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Riding The Rails in the Blue Ridge: Cass Scenic Railroad
Going to Bald Knob ranks as the most popular run at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, a unique attraction in West Virginia where passenger excursions roll on tracks once used for logging in the early 1900s.
Over the 11 miles that connect Cass to Bald Knob, the elevation climb equates to about a half-mile. And here, rather than being pulled with an engine at the front of the train, the railroad cars are actually pushed by an antique Shay locomotive.
It appears to be a tough rise. So, at times, the Cass crew uses water from the engine to lubricate the rails. Still, if they need more traction, the crew simply blows a little sand on the tracks.
Excursion trains started running in 1963, just a few years after the company mill at Cass, West Virginia, shut down in 1960, changing life forever for families in Pocahontas County.
"My granddad worked in the mill,” says a Cass track supervisor, Wayne Cassell. “Then he went to work as a fireman on the train, and Dad was a conductor.”
Working on the train has since proven a family tradition for the relatives of Cassell, who first started working at the state park as a track laborer in 1984, just about the time he graduated high school. "My uncle was a conductor," Cassell says. "And another uncle was a track supervisor."
ALONG THE WAY, the train from Cass to Bald Knob passes Whittaker, the site of a logging camp. On shorter runs, the train runs simply from Cass to Whittaker.
Back in town, a hulking, old building houses the Last Run Restaurant and the Cass Company Store. A museum shows a 20-minute movie. Nearby, company homes can be rented for overnight lodging through the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park.
"People make the mistake and think this was a coal-mining town because we're West Virginia and they think automatically - coal mining," says Tammy Caloccia, a tourism specialist at the Cass Visitors Center of the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But we never had coal here. Any coal we had here is what they would bring in here for the railroad."
The Cass Scenic Railroad is only one train operated by the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad. Others in West Virginia include the Tygart Flyer and Cheat Mountain Salamander, both taking off from Elkins.
Between Cass and Elkins, you can also find the Durbin Rocket, a slow-moving but fun train that rolls down a scenic path along the Greenbrier River.
Coming back to town after an 11-mile, round-trip ride, the bell on the Durbin Rocket rings as the train arrives at the tiny Durbin Depot, a small structure painted yellow with white trim and featuring a tiny chimney popping out of its center. The brakes exhale a giant sigh.
Riding The Rails in the Blue Ridge: The Durbin Rocket
ACROSS THE MOUNTAINS OF THE SOUTH, excursion trains operate on various tracks - from Romney, West Virginia, to Stearns, Kentucky.
North Carolina boasts rides on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad at Bryson City while the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway operates at Blue Ridge, Georgia.
Steam trains are big attractions to theme parks like Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and at Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. In fact, Dollywood was once called Rebel Railroad, and it got its start in 1961 by the same family that opened Tweetsie Railroad in 1957.
Look for passenger rides across Tennessee at Etowah, Knoxville and Oak Ridge as well as the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga.
While in Chattanooga, you'll also find the unique Lookout Mountain Incline Railway. Here, the run includes 72.7 percent grade at the steepest part of the track. "If you're thinking about it on a 90-degree scale, with 90 degrees straight up and down, we're not too far from that," says conductor Cody Pace says. "If you tried taking this railroad bed on a bicycle you would not get too far, just because of the steepness of the grade. Going downhill? You would definitely catch some speed."