hold its own against rising gold prices, especially during the economic crises of the late 60s and early 70s. In 1971 President Nixon announced that the US dollar would no longer be convertible to gold.

Republican William McKinley (left, from his own campaign poster) and Democrat William Jennings Bryan (right, in a critical Judge magazine cover). Both images found at Wikimedia Commons: McKinley’s poster and Judge‘s cover on “Cross of Gold.”.

This spelled the end of Bretton Woods and the gold standard. Whether or not you think this is a good thing, it is an interesting conclusion to the gold-bug-versus-silverite debate that dominated the election of 1896. If you were to travel back in time to the Gilded Age and announce this was where we would end up, they would laugh in your face and call you insane. US “greenbacks” are now fiat currency, backed only by the world’s faith in their value, nothing more. (And, well, petroleum, since members of the OPEC cartel agreed that oil would be bought and sold in dollars, starting in 1971. Convenient, eh?)

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The monetary conference was not the only interesting part of the Bretton Woods tour. The Cave Grill in the basement used to be a speakeasy! They paid fourteen-year-old boys to keep a look out for cops. Supposedly, if the authorities arrived, you were supposed to throw your whiskey in the barrel, and it would be hidden in the floor. That never happened, apparently, because the cops never came.

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Above all, Bretton Woods is a lovely place to lunch, which is exactly what Mr. Hallock and I did on this porch. What a view!

The Hallocks Hit Mount Washington

After the loss of our beloved dogs, Jaya and Grover, Mr. Hallock and I decided to get out of the house. We wanted to take a trip that we could never have done while taking care of two geriatric dogs. So what is there to see in New Hampshire? How about the highest peak in the northeastern US, Mount Washington!

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Mount Washington as viewed from Bretton Woods, the Omni Mount Washington Hotel. The cog railway is the line going up the left side of the mountain.

Now, Mr. H and I are not big hikers. Back in the day, maybe. Now? Up a mountain? No. I won’t even drive up the harrowing Auto Road. (There are no guard rails.) Nope, the Cog Railway is my style. It’s historic, too, built in 1868. This is the way that tourists have visited Mount Washington since the days of President Ulysses S. Grant. They still run two original steam locomotives—one from 1895 and one from 1908—up and down the mountain each day. (The rest are bio-diesel, which the environment appreciates.)

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The approaching 1908 steam locomotive, Waumbek, as it descends Mount Washington.
Cog Railway Mount Washington trip for Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
The 1908 Waumbek descending the mountain. Notice that the boiler looks tilted. In fact, it is perfectly level, and the rest of the locomotive and passenger car are tilted along the slope of the mountain. The engine is on hinges to keep it operating.

How does it work, you ask? The key is the cog in the middle of the track. The outer two rails do nothing but balance the load, but the train actually clicks up the mountain with a large spoked wheel. The sprockets fit in between the links of the metal chain bolted to the tracks. Smart, isn’t it? It is one of only two mountain-climbing cog railways still in existence.

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Close up of the rack-and-pinion mechanism of the cog railway.

People travel all over the world to visit Mount Washington and ride the cog railway. Yeah, I did not believe that, either, but the push pin map does not lie! The owners of the railway invite guests to place a pin on the map to represent their home—and they start over with an empty map every year. So all the pins you see? New this year. Check out the representation from the Philippines! Impressive.

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I should not have been that surprised. Even on the platform, I saw a Philippines flag, so they know where their fans are from.

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In case you’re wondering how the workers in the 1860s descended the mountain, check out the cog slide on the right—it’s like an old-fashioned luge. Mr. H and I did not get to slide down the mountain at 60 mph—they’ve changed the mechanism to prevent such adventurism. And, honestly, I was relieved. Am I getting old?

Once we got to the top, we hoped to have a nice venue for eclipse viewing. The Weather Warrior from NBC Boston had the same idea. All of us were out of luck, though. Even though it was the middle of August, it was foggy and 48°F at the peak.

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Inside the Tip Top House, it was clear and…still the nineteenth century. If a person did climb Mount Washington back in the day, this was the only place to stay. And, trust me, it could not have been that comfortable. The record low at Mount Washington is -50°F, and it is the home of the world record surface wind speed—231 miles per hour! I would have stayed home, thank you very much.

Mount Washington trip for Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

People climb Mount Washington for this extreme weather, especially if they are preparing a trek to the Himalayas. Though the altitude is not world-breaking, this peak is considered the best place to test your clothing and gear for the elements. I was happy to get up there through less blizzard-defying means. And I had the best of company.

Mount Washington trip for Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.