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Cass Railroad Trip to Bald Knob 6/29/2010

by Chris Guenzler

I woke up at the Best Western Summerville Lake Inn and after breakfast I worked on the stories a little before it was time to check out. I took WV 39 East to WV 55 East. At Richwood the power company had the highway shut down so I had to detour through town. Look at what I found.

The C&O Richwood Station. Back on the highway I continued east to US 219 which I took north to Snowshoe and then made a very quick trip on WV 66 to Cass picking up my ticket with 15 minutes to spare. By the way I didn't kill Bambi and mom on the way there.

Brief History of Cass

The town of Cass was always centered around the lumber companies that inhabited the valley and operated the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Mill. The mill operations were enormous during its heyday period of 1908 to 1922. It ran two 11 hour shifts six days a week, cutting 125,000 board feet of lumber each shift, an impressive 1.5 million feet of lumber a week. The Cass mill also had a drying kilns using 11 miles of steam pipe to dry 360,000 board feet of lumber with each run. The adjoining planning mill was three stories tall, measuring 96 by 224 feet. Massive elevators carried up to 5,000 feet of lumber to separate floors and machines. Some of the flooring machines took 15 men to operate them. There were two resaws that could accommodate boards up to 35 feet. The large surfacing machines finished all four sides of a board in one operations. Roy Clarkson in Tumult estimated that in 40 years the Cass mill and the mill in Spruce turned more than 2.14 billion feet of timber into pulp or lumber. The town of Cass was named after Joseph K. Cass. Each morning the C&O RR dispatched a 44 car pulpwood train for the paper mill at Covington. At the peak the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Mill employed between 2,500 and 3,000 men. In an average week six to ten carloads of food and supplies traveled over the railroad to the 12 logging camps.

At the turn of the century lumberman were eyeing the large tracts of timber on Cheat Mountain, west of Cass. They decided to route the timber east through a gap in the mountains and down the steep grade to the Mill at Cass. An interchange with the C&O Railroad would be at Cass with a route down the Greenbrier and Elk River to the C&O mainline. In 1900 Samuel Slaymaker, a timber broker, set up a construction camp at the mouth of Leatherbark Creek {the present site of the Cass shops today}. His men built the line up the grade following the Leatherbark Creek and gained altitude by constructing two switchbacks. The tracks were laid around a promontory and then upgrade winding along the ridge to where the rails reached the gap in the mountains. Here a camp named Old Spruce was established. In 1904, 1-1/4 miles of track was laid from Old Spruce to Spruce where a new town on the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River was built. At an elevation of 3,853 feet, Spruce was the highest town in the eastern United States. From Spruce the tracks ran 35 miles south into the Elk River Basin to the town of Bergoo and 65 miles north along the Shavers Fork. Spruce became the hub of the rail empire. The mainlines ending up being 82 miles long and at the height of operations about 140 miles of track including the branches were used. The logging railroad built about 250 miles of more tracks. The Greenbrier & Elk River in 1909 became the Greenbrier, Elk & Valley Railroad and in 1910 became the Greenbrier, Cheat & Elk Railroad. In 1910 this railroad became a common carrier. In 1926 a merger of the Greenbrier, Cheat & Elk Railroad and Western Maryland Railroad which wanted to tap the rich coal reserves of the region. On March 3, 1927 saw an agreement reached and the Western Maryland purchased 74 miles of the railroad between Cheat Junction and Bergoo. Shays were used to pull the coal trains until the line was rebuilt to accommodate the massive WM H-8 2-8-0's. Up to ten locomotives were used to pull coal trains up the steep grade. In 1925 the town of Spruce began to die when the peeling mill closed. In the 1930's the town became an isolated helper station on the Western Maryland. With the coming of the diesels, all locomotives serving Cass were transferred to Laurel Bank and Spruce became a ghost town. Mower Lumber Company acquired the Cass operations in 1942 to cut second growth timber on Cheat and Back Allegheny Mountains. Rails we relaid into old logging areas. Huge steam skidding machines were rigged on hillsides and knobs, bringing saw logs for the mills on rail lines. But the second growth timber couldn't feed the mighty mills for long. By the 1950's the mill was working a single shift. The big four-truck shays languished on sidings while tired three-truck shays 1, 4 and 5 were assigned to the hill. With Edwin Mower's death in late 1955, the family members were unable to keep the operations going. The rail-haul logging operations and bandsaw mill ceased operations on July 1, 1960. A scrap dealer, the Midwest Raleigh Corporation was subcontracted to dismantle the railroad.

In late September 1960, a rail fan, Russel Baum of Sunbury, Pennsylvania initiated an effort to save the railroad. Baum reasoned that the shays and old logging track could become a big tourist attraction. A small group of local businessman formed the Cass Planning Commission and State legislators were approached. Skeptical officials initially declined to participate. But when the state legislature's prestigious Joint Committee on Government and Finance took an inspection trip over the former Mower Lumber "Railroad to the Sky" to Bald Knob, the bureaucratic wheels were set in motion. During the State Legislature's regular sessions in early 1961 an appropriation was approved and the governor of West Virginia signed a bill bringing Cass into the West Virginia State Park System. The Midwest Raleigh Corporation received $125,000 for the seven miles of mainline from Cass to Spruce and four miles from Old Spruce to Bald Knob. Also included were three locomotives, 10 flat cars, four camp cars, three motor cars and other equipment. It wasn't until 1963 that Shays 1 and 4 were put back into service and safety railing and benches were installed on a few flat cars. Trains went about halfway up Back Allegheny Mountain above the switchbacks to a pleasant pasture now known as Whittaker Station. At that point, there wasn't enough money yet to fix the tracks to Bald Knob. In 1968 the line to Bald Knob was restored. Since 1985 the West Virginia Department of Commerce has proceeded with its plans to restore the town of Cass.

The Trip to Bald Knob

The train seen as I walked to the ticket office. I picked up my ticket and then walked to see what the engine on our train was.

Today we would be pushed up to Bald Knob by Shay 11.

The train was Shay 11, Cars 1, 2, 5, 8 and 9. I took seat in Car 9 and the very rear end of the bench.

The view as we started the trip.

We passed the remains of the fire damaged Cass Mill.

The Cass Water Tower.

The Cass Steam Shop.

Cass Heisler 6.

Cass Shay 5.

Western Maryland Shay 6.

Passenger cars for the Whittaker Run.

Cass Scenic diesel switcher.

Up the mountain we head.

The first crossing of Leatherbark Creek.

Leatherbark Creek.

The second crossing of Leatherbark Creek.

Back Mountain Road crossing.

The engine starts up the 4% grade.

Views up the grade to the Gum Road Crossing.

The Gum Road Crossing.

Views up to the Lower Switchback.

Views at the Lower Switchback.

The track below that we came up on.

The train heads for the Gum Curve.

The view from the Gum Curve.

Curving out of the Gum Curve.

A look back towards the Gum Curve.

The engine pulling hard above the Logging Road.

The Limestone Cut.

Views at the Upper Switchback.

Views on the 7.4% grade below Whittaker.

The Shay 11 is pushing hard up that grade.

Two views from that 7.4% grade.

Our train about to come into Whittaker.

Cass Caboose 51. The cabooses we see today for the most part can be rented out for stays either at Whittaker or Bald Knob.


Two views of Shay 11 pushing the train into the Whittaker Station. Here we could detrain for 25 minutes. I got a hot dog at the concession stand before looking around Whittaker.

Log cars and hopper plus the Fire Lookout Tower.

Elk River Coal & Lumber Company Caboose.

The Camp Car.

Flat car and crane.


Three views from the Whittaker Platform.

The flat car again.

Cass RR MW 5268.

Log Cars.

Whittaker scenes.

Cass Shay 11 at Whittaker.

Click here for Part 2 of this story