Brown Sign: Cass Scenic Railroad

A trek out of the mountains deserves balance with a trek further into the mountains. For Memorial Day, we drove a couple of hours into the Appalachian Mountains to Cass, WV to ride the scenic Shay railroad train up to the logging camp of Whittaker. Our two hour tour gave us some great views, rumbling tracks, startling whistles, and a chance to contemplate the change in the economy over the past hundred years.

The drive to Cass was well worth the day, with warm, clear skies, bluegrass gospel in the CD player, and a picnic in the car. After passing through Moorefield and Petersburg, we drove south and west through numerous unincorporated towns and narrow valleys. The morning light streamed dappled greens through the wooded sections, buttery yellow on hay fields recently cut, and deep greens on corn fields rising from the rusty soil. The closer we drove to Cass, the narrower the road became, until the final turn and pass over the Greenbrier River, when suddenly we came upon the Cass Depot and Company Store.

The scenic railroad is a remnant of the logging railroad, which hauled red cedar logs from the mountain tops and brought them down to be transferred to trains on the Western Maryland Railroad system. Most of the wood went to Covington, VA were it would be processed into wood pulp and then paper. Logging had been going on in the northern sections of the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania since before the Civil War, leaving limited reserves by the turn of the century. Cass would be most active in the first half of the 20th century. The red cedar stands were estimated to cover about 500,000 acres when logging companies began to purchase the land. Fifty years later, when the operations abandoned the mills, about 50,000 acres of red cedar remained.

On a tangent, I read a recent article about dating red cedars near Petersburg, WV using tree ring core samples. By piecing together different living and standing dead trees (they do not rot much), the researchers developed a time line going back about 4,000 years. 450,000 acres of data gone in 50 years. Hey, this is a blog about vacation touring, not environmental preservation, right?! On the other hand, Tevye, hardwood forests have filled the ecological gap with oaks, maples, hickories, cherries, and ash.

The scenic train ride begins at the depot.  The train came steaming in with whistle bursting and gears turning about 20 minutes before our excursion.  Be early to get photos of the arrival, then more as the train prepares to load up. Shay locomotives have a gear system which allows them to rise up steep grades. The grades to Whittaker are between 5% and 9% (i.e. 9 feet of elevation change for 100 linear feet of travel). The main drive shaft is on the right side of the engine. The drive shaft gears are conical, meshing with another conical gear on each wheel. The differentials allow for each wheel to move independent of the others, so if one slips another continue to provide power. Move over Subaru. Built for power, the Shay locomotives do not travel fast, with a maximum speed of 13 mph, which would be just dandy for me, if I were hauling tons of logs.

Another feature of the track layout was that it has switch-backs without requiring tight turns, which trains do not perform well. At the point where the grade should change directions, a spur line continued for a few train lengths on a level contour. The Shay pushed the cars up to this spur, stopped, had the track switch turned, and then pulled the cars up to the next level. A second switch-back brought us up to 3,400 feet elevation at Whittaker, about 1,000 feet above Cass. Returning down these grades requires brakemen at each car, adjusting the car’s brakes to slow the pull of gravity. However, they must constantly lean over to see that the wheels do not freeze up and begin to slide, and make slight adjustments during the descent. The power of the Shay locomotive is burning coal and steam. The fireman shovels about 3/4 of a ton of coal for our short ride. Our fireman was Amy.

Along the 4 mile route (they do have a half day trip that goes further up to Bald Knob), the train passes through the engine repair yard, along a cobble strewn brook, past a couple of country roads, through dense forest, and along fields with views of distant ridges and valleys. Accompanying these views are the feel of each environment, from hot rail beds along the depot with coal smoke and steam plumes erupting from the Shay locomotive, to cool, moist stream beds and forests, to refreshing mountain breezes. These pleasant temperatures in the 70’s would become pleasant memories when we returned to the DQ at Petersburg, where the road side sign read 93F.

For a future adventure, we shall have to return for the summer pork BBQ and bluegrass evening rides, or maybe the overnight camp-outs in a caboose (they pull you out into the woods and leave you on a spur line until pick up on an appointed day).

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About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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10 Responses to Brown Sign: Cass Scenic Railroad

  1. The Vicar says:

    Somewhere Mac is smiling. Thanks for all of the photos and descriptions the trains. They are a part of the industrial revolution that brought rapid change to our country and are an integral part of United States history. It takes a lot of love to keep those big machines running.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      I could see Mac hanging out with the conductor at the Whittaker stop. I wonder if we will have Fracking Drill site Historic Parks a hundred years from now…

  2. Barneysday says:

    Great pictures and wonderful writing. I love old trains and have visited the huge train museum in Sacramento a few times. We have a logger train on the way to Yosemite that we took a few years ago. It also has a Shays engine and has a short and longer ride, with a trip into the mountains on Saturday evenings for a BBQ and ghost stories. I’d like to try that sometime.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      What is the name of the train? Would love to get out that way again. We have wonderful memories of visiting Walkingsmall and going to Yosemite years ago. A train ride would add to future adventures. Is your deck open for rentals? Might have to stop in Morrow Bay for a really round (about) trip, and do some woodworking in that workshop we saw photos of elsewhere.

  3. walkingsmall says:

    Is that my Auntie Sue looking out the open train window?

  4. Barneysday says:

    I think its just called the Logger Train, “cuz” might know the name. It is on the way up to Yosemite beyond Bass Lake. Yes the deck is open for rental, I think the price is a bottle of Chardonay per day. Actually, it would be great to have your Cuz and you for an afternoon to meet and greet. How much fun that would be. As I post this, its 5 pm, temp is about 75, cool breeze and blue sky overhead. Spent much of the afternoon today on the deck, reading the new Robert Caro book on LBJ.

    I, too am anxious to check out that woodshop. I’m becoming tool crazy, having just got a new table saw and drill press. I’d better start making stuff to pay for it all!

  5. Laurie says:

    I’ve been enjoying your blog – both the stories and the photos.

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