Experience West Virginia’s Railroad and Logging Heritage at Cass Scenic Railroad
Taking a trip to Cass Scenic Railroad State Park is a full-body experience that stimulates all five senses. See stunning mountain scenery as you travel through the forest. Listen to the engineer blow the whistle and hear the chug of the engine and the squeal of the brakes. Smell the smoke from the coal-fired, steam-powered engine. Taste the “hobo” sack lunch (look out or you might even taste the coal ash!). Feel the power of the Shay locomotive engine as it climbs grades as steep as 12%. Cass Scenic Railroad offers scenic train rides May through October with trips up the mountain to a recreated logging camp and one of the highest peaks in West Virginia.
Cass was founded in 1899 when the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company purchased over 67,000 acres of red spruce forest along the Greenbrier River to supply its paper-making business in Covington, Virginia. The company then built a lumber mill which operated from 1900 to 1960, and the community grew and declined with it. Visitors can see many of the surviving community buildings including the Company Store, a Hotel, Methodist Church, and Masonic Lodge. The Company Store is open to the public as a gift-shop. People can also visit the Last Run Restaurant, a museum, and an artist co-op. You can even stay overnight in a restored company house!
Passengers can take two train trips. The Whittaker Station trip is a 2 hour ride that stops at Whittaker Camp #1, a recreated logging camp that shows a glimpse of a worker’s life around 1946. At its height the company employed 3,000 workers, mostly immigrants who did not speak English. Whittaker Station also has a concession stand with snacks and drinks.
The Bald Knob trip is a 4 and a half hour ride all the way to the top of the mountain. Enjoy lunch on board and take in the beautiful views at the Bald Knob overlook. At 4,700 feet this is one of the highest accessible peaks in all of West Virginia. That’s the highest train ride you can take east of the Rocky Mountains. Each trip to Bald Knob uses about 4 tons of coal and 6,000 gallons of water. This excursion gives you a chance to see both the Bald Knob overlook and the Whittaker Camp.
On both rides passengers get to see the steam-powered Shay locomotives in action. Shay engines are what made the logging industry in West Virginia possible. Other engines were unable to climb the steep curves of the area’s hills and mountains. The Shay locomotive is an all wheel drive, geared-engine with pistons one one side that move up and down, rather than left and right. Over 2700 Shay locomotives were built by the Climax, Lima, and Heisler companies and used all over the country, but Cass is home to several Shay locomotives that are still operating (the most in the world). This includes Shay #5 which has been in Cass for 114 years, making it the oldest operating Shay engine in the world.
The red spruce forests around Cass were said to be so dense that you needed a lantern to see, even in daytime. But these massive trees were quickly removed. The combined innovations of the Shay locomotive, band saws, and log skidders meant that the Cass mill could produce up to 125,000 board feet of lumber a day. Unfortunately this also meant that the red spruce forests were being depleted faster than they were being restored and by the 1930s many of West Virginia’s red spruce forests were completely gone. Many residents moved elsewhere to find work and the mill eventually closed in 1960. In 1961 the State of West Virginia purchased the town of Cass and it was converted into a state park in order to preserve its history. The park opened to the public in 1963 and in its first year of operation Cass Scenic Railroad State Park saw over 20,000 visitors. Today that number has grown to over 3 million.
Cass Scenic Railroad has been operated by the Durbin & Greenbrier Railroad since 2015. For reservations visit mtn-rail.com or call 304-636-9477. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 season has been delayed until July 4th.