Cass Scenic Railroad State Park
and the Shay Engine
It's been said that if you ironed West Virginia out flat, it would be bigger than Texas. Much of the state is standing on end, closer to vertical than horizontal. Although it makes whitewater rafting a lot more fun, terrain like this makes just about everything more difficult...exploration, road building, mining and logging, to name a few. Cass Scenic Railroad State Park represents an attempt to document life in an early logging town in the lush forests of northeastern West Virginia.
The first settlers opened sawmills almost as soon as they got here. But, due to the difficult terrain, most of West Virginia's forests were still untouched as late as the 1870's. The coming of the railroads changed all that...as they changed just about everything in America in the late 19th century. With the railroad, it became much easier to get consumer goods to the eastern markets. Also, rapidly expanding towns and cities in the midwest needed building materials, primarily lumber. It was estimated that, in 1870, there were some 10 million acres of virgin timber in West Virginia's mountains.
But, even with the railroad, it was difficult to access this extremely valuable resource. The steam engines of the day were "rod driven," the drive wheels and steam cylinders being connected by rods. Engines of this type did not have the traction necessary to pull steep grades. Like today's powerful diesels, they were limited to grades of 2% or less...that's a climb of two feet for every hundred feet traveled. An additional handicap was the large turning radius required by these engines with their long boilers. Still another drawback was their size and weight, which required a sturdy (and expensive) track bed. Building expensive trackage into timber country was not cost effective considering the short time it would be in use. Up until the development of geared and articulated engines, animal power was remained the only practical way to get logs out of the woods to the sawmills.
That changed when a Michigan lumberman named Ephraim Shay developed an engine with an offset boiler and three pistons which drove a geared driveshaft that transferred power to each wheel of the engine and tender. Power was transferred directly from the pistons to each individual wheel by means of a bevel gear. If one wheel turned, they all had to turn, giving the Shay engine an enormous amount of traction. This tractive effort allowed the Shay engine, fully loaded, to climb a 13% grade...more than 20 times the capacity of most mainline engines!
By building the locomotive in sections, which were connected by U-joints, they gave the Shay a turning radius of under half that of a conventional rod-driven engine. This "articulated" design meant that the Shay could negotiate the steep curves of the logging roads that were previously used as animal-powered tramways. With all that traction, the Shays could be built without any dead weight or ballast, meaning that often weighed less than half as much as a conventional engine. This allowed them to operate safely on the cheaply-built railbeds of the logging roads.
Production of the Shay began in 1880 at the Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio, and continued until 1945. Some 2761 Shays were built with more than 200 of them employed in the West Virginia logging industry. The larger timber companies could have as many as 12 Shays (along with their geared relatives, the Climax and Heisler engines) working at one time. Shays ranged in size from small 10-ton, 4-wheel drive units to giants weighing over 160 tons.
The largest Shay ever built was "old No. 12" which was built in 1921 for the West Virginia Pulp and Paper company in Cass, WV. Originally weighing 154 tons, it was modified in the Cass shops and became a 203 ton monster capable of pulling 15 loaded flatcars up a 12% grade.
The Cass operation had begun in 1902 and had rapidly expanded into a huge logging operation. At first, logs were dragged out of the forest on sleds drawn by teams of horses and mules...an operation known as "skidding." Later, as progress caught up with the logging camps, steam skidders and loaders were used. The power skidder was a huge derrick which was hauled around the woods on rails and could skid all the logs within a 3/4-mile radius. Steam loaders were cranes, mounted on flatcars, which loaded the logs that the skidders had dragged in.
A town of over 2000 grew up around the sawmill, which worked uninterrupted until 1960. As the woods were cleared of trees, the sawmill simply closed up shop. As the equipment was being sold off as junk, Russell Baum, a railroad and nostalgia buff from Pennsylvania, talked the WV legislature into providing funds to save Cass from oblivion and turn it into a park. The West Virginia Dept. of Natural Resourses purchased 11 miles of track, three Shay engines, some flatcars, a machine shop, and various other pieces of equipment. After two years of restoration, the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park opened on June 15, 1963. Since then, hundreds of thousands of visitors have ridden behind the Shays and caught a glimpse of a unique bygone era.
Buoyed with success, the park added several additional engines, including two "West Coast" Shays (they burn oil instead of coal), a Heisler, and a Climax engine. The grand coup came in 1980 when a deal was worked out with the B&O Museum in Baltimore to bring engine No.6 to Cass. No. 6 was the last and largest Shay ever built in the Lima works and had originally worked on the Western Maryland Railroad. After 27 years idling in the museum, No. 6 was put back to work at Cass in 1981 and remains the flagship of the Cass fleet.
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park is undoubtedly the largest and most complete logging museum in the U.S. Just about everybody loves trains and Cass has 'em...lots of 'em. The old Cass Company Store has been refurbished...even down to the old soda fountain. Company houses have been rebuilt so tourists can enjoy a stay in a 1900's-era setting. Get all the info at 1-800-CALL-WVA.