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The magic of the mountains is brought up-close and personal on board one of the region’s scenic excursion trains. The sounds are unique, as are the vistas, the palpable sense of history, and conductors who love their work.
Cass chugs along like yesteryear never went up in smoke.
The railroad’s antique engine burns coal. And, in open-air cars, hundreds of passengers a day rely on the century-old ingenuity of that Shay No. 5 locomotive, built in the days when the Cass Scenic Railroad was a logging line in the early 1900s.
Consider Cass a classic. This recreational railroad runs along rhododendron, firs and ferns, dodging deer in the leafy woods of West Virginia. It slips around scenic views, braving switchbacks, with bells and whistles, huffing and puffing, beyond the reach of roads.
“And it’s always an amazing view up here,” the 20-year-old conductor, Chris Varner, says while his train steadily gains elevation. “In the fall, you see orange leaves—billions and billions of orange leaves. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Along the way, the 11-mile trip from Cass to Bald Knob pauses at a flag stop. Here, the tracks from Cass come close to the path of the Cheat Mountain Salamander, a passenger run from Elkins, pulled by a diesel engine. At this point, a few folks change trains on a connection called “Wild Heart of West Virginia.” They go from Cass to Elkins, or vice versa. And crews carry lunches from one train to another.
Shortly again, Cass starts steaming—onward and upward, continuing a journey that rolls from a 2,452-foot elevation in the restored company town called Cass to a perch of more than 4,800 feet above sea level. At that point, atop the third-highest peak in West Virginia, the ride halts at the end of the line and overlooks Bald Knob’s stubby-log lookout tower, offering a fantastic view of the valley below.
Clocks and calendars cannot control Cass.
Cell phones and messaging do not work on Bald Knob. And, up here, that forces folks to return to true communication—like talking, face-to-face, and smiling as you pass.
Over a long weekend, I board train after train in West Virginia—with names like Mountain Explorer and the Durbin Rocket.
“So, you’re riding five trains in three days?” Cass conductor Chris Varner asks me. “You’re riding all the trains we’ve got.”
Well, almost. There’s yet another I didn’t see: the Polar Express that seasonally runs north of Elkins on yet more tracks. Still, I’m taking trains on virtually all the lines operated by the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, which contracts with the West Virginia State Rail Authority to provide rides in the Mountain State.
It’s a network that is growing—and changing, too. Over the past year, train operations at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park have been leased to the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad.
“Everything is still a state park,” says Cass’s park manager, Scott Fortney. “But the state doesn’t have to worry about the day-to-day commitments of operating the trains. So we focus on the town part, evening activities and remodeling the houses.”
This 900-acre state park includes rows of company homes, bordered by a boardwalk. Several are available for overnight rentals.
“Cass is one of those places that we don’t want to lose because of the history,” says Tammy Caloccia, a specialist at the Cass Visitors Center of the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You can get on that train ... and that engine is only five years younger than this town—and still on the same track that it was built for.”
Trains hauled the first logs out of Cass in 1901. Business boomed. And generations of families thrived in this mill town named for Joseph Cass, a cofounder of the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company.
“The mill is what brought everything in here. If it wasn’t for the mill, you wouldn’t have the railroad,” Fortney says. “And if it wasn’t for the mill and the railroad, you wouldn’t have the town.”
When the mill shut down in 1960, it appeared Cass would be lost. Only, that’s when public outcry culminated in a campaign. Soon, the state acquired the town—and its tracks. Not long after, Cass Scenic Railroad State Park was born.
Today, the original depot at Cass has been replaced by a replica. The old mill was also lost to fire. But the town remains intact, Fortney says.
“And, to me, it’s about a trip back in time. You can ride the railroad. You can experience what life was like back in the ‘30s. And you can do it by day—and by night.”
By night, I’m back on the train. With the moon rising above the thick forests of Pocahontas County, I join about a dozen other passengers on the Night Ride to Whittaker. It’s a quick cruise from Cass that is essentially the same ticket as the ride to Bald Knob, except that it only goes about half as far.
It is also dark.
Yet set against the black-and-blue sky, this night ride packs a visual symphony of steam clouds, funneling out of the old Shay No. 4 smokestack.
Pushing uphill, the Shay sounds like a drum roll—or, perhaps, even a metallic giant beating on its chest. Sometimes it appeared to be struggling to maintain its heartbeat of steam and steel. But it also seemed like a confident man on the march —pushing, but with its heart pounding, rolling on adrenalin.
“I-think-I-can, I think-I-can, I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can ...”
At Whittaker, the Shay stopped.
It stood at rest.
Yet it also sounded like it was panting, exhaling with a heavy rhythm.
Poof! Hiss. Poof! Hiss.
“I always tell people to sit back and listen,” Caloccia says. “At nighttime, you hear more of the sounds. You’re listening to the engine work.”
The metal clanks with “tinks” and “tings.”
Other passengers disembark to see what waits in Whittaker: a display of vintage buildings and equipment, recreating a logging town of the 1940s.
Yet I stood in silence, still a witness to the Shay—sighing, like the old engine was trying to catch its locomotive breath.
On the next night, I meet Lars Byrne, the formally dressed conductor on the Mountain Explorer Dinner Train. Byrne wears a navy-blue jacket, tie and a black hat with gold trim. When I ask this middle-aged man to sum up his railroad experience, his trackside tale adds this year to that. He says he’s been both a volunteer and an employee. Then he counts more time as a conductor and inserts an instruction, saying, “You’ll have to do the math.”
The Mountain Explorer Dinner Train overlooks the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. Taking off from Elkins, it’s a four-hour excursion that is often sold out when it’s offered on Saturday nights in August and September. The train sneaks through a tunnel and closely files past rock cuts.
“It’s a smooth ride,” says Walt Sobolak, who boarded the train with his wife, Tammy Sciulli.
By day, you can take this same route and have lunch on the Tygart Flyer. But, at night, the wait staff dresses up to serve dinner with wine, tea, coffee, fruit and dessert plus salad, potatoes and big portions of prime rib or tilapia.
“This is the nicer of the trains. And I come on board at Elkins,” Byrne says. “I’m not on the train in the morning—fueling it, cleaning the toilets or any of that kind of stuff. So I have the opportunity to not do a whole lot and get dirty and stuff—and wear the uniform.”
The Mountain Explorer stops at the High Falls of the Cheat River, a 150-foot-wide drop in the Monongahela National Forest. Passengers point cameras at the falling waters. But the train stops here for more than sightseeing: The rail cars are 85 feet long, Byrne says, and that bend ahead of the falls is 33 degrees. “So it is too tight a curve for the long cars.”
Byrne sets the train’s brakes with a precision point that relies on teamwork. He relays instructions to his crew by radio. But, on this night, that mark is missed, initially, and the train must be moved about two-and-a-half-feet while the passengers wait for a couple of minutes.
This is tough work. Yet Byrne relishes the action, even as he breathes heavy while walking up hill, checking details. Exhaling, he sounds a bit like the Shay at Whittaker. But, hey—who’s to say that hard-working conductors are any different than those hard-working engines?