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West Virginia Railroads

By Ben Crookshanks

Our neighbor to the north, Pocahontas County, has some of the most rugged and beautiful mountains in the state. An excellent way to see these mountains is to take a leisurely train ride through them. The schedules vary, but on one train or another, you can take a sightseeing trip from April through December. There are plans to extend that period farther into winter. This would give people a chance to see the remote areas of the Monongahela National Forest veiled in snow. A sight few have seen. There are four excursion trains operating in the county. The best known is at Cass.


Cass Scenic Railroad State Park is the most complete logging museum in the world. If not for the foresight of one man, it would not exist at all. The town of Cass came close to being nothing more than a short footnote in the colorful history of logging in West Virginia.

It's been said that if you ironed West Virginia out flat, it would be as big as Texas. That may be true. Much of the state is closer to being vertical than horizontal. Terrain like that makes logging very difficult. The first sawmills in West Virginia were built in the late 1700's. Still, one hundred years later, only a fraction of the state's timber had been harvested. It has been estimated, as late as 1870, over 10 million acres of virgin timber were still standing.

Before the geared locomotive was invented, logging railroads were not practical. Rod-driven engines did not have the traction or turning radius to negotiate rugged mountains. They required level tracks, with gradual curves, laid on substantial and sturdy beds. Building such a track would not have been cost-effective considering the relatively short time it would have been in use. Animal-powered tramroads were much more practical.

There were several types of geared locomotives used in logging operations in West Virginia. Among them were the Shay, the Climax, the Heisler and, to a lesser extent, the Baldwin and the Dunkirk. The most popular and widely used was the Shay.

Michigan lumberman Ephraim Shay began looking for a better way to haul logs in the early 1870's. His first engines had upright boilers. The design was changed and the boilers were offset. Compared with a conventional rod-driven locomotive, a Shay was curious looking, especially when viewed from the front. Instead of a symmetrical outline, the offset boilers gave it a distinctive lopsided appearance. There was no cowcatcher, only a coupler. On the right side, just forward of the cab, were three pistons which turned the drive shaft. The drive shaft was on the outside down at wheel level.

Power was transferred to each wheel by reducing bevel gears. Reducing gears gave the Shay its great power. The power went directly to each wheel on the engine and tender. Therefore, if any single wheel turned, they all had to turn, giving the Shay tremendous traction. It was possible for a Shay to climb a 13 percent grade-a vertical rise of 13 feet for every 100 feet of forward travel-more than 20 times the acceptable grade of most mainline railroads.

The turning radius of a Shay was about one-half that of a rod-driven locomotive. It didn't require any ballast for traction and could run on tracks which were little better than the animal-powered tramways used prior to the geared locomotive.

Production of the Shay began in 1880 at the Lima Locomotive Works of Lima, Ohio, and continued until 1945. During the period, 2,761 engines were produced. Over 200 were sold in West Virginia. Some of the larger lumber companies had as many as 12 Shays in operation at one time. Shay engines ranged in size from the small 10-ton 2-truck (a truck is a set of wheels), up to a 3-truck giant weighing 162 tons.

The largest Shay ever used in West Virginia was the famous No.12 owned by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Co. of Cass. Built in 1920, it started out as a 3-truck engine weighing 154 tons. In 1937, it was remodeled in the company shop. A section was added to the water tank, increasing the capacity from 6,000 gallons to 11,000 gallons. Another set of wheels was added to the tender, making it a 4-truck. Now weighing 203 tons, No. 12 was capable of hauling 15 flatcars loaded with logs.

The largest Shay ever turned out at Lima was also the last. Designated No. 6, it was built in 1945 and modeled after old No. 12. It weighed 162 tons and was purchased by Western Maryland Railroad. No. 6 was used for only a few years, then placed in the B & O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. In 1980, it was added to the Cass collection.

The years of production of the Shay roughly parallel the heyday of lumber production in West Virginia. Between 1880 and 1920, 30.5 billion board feet of lumber were cut in the state. Production peaked in 1909 with approximately 1.5 billion board feet and fell off to a little over half a billion by 1920.

In 1911, West Virginia led the nation with over 3,000 miles logging railroad. Today, it's all gone except for 11 miles at Cass.

Cass was one of the last of the big boomtowns of the great logging era. Operation of the two-band sawmill began on February 22, 1902. During the next 58 years, approximately 2 billion feet of timber, consisting of about equal amounts of saw logs and pulpwood, were cut in the mountains around Cass. The population of the town grew to more than 2,000. That figure dwindled to 327 in 1960. On July 1, 1960, the last board was sawed at the mill.

The logging equipment of Cass was in the process of being dismantled and sold for junk. Relics of a bygone era were swiftly being reduced to scrap. Russel Baum of Sudbury, Pennsylvania, a railroad and nostalgia buff, pleaded with the West Virginia legislature to appropriate the money to save this part of the state's colorful past from oblivion and turn it into a park. The legislature came up with $150,000 for the Department of Natural Resources to purchase 11 miles of track and a 60-ft. right-of-way, three Shay engines, flatcars, machine shop and various other pieces of equipment. The purchase was made in the spring of 1962.

Flatcars were converted to covered passenger coaches. Needed repairs and restoration were done during the winter of 1962-63. On June 15, 1963, Cass Scenic Railroad State Park opened for business. Since that time, hundreds of thousands of people have taken the ride up the mountain for a glimpse of an era that is long gone.

Cass Railroad offers daily trips between Memorial Day and Labor Day. There are Special Fall Foliage runs offered September through October. These require reservations. Each Saturday during the summer, the railroad's very popular Dinner Train features a ride up to Whittaker Station for an old fashioned barbecue and some bluegrass music. Reservations required. On the last Saturday of October, the Halloween Train departs for Whittaker Station. Riding on the train will be unearthly beings who dispense treats and tell ghost stories. Appropriate costumes are encouraged. Reservations and a strong heart are required.

For more information call (304) 456-4300 or 1-800-CALL-WVA. You can go online and get the complete schedule at www.cassrailroad.com.


The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, Inc., has three excursion trains which will transport you into the beautiful, remote recesses of Pocahontas and Randolph Countries, where you can see for yourself "The Wild Heart of West Virginia". One train is an old restored relic of the state's logging past. One is a traditional looking passenger train. The third looks a little weird.

When you see the Cheat Mountain Salamander, the first thought that goes through your mind is, "Where's the rest of the train?!" Then you find out you are looking at it. It's a single car. The Salamander is a replica of a 1922 Edwards Railway Motor Car built new in 2000. It is self-propelled by a gasoline motor instead of being towed by a separate engine.

The train is named after a little reptile found only in a 900 square mile area of West Virginia. It was discovered on White Top Mountain in Randolph County in 1935 and placed on the endangered species list in 1989.

Passengers have a choice of one or two 3-hour trips from Salamander headquarters at a lonely river crossing known as Cheat Bridge. Those going downstream are treated to a view of the "High Falls of the Cheat" where the waters take an 18 ft. plunge over the falls. If you take the trip upstream, you can explore the ghost town site of Spruce, and abandoned logging village situated in a high altitude meadow. It was at Spruce on December 30, 1917, that the unofficial low temperature for West Virginia of 47 degrees below zero was recorded.

Some of the highlights along the Salamander's route are traveling on two of the sharpest curves on a United States railroad, passing under Coal Rock, climbing up and through the "Big cut", --at an elevation of 4,066 ft., the highest pass on a mainline railroad east of the Mississippi. As you travel along, you will cross Shaver's Fork several times. Southern Living magazine chose this river as one of the four most unspoiled waterways in the United States. Both of the Salamander's routes are entirely within the Monongahela National Forest where fishing and camping sites abound. You can request to be dropped off for a day or overnight. One problem: seating for the return trip cannot be guaranteed. You may be limited to standing room only.

The Salamander's schedule is Saturday and Sunday only, beginning in the middle of April through the middle of May. Then, it is expanded to Thursday through Sunday until November, when it moves back to Saturday and Sunday.

The Durbin Rocket is perfect for those who only want to take a short trip. There are two scheduled trips per day. These are 10 miles and last about an hour and half.

The Rocket is powered by No. 3, a geared logging locomotive built in 1910 by the Climax Manufacturing Company. Purchased by the Moore-Keppel Company of Ellamore, WV, No. 3 spent many years hauling logs out of the virgin forests along the Middle Fork River. The old engine was a rusting hulk when it was rescued from oblivion. It was restored by a group of skilled and knowledgeable railroad buffs and pressed back into service in 2002.

Scheduled runs begin the first week in May and continue through the first week in November.

By the way, when you are in Durbin, stop by the Rail & Trail Store. You'll find the best collection of strange, odd, curious and off-the-wall gifts and souvenirs. While you are there try the "BIG SCOOP" hand-dipped ice cream cone.

The New Tygart Flyer is the premier train of the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad. It offers round trips ranging from 24 to 102 miles. The Flyer is an example of a passenger train from the 1930's and 40's. This very smooth riding train is climate-controlled with large windows, reclining seats and a dinette serving snacks, sandwiches and beverages.

For those who choose to travel first-class, there is the Mardi-Gras observation/lounge car. Amenities include a choice of lounge chairs or table seating, a round-end viewing area and a buffet.

The Flyer's schedule starts in early May and runs through the first week in November. There are at least two special winter events, the Annual Beverly Christmas Train and the Santa Express. Coming up in the winter of 2003, D & GVRR will be expanding its winter schedule to give visitors a look at the mountains blanketed with snow. The trains are heated and there is never a shortage of coffee and hot chocolate. If that sounds interesting, keep an eye on the website. Details will be posted as plans are finalized.

For more information call toll-free 1-877-MTN-RAIL(686-7245) Monday through Saturday, 9am to 5pm or check out www.mountainrail.com