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The Cass Scenic Railroad

The Cass Scenic Railroad

Morning mist, like a transparent sheath, rose from the green-carpeted Cheat Mountain in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest on that Memorial Day weekend, but the hot sun quickly intercepted it during its gentle ascent, leaving a flawlessly blue sky.

Like a pocket of history, somehow frozen in time, the town of Cass, accessed via curving, mountain-hugging roads and a short, Greenbrier River-traversing bridge, sported its railroad depot, historic buildings, and dual tracks, all cradled by a valley in Back Allegheny Mountain. The tracks themselves, stretching toward and disappearing into a dense forest, were the very reason for the town and its railroad and also the reason why neither disappeared into history.

Densely covered with virgin forests during the late-19th century, West Virginia ubiquitously sprouted oak, hickory, pine, walnut, and chestnut at its lower elevations and hemlock, spruce, maple, and birch at its higher ones, providing rich lumber resources, with its eight- to nine-foot diameter trees, for the houses, stores, churches, and schools demanded by the state’s increasing population.

Logging, once dependent upon rivers to power sawmills, evolved into a significant industry with the concurrent development of the steam engine and the circular saw, a combination which permitted location anywhere the operation required it, independent of external water power.

Trees were traditionally felled, cut into manageably sized logs, propelled down slopes by means of wooden skids to streams, and transported to mills on log rafts.

Because of the inherent imprecision and danger of the manual skidding method, the Lidgerwood Company of New York designed the first steam-powered skidder, which constituted another logging industry advancement. First used in West Virginia in 1904, the device, featuring a mile of 1 7/8-inch thick cable which extended up to 2,600 feet, was either mounted directly on the ground or atop a rail-provisioned flat car, gripping the log and transferring it from forest to stream in a secure, controlled manner. It significantly increased the capability of the horse-drawn method it often replaced.

Water-born logging rafts, as equally imprecise because of rock, boulder, branch, and rapids obstructions during the summer and ice in the winter, were eventually replaced with steam-operated loaders and logging railroads.

Large band saws, substituting for the earlier, circular device, converted timber into lumber more rapidly, precisely, and efficiently, eliminating needless waste, and had an average daily capability of 125,000 board-feet.

By the late-19th century, West Virginia had become one of the country’s largest lumber producers, more than one hundred railroads transporting raw timber to mills for cutting and processing before being shipped for sale as a finished product. Peaking in 1909, the industry cut some 1,473 million board feet of lumber per year.

One of the most major logging operations had been the West Virginia Spruce Lumber Company. Founded in 1899 when John G. Luke acquired more than 67,000 acres of red spruce in West Virginia, it was a subsidiary of the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company located in Covington, Virginia.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, foreseeing a need for freight and lumber transportation, hastened its own plans to extend its track into northern Pocahontas County, incorporating a subsidiary designated the “Greenbrier Railway Company” in 1897 and commencing roadbed and track construction two years later. The line reached the area that December. Threshold to virgin forests, it was uniquely positioned to carry timber to the Covington sawmill and also to connect with the Coal and Iron Railway, which itself was later amalgamated into the Western Maryland Railway.

Although it provided a vital link, it did not penetrate the mountain-clinging forests themselves, nor did it possess the proper locomotive equipment to do so. Logging railroad track, by necessity, exhibited several unique characteristics. Mountain forests usually dictated both sharp curves, which could equal 35 degrees, and steep grades, which required switchbacks to surmount, while track needed to be portable, moved after each area was cut and depleted. Resultantly, it was usually built up of short, skinned logs directly laid on the bare earth, without the benefit of prepared roadbeds, and the rails themselves were then spiked to them. Rail weight, ranging between 50 and 75 pounds per yard, was more than sufficient.

Although these temporary, impromptu tracks fulfilled the immediate need before being moved to the next location, they were ill-suited to conventional, rod-type locomotives with their rigid frames and fixed driving axles. Often falling victim to imperfections, they slipped and frequently derailed. What was needed was an engine with numerous, small drive wheels, ideally ranging between eight and 16, which could deliver low-speed traction, continuous contact, positive power, and effective braking, yet exhibit considerable flexibility.

Ephraim Shay, a Michigan logger who was well acquainted with such obstacles, designed the first articulated locomotive for logging purposes in 1874. Its driving force was subdivided into the cylinders-connecting rods and the driving wheels mounted on pivoting trucks, the side-mounted cylinders themselves counterbalanced by an offset boiler, while the tender truck’s own driving axles both contributed to this force and added to the locomotive’s adhesion weight. The geared steam engine, replacing the conventional locomotive’s rod-driving propulsion system, was equally easy to maintain and repair with its entirely exposed parts.

The first such Shay, patented and constructed by the Lima Machine Works of Lima, Ohio, in 1880, featured slide vales, a vertical boiler, and eight drivers.

Later, progressively larger examples sported three right-side mounted vertical cylinders counterbalanced by a left side boiler, which itself provided clearance for the cylinders, and a small water tender-connected coal bunker located immediately behind the cab. Since the engine was seldom far from either a coal or water supply, its relatively small capacity proved sufficient.

Cylinder pistons, by means of bevel gears, enabled each truck to independently negotiate the rail’s imperfections and their small, 36-inch drive wheels provided the needed adhesion and traction. Yet, since all wheels were interconnected either by line shafts or axles, single-wheel slippages were impossible.

The Shay locomotive, enjoying a 2,771-production run between 1880 and 1945, proved to be the most ideally-suited and numerically most popular powerplant for logging operations, whether specifically in West Virginia, where more than 400 were employed, or elsewhere. It also had limited application for steep-grade, heavy-load lines and industrial switching.

The West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company’s first locomotive was a two-truck, 42-ton Shay.
The first pulpwood shipment to the Covington, Virginia, paper mill, hauled by the Greenbrier Railway Company, was made on January 28, 1901, but what was needed for more immediate processing and independent operation was a strategically located sawmill. This became operational the following year.

In order to support the massive workforce required for a rapidly expanding logging enterprise, a company town, designated “Cass” after West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company Vice President Joseph P. Cass, arose from a small farming community and wagon road river crossing previously called “Leatherbark Ford.”
Carefully planned and revolving round the sawmill itself, the incorporated town, with an official major and council, was located on one side of the Greenbrier River and boasted of a 2,000-strong population, sustained by houses, schools, stores, offices, churches, and civic and social organizations. It quickly blossomed into one of West Virginia’s largest boom towns.

Its three-story Pocahontas Supply Company store, constructed in 1902 and partially rebuilt 16 years later after fire had consumed its upper floor, sold everything from food to appliances to furniture and was the nucleus of the town. It had also served as the site of the US Post Office and the lumber company’s offices.
The smaller shop next to it housed Nethkin’s Meat Market.

Residents used wooden boardwalks to negotiate the area by foot.

Contrasted with the brothels and hotels located on the town’s east side, which was alternatively dubbed “East Cass” or “Dirty Street,” the dual-structure comprising the Cass Hotel was frequented by businessmen, workers in good standing, and respected visitors.

The elite, in general, lived in the town’s Big Bug Hill section.

The mayor’s office, replacing a temporarily employed boxcar for incarcerations, ironically housed the more permanent jail on its first floor and the mayoral headquarters on its second.

Between 1901 and 1920, the railroad had constituted Cass’s only access.

Propelled by its small Shay locomotive, the West Virginia Spruce Lumber Company commenced logging railroad operations in January of 1901, pulling red spruce-piled flat cars over an initial eight miles of off-line track in order to supply the Covington paper mill with pulpwood until Cass’s own mill had been completed the following year. By 1908, the operation had sustained dramatic growth, with logging trains running both day and night, supported by 200 draft horses and 1,000 men and supplying the mill with hemlock and spruce bark. Forty-four daily cars hauled raw material and finished products from Cass.

After subsidiary West Virginia Spruce Lumber Company had been acquired by and amalgamated into parent Pulp and Paper, and the operation had entered its second life phase, the railroad had been rechartered as the Greenbrier, Cheat, and Elk, opening a main line into the Elk River Watershed in order to log a 2,000-foot-long by 100-foot-deep area designated the “Big Cut,” then the largest and most costly engineering project ever undertaken by an eastern logging company. Comprised of 82 miles of main and 40 additional miles of spur line track at its peak, it enjoyed 21 years of common-carrier operations.

A typical logging operation entailed cutting the designated trees, skidding them down the slope to the tracks, and loading them, as log limbs, on to the flatbed cars, cradled between vertical, side-forming and -mounted wooden stakes, which formed pockets. After being transported to the mill, they were unloaded in to the mill pond, at which time pike-provisioned men channeled them on to jack slips-inclined, cleated, conveyor belt-like chains-for travel into the actual mill’s sawing room. The finished product, assuming the form of cut board, was then dried and reloaded on to standard-gauge trains pulled by traditional rod locomotives for distribution to the company or lumber yard which had ordered them.

The mill, equipped with 11 miles of steam pipes, cut more than 125,000 board feet of lumber per shift and dried 360,000 per run, there having been two 11-hour shifts per day, scheduled six days per week, resulting in 1.5 million board feet per week and 35 million per year.

The West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, having grown into one of West Virginia’s largest logging enterprises, was continually subjected to expansion, as evidenced by its statistics: the Greenbrier, Cheat, and Elk Railroad had operated over 66 miles of track by 1917 and over 101 miles four years later, when the workforce had exceeded 1,500.

But, by the time World War II had raged, the forests surrounding Cass had been depleted, despite still-prevalent hardwood and second-growth trees below Bald Knob. The West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, unable to justify the economic viability of extending its track into the timber span, sold the operation to F. Edwin Mower, head of the Charleston-based Mower Lumber Company. Demand for southern yellow pine, traditionally used for paper production, had already precipitated a decline and 68,000 acres had been sold to the US Forest Service in 1936. The remainder had been acquired by Mower. The West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company thus entered the third phase of its life, albeit under a new name.

Laying 12 miles of short branch track off the Cabin Fork Line to Bald Knob, the Mower Lumber Company was able to continue harnessing the precious wood resource. But with only 65,000 acres remaining by 1960, a handful of still-unharvested hardwood patches, and deteriorating rolling stock and machinery, it only operated three weekly trains pulled by an equal number of Shay locomotives, and finally ceased operations on June 30 of that year. Victim, like most of the other logging railroad enterprises to forest depletion and new, automated mill processing methods, it retreated into the history books, leaving less than half-a-dozen concerns in West Virginia. Its track, mills, machinery, engines, and cars almost went with it.

The Midwest Raleigh Steel Corporation, to which the operation’s components had been sold, began dismantling its track, with the intention of having it completely removed before the onset of winter, while the locomotives, rolling stock, and logging equipment would be junked. Walworth Farms, a landholding company, acquired its wooded property.

Russel C. Baum, a Pennsylvania rail fan who coincidentally spent a three-day vacation in Marlinton, West Virginia, during this time, witnessed the painstaking dismemberment process, but immediately foresaw the historical and tourist value of the railroad.

Commencing a campaign to save it and pleading his case in Charleston’s Capitol Building, he was able to obtain a temporary injunction which dictated suspension of the dismantling process, and a committee, formed for the purpose of investigating its tourism potential, ultimately recommended that the state acquire its roadbed, rolling stock, and 40 acres on Back Allegheny Mountain for $150,000. It would then be operated by the Department of Natural Resources. On June 15, 1963, the operation entered its fourth life phase when the Cass Scenic Railroad was born.

Pulled by Shay locomotive #4, the first passenger-carrying excursion train left Cass and the railroad carried 23,106 during its first year of operations. That number has increased every year since. Restoring the line to fully operational status, it opened the second portion, to Bald Knob, on May 25, 1968, to the excursion train, its tracks having now carried both logs and passengers.

On the same date, Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, which includes almost 100 buildings in the town itself, was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and today, as a unit of the West Virginia Park System, is the site of the nation’s longest-running tourist railway, the geared steam locomotive, the mill town, the locomotive repair shop, the Cass Company store, the Last Run Restaurant, and the Shay Railroad Shop.

The Cass Mill, having been owned by the West Virginia Spruce Lumber Company between 1902 and 1910, the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company between 1910 and 1942, and the Mower Lumber Company between 1942 and 1960, had been comprised of the drying kilns, the boiler house, the powerhouse, the sawmill itself, the millpond, and the storage area for finished lumber, all located between the tracks and the Greenbrier River. Reconstruction occurred from 1922 to 1923 because of fire, the reason for its final demise during the 1980s.


Belching thick, black smoke from its stack and clanging its bell, Shay locomotive #6 pulled its still-empty cars to the Cass depot on the left of the two main tracks 30 minutes before its 1100 departure to Bald Knob on that late-May morning, a four-and-a-half hour, 22-mile round trip journey.

The cars themselves consisted of six wooden, converted logging cars with paneless windows, a roof, and side-facing bench seats, painted green with red window trim, and a single wooden, enclosed coach with forward- and aft-facing, booth-like seats, designated “Leatherbark Creek.”

The depot next to which they stood, constructed here in 1901 to serve the just-completed Greenbrier Division of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, was modified in 1923 to accommodate an increasing volume of freight and passengers, but the present wooden, white-painted structure was rebuilt in 1979, four years after fire had claimed the original one.

The 162-ton, Class C-150 Shay locomotive #6, originally constructed for the Western Maryland Railway and the largest of its type, had been shipped to Elkins, West Virginia, on May 14, 1945 for service on the nine-percent graded Chaffee Branch. The three-truck engine, with 48-inch drivers, a 17-inch bore, and an 18-inch stroke, was then donated to the Baltimore and Ohio Museum, in Baltimore, Maryland, after four years, and was subsequently exchanged for a Cass Scenic Railroad Porter 0-4-0 after another 26. Other locomotives in its inventory include the 93-ton Shay #2, the 80-ton Shay #4, the 90-ton Shay #5, and the 103-ton Shay #11. A 70-ton Shay #9 and 100-ton Heisler #6, although not currently operational, round out the fleet.

Emitting an ear-shattering whistle and releasing a volcanic eruption of billowing, blinding black smoke, the Shay #6, assuming a pusher-configuration, bit into the rails and prodded its cars into abrupt motion, steam pressure pulsing its pistons which then rotated its crankshaft, and this, in turn, rotated the all-driver wheels through reduction gear. Plying the tracks acquired by the state park in 1978 after the Chesapeake and Ohio’s Greenbrier Division had operated its last freight service on them, the train moved past the water tank, which had been shared with the C&O, but is presently a replica which had been installed in 2005. It also marked the spot, at the junction switch, where the logging railroad actually began.

The deadline, cradling several locomotives, was the service area for coaling, sanding, and repairing.
Crossing Back Mountain Road, the train trundled near the original, 1901 track, which had been on a cribbing through the wet bottomland of Leatherbark Creek, and the bridges which had traversed it had been little more than wood stringers until they had been replaced by steel structures in 1959. West Virginia’s highest stream, the creek itself flowed from a point below Bald Knob.

Rumbling and vibrating with every track joint traverse, the chain of cars commenced a four-percent graded ascent through a cool, almost sun-obstructing forest of tall spruce, hemlock, white pine, and red spruce trees, the raw timber which constituted the very reason for the railroad’s creation. Most had now been third-cut vegetation, with the patches receiving the most sunlight having been the first to regrow.

In order to avoid an excessive amount of circumventing track and gain the maximum amount of elevation in the minimum amount of distance, the logging railroad installed two switchbacks, the lower of which was reached at mile 2.3. Ceasing motion beyond the actual v-configured rails before releasing a soot-reeking geyser from its stack and assaulting the forest’s solitude with a billowing stream of coal cinders, the Shay locomotive, puffing and panting, lurched its cars in a pulling mode, filling its lungs with every chugging breath as the crankshaft provided the vital connection between the vertical pistons and the rotating wheels. Settling into a rhythmic, albeit explosive, forest-echoing chug, the mass re-established motion.

Initiating a 22-degree curve on a 3.65-percent grade, the Bald Knob run arced into the 158-degree circle characterizing Gum Curve at mile 2.6. The sun-illuminated clearing, comprised of rolling, velvet-green pastures, revealed the equally green waves of the highlands off the left side.

At mile 3.1, the train’s seven cars, bombarded with lung-choking steam and smoke, moved past Limestone Cut, the track’s roadbed having been created after limestone rock itself had been hand-cut with the aid of picks, shovels, black powder, and horse-drawn pans.

Once again immersed in dense, dark forest, the railroad maneuvered through an arrest-reinitiated motion sequence as it spewed black plumes to the towering treetops and negotiated the upper switchback, the locomotive assuming its pusher-configuration.

Mountains, varying in color with distance, seemed to roll and crest, like ocean waves, dividing the line between Virginia and West Virginia. Those closest to the train appeared green while those furthest from it appeared dark-blue to gray.

Commencing a 0.2-mile, s-curve at a 7.1-percent grade, the train crossed the access road to Whittaker and surmounted a plateau, a sanctuary-exuding meadow in the middle of a steep forest flanked on either side by densely treed mountains. Having climbed from 2,452 feet at Cass to a current 3,250 at Whittaker Station, the Shay engine breathed a sigh and suspended its journey at 1145.

Aside from the views of Cheat Mountain and the snackbar facilities, the station itself afforded the opportunity to experience the Mountain State Railroad and Logging Association’s reconstructed logger’s camp.

Originally the site of a Hungarian railroad laborer’s camp during the turn-of-the-century, the present reconstruction, depicting a later set-up from about 1946, featured three tracks on which railroad cars, equipment, and miners shanties were positioned, the latter built using measurements from actual structures near Bald Knob.

Although such camps were usually isolated, spartan, and offered little more than a suspension between work shifts to facilitate washing, eating, and sleeping until the person could return to the main logging town, such as Cass, they were an integral part of West Virginia railroad logging from the late-1800s to 1960.

Because the activity had constituted the predominant growth industry during this period, and because timber companies needed significant numbers of immigrant workers to meet their operational requirements, they usually contracted large city-located labor agents to screen and hire them. Typically, they encompassed people from Italy, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Russia, and Poland. The camps, crude and crowded, employed kerosene lamps for light and coal or wood for heat. Food, in copious quantities, was vital to worker productivity.

The Whittaker camp’s four-wheel logging caboose, constructed by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1883, was usually attached at the end of logging trains and accommodated by brakemen and management-level personnel so that they could inspect remote sites. Later employed in Swandale, Clay County, it was finally acquired by the Cass Scenic Railroad.

The camp’s several shanties, which utilized less-than-premium lumber and were transported from area to area after it had been depleted of trees, exemplified the structure’s size and internal facilities relative to position importance. The wood shanty was tiny. The filer’s shanty contained a larger window to provide maximum light for saw sharpening. And the desk-provisioned surveyor/cruiser shanty was housed by the men who determined which timber should be cut and how it should be removed from the mountain.

The kitchen and dining car, sporting a long,, bench-lined, internal table for eating, and the abundant portions served on it, were tantamount to sustaining logging operations, since the human bodies were the primary “machines” involved in the operational chain, over and above the mechanical ones, and therefore had to be properly “fueled.” There had been little else to which loggers would look forward during their nocturnal downtimes.

Sleeping in spartan surroundings, as evidenced by the lobby/bunk car, was the standard until the worker could return to home and family in the company town. A stove provided warmth and a method by which wet clothes could be dried throughout the night.

The diesel-powered log loader, usually riding car-fastened rails and thus capable of both independent and collective movement with the remainder of the train, facilitated log transfer from ground to rolling stock. The camp’s example was capable of handling tree-length specimens.

The steam-driven Lidgerwood log skidder, operated by a three-man crew and built by the Meadow River Lumber Company in 1944, had been employed for some two decades, and facilitated log delivery from the cutting source to the actual railroad by means of an aerial cable.

Snoozing during its 15-minute interlude, the black Shay locomotive exhaled white streams of breath through its vertical piston nostrils, the high-pressure steam discharged from the cylinders itself eradicating its piston chambers of condensation. The restful state, however, was soon shattered by its subsequently released, atmosphere-piercing whistle, its sound waves reverberating off of the surrounding slopes and beckoning the passengers back to the cars for the continuing journey.

Re-boring its way through the deep, dense wood forest, whose foliage slowly moved by like a green mosaic within an arm’s length of the windowless coaches, the train trundled over the culvert at Whittaker Run, the sharper curve of the old grade visible on the track’s low side.

Clinging to Leatherbark Gorge, the rails briefly threaded their way through Austin Meadows, on whose slope farm fields once grew, and thence over Gobbler’s Knob.

A skidder set, located on a 225-foot siding on the uphill side of the train at mile 5.4, had occupied the site between 1940 and 1941, its 3,000-foot cable transferring logs at a 500-foot height over the creek from the far mountainside.

Climbing a 5.4- to six-percent grade at mile 6.0, the string of cars passed an overlook whose view took in Leatherbark Creek Valley, located below the lower switchback and from which smoke, created by the 1200 Whittaker train, now rose. At the present elevation, spruce trees had become ubiquitous.

The logging spur leading to Camp 5, which had been hollowed in 1911, moved off the side at mile 6.2.
The tracks, forking a half-mile further into the journey, led to Old Spruce on the left and Bald Knob on the right, the former following the main line which connected with tracks destined for the Cheat and Elk River drainages at the abandoned mill town of Spruce. Located at a 3,940-foot elevation on the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River, the bark-peeling pulpwood mill- and railroad shop-equipped town was considered the “highest and coldest…in the east.”

Arcing to the right of the two, the train entered the logging spur, and the last to have been laid by the Mower Lumber Company, so that it could access the highest-elevation timber. It served as the threshold to Bald Knob.

Operations, ceasing in 1960, never permitted use of the railroad grade located on the high side and destined for the head of Leatherbark Creek.

Arresting its travel on the eight-percent graded track at the Oats Creek water tank, the engine was intravenously-fed 4,000 gallons of the life-providing liquid by means of a steam-driven siphon and portable hose extending from an old mill boiler which continually collected creek water run-off. The 6,000-gallon tank, located directly over the engine’s driver wheels, ensured both increased traction and greater rail adhesion.

Somehow emulating a polluting factory, the Shay locomotive once again released a black, vertical plume as it propelled the train over the seven-percent grade of Johnson Run, at mile 8.2, past the Snowshoe ski resort overlook, now entrenched in third-cut hemlock, ash, white pine, and red spruce tree sentinels.
The wye, at mile 9.1, had led to a one-mile-long spur off to the left which had been equipped with five skidder sets and a camp train between 1950 and 1951, but had since been reduced to a fraction of this length.

Clanking, lurching, swaying, and screaming with protests at every turn, and releasing its own periodic explosion of steam, the train moved round the Big Run watershed, at a 1.5-percent downgrade, the track having been laid from Shavers Fork in 1910 when skidding had still been accomplished by means of horse power.

Moving through the ten-mile marker, it traversed the logging road crossing, initiating its final, mile-long approach to the mountain’s summit on a nine-percent grade. A small clearing indicated imminent arrival.
Passing the left-arcing logging railroad grade, the train ceased motion for a final time at mile 11.0 in the cooler, more rarefied air at 4,750-foot Bald Knob, the highest point reached east of the Rocky Mountains by a non-cog railroad and the third-highest in the state of West Virginia.

The billous black, 162-ton Shay locomotive, having voraciously consumed mini-mountains of coal and unquenchably gulped water by the thousand gallons, instantaneously ceased its persistent chug, belch, hiss, screech, clang, and shrill at 1320, leaving silence-and the breathtaking view of the gentle, dark green, blue, and gray, wave-resembling ridges rolling into one another almost 5,000 feet above the surface from the eastern edge of the Allegheny Highland, as viewed from the scenic overlook platform.

Eleven miles ahead lay the mountains marking the Virginia border, but only a few yards behind, cradled by the terminating track, was the Shay #6 locomotive, its coal tender, and its seven vacant cars. Its forest- and five sense-assaulting technology, although now crude and primitive, had been instrumental in West Virginia logging railroad history, once removing the raw, vitally-needed timber to build the country’s towns and sustain their people, but today returned them to the mountain forest where they could witness its feats.
Enticed back to the train 40 minutes later for the 11-mile journey back to Cass, the passengers, numbering in the hundreds, owed it a silent salute.