Explore an old-fashioned logging town and ride on the railroad that served it at West Virginia’s Cass Scenic Railroad State Park.
By Nancy Baren Miller, F176955
Chugging through the Appalachian Mountains of eastern West Virginia, belching smoke and emitting an occasional loud whistle, the Cass Railroad has become a popular excursion train. While the railroad is the highlight at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, visitors also discover the public buildings and homes of a company town that existed from 1900 to 1960. These two features make Cass the only state park of its type in the United States.
Let’s go back in time …
At the turn of the 20th century, executives for West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company (later known as Westvaco) began eyeing large tracts of red spruce on Cheat Mountain just west of Cass. The firm needed lumber for their paper pulp plant in Covington, Virginia, located on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway’s main line. The only way to reach these trees was via a logging railroad, so in 1901 the company purchased trains and started an operations base. By the early 1900s, the lumber business was booming and Cass had developed into a town.
Trees were clear-cut on the mountain, brought down primarily for two purposes “” pulp and flooring. Red spruce measuring 15 inches in diameter or smaller were cut to a 40-foot length, loaded on log cars, and brought to Cass. At the mill, they were recut into four-foot lengths, placed into pulpwood cars, and shipped to Covington to be processed into paper. Magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and Harper’s Bazaar were among the publications using paper made from this operation.
All other timber was cut to 14-foot lengths, loaded onto log cars, dumped into the Cass millpond, and then taken to the double-band sawmill. Most became high-grade flooring that was shipped to points across the United States.
The company received a special order in 1903, when Wilbur and Orville Wright contacted Cass. The brothers were looking for long lengths of red spruce to use to build their airplane. The timber that they purchased went into airplane number three, the one with the most flight time at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Between 1908 and 1922, the town of Cass thrived as the pulpwood and mill products reached peak production. As Cass grew, it became a peaceful, law-abiding community for labor and management families. The town included a grade school, social organizations, churches, and the Pocahontas Supply Company, at one time the largest company store in the country. From groceries to household furniture, building supplies to pharmaceuticals, the store furnished the needs of those living in the community and the numerous logging camps.
On the other side of the Greenbrier River, however, unincorporated East Cass grew up on land the company didn’t own. It became a rowdy place, with prostitution, gambling, stabbings, and drunken brawls commonplace. Today nothing of it remains, as it was washed away by the Greenbrier River flood in 1985.
In 1942, Mower Lumber Company acquired the Cass operation to cut second-growth timber, but this source didn’t provide ample income. All operations ceased in 1960. Railroad buff Russel Baum of Sunbury, Pennsylvania, initiated an effort in late 1960 to save the railroad, with the thought that it had the makings of a tourist attraction. Ultimately, he convinced others to join him in this effort, and state legislators were approached. Cass was brought into the West Virginia state park system in 1961, but it wasn’t until 1963 that the railroad opened to tourists, taking them about halfway up the mountain to what is now known as Whittaker Station. After 23,000 people flocked to the remote mountain town in the first year of operation, any skepticism that existed was squelched, and expansion continued.
In 1977, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources acquired the former logging company properties in Cass. They repaired and repainted buildings and restored houses, which are now rented to the public as park cottages. As you walk or drive around Cass, you’ll notice wooden buildings and homes. Each structure used lumber harvested on the mountains around the town and processed at the mill.
The town today
You can take a park-ranger-led tour of the town in summer, or visit on your own year-round. Stop at the depot and pick up the brochure “Cass: The Boom Town Behind the Train “” A Self Guided Walk of the Logging Boom Town of Cass.” The tour leads you on a 30-minute walk starting at the former company store. Today it houses an excellent gift shop and the Last Run Restaurant. Since the state park is isolated, you’ll want to satisfy any food cravings there.
You’ll pass several buildings on this walk, with your first stop a view of the hotel. This was the only choice for visitors and businessmen who didn’t want to be associated with the lifestyle in East Cass. Today it houses the park’s carpentry shop, which maintains restored buildings. Other interesting buildings to see include Masonic Lodge No. 124, started in 1904. Cass Presbyterian Church is next door, and it’s the only church in town. Several denominations shared it, as preachers took turns at the weekly prayer service. In 1923 it was rebuilt to its current design, and in 1974 it became the community center.
Across the road is the mayor’s office. Beneath it you’ll spot red brick “” the jail constructed in 1902. Before that time, jailers locked prisoners in a boxcar.
Main Street sports a row of cookie-cutter two-story houses, built for workers to buy or rent from the company. These had running water, but bathrooms weren’t added until the 1920s. When a home was sold, the deed included a clause that the home had to be sold back to the company at the original purchase price.
At the top of the hill is a section of town that was reserved for managers, superintendents, and other elite. It was nicknamed “Big Bug Hill” and “Snob Hill.” The largest home was owned by John Luke, whose partner in West Virginia Pulp and Paper was Joseph K. Cass.
The Lukes sponsored the nation’s first hot lunch program for underprivileged children at the town’s school in 1938. Located on the south side of town, the schoolhouse where this took place was constructed in 1915. In 1956, it was the first school in West Virginia to be fully integrated. Its last year for classes was 1969.
A scale model of the town of Cass as it appeared many years ago can be seen at the Cass Showcase. It’s on the second floor of a building next to the company store, in what used to be the hay barn (many horses and mules were needed to haul timber to the railhead). There, you can watch an award-winning film about the town’s history and see the town as it appeared from 1935 to 1940. The Showcase is open for walk-in viewing from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily; admission is free with the purchase of a train ticket. Film viewing takes place six times a day, Tuesday through Sunday. On the building’s bottom level, you’ll find a gift shop in what was once the town’s coal bin.
Near the Showcase you’ll notice the park’s museum, run by the Mountain State Railroad and Logging Historical Association. It’s free and open intermittently between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. The museum contains many artifacts, such as tools and clothing related to Cass’s history and logging operations. The highlight for me was the 50 photos on display. Many of these are pictures of Mower Lumber Company and the early days of Cass Scenic Railroad.
The Cass Scenic Railroad runs daily between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day, and then intermittently through the end of October (October 28 in 2007). September train rides are offered on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but beginning September 26 and continuing through October 21, rides are offered almost daily to let passengers take in the beautiful fall foliage. You’ll ride on the logging train tracks originally laid in 1901. Passenger cars are old logging flatbeds the park refurbished as open passenger cars with side rails and roofs.
Cass unassumingly claims to have the world’s largest collection of geared steam engines. Geared locomotives, such as the Shays, are set apart from rod-driven steam engines, because the former are powered by a drive shaft to each wheel, even those of the tender, so the locomotive’s entire weight can be used in applying power to the rails. Regular steam locomotives can handle only a two or three percent grade, but Shays can ascend 11 percent grades (11 feet in altitude for every 100 feet of track). Another reason for the Shays’ popularity is that all their working parts are visible, making them easy to reach for repairs. The only disadvantage of Shays is that they are slower than regular steam locomotives.
Shay locomotive Number 5, which pulled the train I rode on, had its 100th birthday in 2005. It’s the second-oldest Shay in operation. One of the Shays (Western Maryland 6) is the last one ever built, and the largest in existence “” it weighs 162 tons. In addition to the Shays, the park owns similarly designed Climax and Heisler locomotives.
By the way, Shays are named for Ephraim Shay, a Michigan timberman who designed them to handle the uneven track, sharp curves, and steep inclines that composed the route of Cass’s logging trains.
More than a ride
Regular excursions are offered on three routes. The Whittaker Route is a two-hour narrated round trip to Whittaker Station. It includes views of Whittaker Camp, put together by the Mountain State Railroad and Logging Historical Association, and designed to re-create a logging camp from around 1946. Feel free to leave the train and explore the area. On the left side of a large field are three portable shanties. These housed the foreman, surveyor, and train crews. Next to the shanties is an abbreviated camp train where workers ate, washed, and slept. You’ll notice a caboose originally built by the B&O Railroad in 1883.
At the center track, you’ll find a diesel log loader designed to handle “tree length” logs. The camp highlight is the Lidgerwood tower skidder, one of only two examples left in the world. It carried logs from the woods on aerial cables for distances up to 3,000 feet.
The Spruce Route extends the trip to Spruce, rumored at one time to be the coldest and highest town (3,853 feet) east of the Mississippi River. Built in 1905, it was a railroad town and had a large bark-peeling mill until 1925. Now only building foundations exist. This is a five-hour trip that runs on Fridays only.
The third route is the Bald Knob trek, a five-hour journey that takes you all the way up to Bald Knob. At 4,842 feet, it affords views of two states.
Fun train events are offered at the park throughout the year. Fiddles and Vittles, wherein you can enjoy a buffet dinner and live bluegrass music, plus take a train ride, is available each Saturday in September. Or, visit September 29 for Fall Harvest Day, a daylong celebration with tours of the lumber mill and locomotive shop, an interpretive walk around Cass town, live music, a quilting exhibit, tours of the model railroad exhibit (currently under construction), Appalachian dance demonstrations, and even a chance to blow the whistle on a real steam locomotive. For a fee, you can take an evening train trip with live music, special treats, and a buffet.
You can stay overnight in your motorhome at the Cass Depot parking lot for $8 per night; no hookups are available. Or, search out one of the nearby campgrounds. But for a treat, you also might consider renting a cottage “” a two-story home once owned by the logging company. Available year-round, they can be rented by the day or week with maximum rental of two weeks. Cottages feature bathrooms and fully equipped kitchens. Guests staying five nights or more receive two free Cass train tickets to the destination of their choice.
You also can stay overnight in a train caboose, or rent a caboose for a day trip. All rentals are by reservation, and patrons must purchase train tickets as well. Two 1920s-era cabooses are used for day trips and provide private accommodations for a group of up to 12. The primary overnight caboose, which serves five people, dates from the 1940s. It has a set of bunk beds, a daybed, a dinette, and a refrigerator-freezer. On overnight trips, you ride your caboose to your destination, where the staff uncouples your car from the train. Your caboose is recoupled on your departure day, and thus you’re returned to Cass.
Don’t miss a ride on the train and a good look at the town that grew up around the logging operation. It’s one of the best ways to experience history today.
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park
P.O. Box 107
Cass, WV 24927