The Cass Scenic Railroad

Cass Scenic Railroad Heisler No. 6 along with Shay No. 11 lead a loaded log train down the former C&O mainline. Note the Cass Country store which was built in 1902 in the background and that the locomotives have been temporarily lettered for predecessor logging railroads that operated at Cass. (Walter Scriptunas II, Public Domain)

CASS, W.Va. — The Cass Scenic Railroad is a hard-working, up-the-mountain tourist rail line.

It's a slow 7 miles per hour on the steam-powered trains up Cheat Mountain to Whittaker Station and upward to Bald Knob on Back Allegheny Mountain.

That's a climb of nearly 2,400 feet in 11 miles to Bald Knob (one of the highest peaks in West Virginia) with grades of up to 11 percent.

That means the locomotives, mostly Shay engines once used by old lumber operations, gain 11 vertical feet for every 100 feet of horizontal distance covered. Most commercial railroads consider a 2 percent grade steep.

The line from Cass to Bald Knob was originally built in the early 1900s by the Greenbrier & Elk River Railroad Co. to haul timber out of the Allegheny Mountains in east-central West Virginia.

Today the line to Bald Knob winds from Cass at an elevation of 2,452 feet, up Leatherbark Creek, through the forests and up two switchbacks to Whittaker Station at 3,264 feet.

There you can picnic or visit an old lumber camp to learn what it was like to be a so-called wood hick living in the woods and logging nearby mountains in the 1940s. The camp was built and is operated by the Mountain State Railroad & Logging History Association.

The line continues north past the old logging town of Spruce at 3,950 feet and then to Bald Knob at 4,842 feet elevation. You can climb an old fire tower or hike through a red spruce forest more typically found in Canada. The summit is just over a half-mile and 140 feet above the train's stopover point.

You are likely to catch a big whiff of smoky soot from the locomotive as you sit in open-sided rail cars. But that's part of the old-time charm.

Welcome to West Virginia's Cass Scenic Railroad, a unique state park that is 11 miles long and 50 feet wide.

The park also includes much of the hamlet of Cass, a one-time lumber boom town with 2,000 residents, with its old company-owned houses and buildings. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

All told, the park covers fewer than 400 acres.

The railroad was built in 1901 by the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co. It cut and harvested red spruce trees for papermaking in Covington, Va. A sawmill was quickly added.

A 44-car train filled with red spruce left Cass daily for the Virginia mill. Up to 10 rail cars per week of supplies went through Cass to a dozen logging camps in the surrounding hills.

West Virginia Pulp & Paper built the hamlet of Cass and continued its lumbering operations until 1943, when it was sold to the Mower Lumber Co. It closed in 1960.

During its heyday from 1908 to 1922, the company employed 3,000 men, the mill operated two 11-hour shifts six days a week, and it handled 1.5 million board feet of lumber per week. Its mill was destroyed by fires in 1978 and 1982.

Cass housed a giant planing mill. It was three stories high and measured 224 feet by 96 feet. It housed flooring machines that took 15 men to operate. All four sides of the flooring were finished in one operation.

The state of West Virginia acquired the railroad in 1961 and the tourist trains began running in 1963. It got 23,000 passengers that first year. The line was expanded to Bald Knob in 1968 and the state acquired much of the town in 1977.

The Cass Scenic Railroad is one of the only authentic museums for lumber railroads in the United States. West Virginia once had 3,000 miles of logging railroads.