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Cass Scenic Railroad

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Photo courtesy of W.Va. Culture & History Archives Photo courtesy of W.Va. Culture & History Archives

Cass Scenic Railroad Celebrates Golden Anniversary

By MIKE RUBEN ∙ mruben@statejournal.com

Cass Scenic Railroad's first official run to Whittaker Station as a tourist train was June 15, 1963. Celebrating its 50th anniversary earlier this summer, it's still going strong.

Located in the mountains of Pocahontas County, Cass Scenic Railroad State Park's driven locomotives were once an essential part of everyday life. Today, trips to Cass are filled with rich histories of the past, spectacular views of a vast wilderness area and close-up encounters with the sights and sounds of original steam-driven locomotives. 

The town of Cass remains relatively unchanged. The restored company houses, now rented as vacation cottages, add to the charm and atmosphere of the town. From the company store and museum to the train depot, visitors find an abundance of things to do prior to the rail departures. 

The railroad is the same line built in 1901 to haul lumber from the mountains to the mill in Cass. The locomotives are the same Shay locomotives used for more than a half-century. Many of the passenger cars are old logging flatcars that have been refurbished.

Cass was the hub of the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, the forerunner of Mead-Westvaco. Twenty of the original 52 company-owned, white-fenced houses are now available for overnight lodging. Cass has a general store gift shop, restaurant and museum. A logging camp has been reconstructed on the mountain.

The town was named for Joseph Kerr Cass, vice president and co-founder of the company. In its heyday, approximately 3,000 people occupied the base town of Cass, the now-abandoned logging town of Old Spruce and the surrounding Cheat Mountain area. 

The cut logs were transported by rail to the sawmill in town where they were processed by employees working two 11-hour shifts. The lumber was used by paper and hardwood flooring companies across the country. The sawmill and 20 logging camps in the area once employed 1,000 workers. 

"This was a hopping place," said Monica Fleming, activities programmer at the park. 

The Madison native with a master's degree in geography is well-versed on the operation at Cass. Her job titles have included brakeman and tour guide on the railroad during eight years at the park. 

Most of those who lived in the company-owned houses at Cass were skilled laborers at either the mill or the railroad machine shop. Life in the company-owned section of town was straight-laced, but it was a different story in the flourishing private enterprises of "Dirty Street," located along the opposite bank of the Greenbrier River.

"They (the loggers) would come down off the mountain, collect their pay at the company store less whatever debt they owed, and then they would sometimes go across the river and have their weekend," said Fleming of the brothels, liquor and gambling establishments.

The mill closed in 1960 and burned in 1982. Today's population is 52. 

"We have the largest running collection of geared steam locomotives," said Fleming, referring to five Shay brand engines in addition to a Heisler and Climax, which is currently being restored by the park's partners at the Mountain State Railroad and Logging Historical Association. "They were used between the 1890s and the 1960s when logging railroads were in demand here in West Virginia."

These rugged locomotives were designed to negotiate steep grades and sharp curves. They must handle a 9 percent grade, which equates to a 9-foot increase of elevation for every 100 feet of track. A 2 percent grade is considered steep for conventional railroads. Special swiveling wheels allow the railroad cars to negotiate sharp curves. At 162 tons, Shay No. 6 is the heaviest engine.

Cass offers a two-hour run to Whittaker Station. The trip includes a 15-minute break at the concession stand and picnic area of a recreated 1940s logging camp. Another option is the 4.5-hour trip to Bald Knob, the third-highest point in the Mountain State at an altitude of 4,700 feet.

"You're going up 2,000 feet in elevation," she said. "There is a change in climate (dress appropriately) and different forest types."

Special trips include dinner trains with live entertainment, evening star gazing trips accompanied by staff of the nearby National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank, twin engine "double header" runs to Bald Knob and a season-ending Halloween haunted train.