The Power Of Live Steam


By 1930 the boom times were definitely over as the demand for lumber declined dramatically following the national economy’s collapse. Much of the land was turned over to the Monongahela National Forest. By 1942 the best trees were gone, and a small operator took over to clean out the remaining old-growth timber and cut the better stands of second growth. This marginal operation continued until July 1960. The antiquated lumber line now seemed destined for the scrapper’s white-hot cutting torch. History’s logical course was derailed, in this instance, by both low-level and high-level planning.

Rail enthusiasts petitioned to have the Cass logging line converted into a tourist operation. Not long afterward the Kennedy administration announced ambitious plans to pump up Appalachia with jobs and redevelopment programs. While this Marshall Plan for Appalachia simmered on the back burner of the congressional legislative range, the state of West Virginia decided to act. Cass was seen as an employer and a tourist magnet, so the railroad was purchased for development by the Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Recreation. Here was a meritorious project—and one ready to go. Many schemes had been suggested, but all were in a preliminary, if not a visionary, stage. The Cass Scenic Railroad, on the other hand, was like a TV dinner, ready to eat after just a few minutes in the oven. True, some of the line had been torn up, but enough was in place to begin operations the spring of 1963. The upper end of the line, to Bald Knob, was restored and reopened five years later.


As you prepare to ride the cass, forget about luxury or deluxe service. This is not the route of the superliners. Think elementary. Think bare bones and industry. You will then be in the right mood to board your train and settle into a flatcar, open or semiopen and fitted up with sturdy wooden railings and bench seating. The rolling stock is actually historic and belongs to the site, being made up of former log cars. Many of them gave a half-century’s heavy-duty service, and all seem ready for another fifty years of running. The motive power is most likely one of several shay locomotives owned by the Cass.

These peculiar geared engines, with three vertical cylinders and an offset boiler, were much favored on logging railroads. They are slow, noisy, and very powerful. Their pistons work at a furious pace and kick up an equally furious exhaust sound, yet the engine creeps along at only a few miles an hour. The power is geared down to overcome the steep grades and sharp curves just ahead as we climb up the mountain. While mainline railroads tried to avoid grades much beyond 1 percent, logging lines regularly accepted 4 and 5 percent inclines. At one point the Cass encounters an 11 percent grade. The coal-burning shays produce prodigious volumes of smoke because they are worked so hard going up grade. Most of the sparks are extinguished before escaping the diamond-shaped smoke stack’s spark arrester, but mind your clothing and eyes, for many a good-size ember gets away.


There is plenty of time to drink in the long mountain vistas as the train picks its way over the light rails leading up Cheat Mountain. Progress slows considerably about two miles up the line as we come to two switchbacks needed to overcome the 11 percent grade. In this start-and-stop zigzag movement the train goes back and forth twice to climb a particularly difficult part of the terrain. Switchbacks were never common at any time in American railroading, and to experience such an arcane operation in 1996 is something like witnessing a field of grain being cut with sickles. Once through the switchbacks, we creep past Whittaker, four miles up the line. Some passengers end their trip here, but the hard-core traveler stays on for another seven miles to Bald Knob (4,842 feet elevation). You are at the second-highest point in West Virginia. Those in your party who may not be too taken with the glories of industrial railroading will find the view rewarding.


There you have it—a true sampler, I believe, of American tourist railroads, each of them a convenient and compelling way to recapture a vital part of our national past.