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Cass Scenic Railroad fuels family traditions

By John Gibb

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - One and a half tons of coal equals 3,000 pounds.

That is what's needed to fuel Shay No. 4 on a round-trip excursion from the Cass Scenic Railroad depot to Whittaker Station, nearly an eight-mile trip.

Chris Lambert, 29, of Spruce Knob, is charged with the task of placing coal into the steam engine's firebox, a job he has done for six years. He doesn't have special machinery, he uses a shovel and does it all by hand.

"It's a tough job," Lambert said. "Some of my co-workers joke with me saying I have the strongest arms."

Lambert is one of several firemen employed by the Cass Scenic Railroad in Pocahontas County. The men toss coal into the train's firebox, which then heats water that turns into steam. The steam's pressure is introduced into the engine's cylinders, which pushes the pistons and turns the wheels.

It is a hard job but it has been done since the early 1900s when the timber industry was dominant in the state. The West Virginia Pulp and Paper Co. owned the railroad from 1927 to 1942, acquiring timber that would eventually become paper -- paper used for publications such as the Saturday Evening Post. At that time, West Virginia had more than 3,000 miles of track used for logging purposes.

Today, only 11 miles of track remain and are situated in the Cass area.

No logging takes place here anymore. Logging by truck has become more cost-efficient,  forcing all of the state's logging-railroad lines to shut down.


By 1963, the Cass rail lines had not been used for years and nothing had been done with the property. There were four men who thought the property could possibly be a tourist attraction - "Bus" Long, J.M. "Jack" Kane, Ted Riffe and Russell Baum.

Norris Long, son of "Bus" Long, of Marlinton said his father wanted to get the trains running again and lobbied the Legislature to acquire the tracks and equipment.

In 1963, the state Senate approved the purchase of the track and equipment and to be converted into a tourist attraction. The state also later acquired the city of Cass.

On June 15, 1963 at 10:30 a.m., Shay No. 4 left the depot on the railroad's first official run as a tourist destination. Shay No. 4 was built in 1922 and has the distinction of pulling the last log train at Cass on June 30, 1960, as well as pulling the first excursion train for the Cass Scenic Railroad in June 1963. 'Serenity and coolness'

Cass is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

"I rode on the first run in 1963," Long said. "I was 16 years old at the time and I'm here 50 years later, representing the memory of my father and his involvement that led to the creation of the Cass Scenic Railroad."

When the first run left the depot, it traveled to Whittaker Station, an old logging site. Ben Dickens, first superintendent of Cass, said the site only had a two-hole outhouse and a couple picnic tables in 1963. Today, the site has dozens of picnic tables, a concession stand, restrooms, a lookout tower and a caboose that can be rented out for overnight visits.

A few years later, the track was extended and visitors could ride the train to Bald Knob, the third highest point in the state. The journey to Bald Knob takes more than four hours and covers 22 miles round trip. Many go there for the scenic overlook, including Kristi Frank, 36, of Munich, Germany.

Frank has been coming to Cass with her father, John Baker, 58, of Charleston, for 33 years. She comes to the United States once or twice a year and each visit always involves a trip to Cass.

"We pretty much know everybody that works here," Frank said. "We enjoy the serenity and the coolness of the mountains. It's pretty neat that we can see the Greenbank Telescope atop of Bald Knob, as well as a variety of wildlife. We also enjoy the connection to history that Cass has."

Frank likes to take part in some of Cass' murder-mystery and dinner excursions. She said the dinner train, which is offered on select Saturdays, takes people to Whittaker Station to enjoy a meal and music by a local band. The murder-mystery rides are offered near Halloween and consist of performers who act out a murder-mystery while on the train.

Baker said each trip he and his daughter takes is fascinating.

"The people here are fantastic," Baker said. "I love the sounds of the whistle that the train makes. If you listen closely, you will notice that each engineer has a different whistle.  I guess you would have to ride the train often to notice that."

An important chapter

The park has welcomed more than 2.5 million visitors since 1963. During the 50th anniversary ride to Whittaker Station on Saturday, Division of Natural Resources Director Frank Jezioro and State Parks Chief Ken Caplinger spoke about the importance of the railroad.

"A lot of history surrounds what we're doing here today," Jezioro said. "It provided jobs, and a lot of wealth was taken out of West Virginia on these trains -- timber and coal."

Jezioro read a statement from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin about the tradition of the early 20th century logging-railroad and the importance it has to tourism in the region.

Caplinger said nine superintendents have served Cass since 1963 and applauded the staff for a job well done over the past 50 years. He thanked Delegate William Hartman for his involvement.

"If it weren't for Delegate Hartman and the work he has done to secure funding for the Cass Scenic Railroad, we would struggle otherwise, Caplinger said. "This train was an important chapter in our country's past and I hope there is a 100 year anniversary celebration 50 years from now."

Scott Fortney, current superintendent of Cass, said his staff wanted to redo the original run that was done 50 years ago.

"This is an unique place," Fortney said. "We are preserving history and that's a good thing."

Fortney said the locomotive engines are put into the shop every seven years for a thorough cleaning but are washed out every 30 days.

To avoid having to go all the way around a mountain to gain altitude, the Cass Scenic Railroad has switchbacks that make it easier for the train to negotiate steep inclines. For instance, the train's conductor jumps off the train at the switchback to switch the direction of the track.

At a switchback, the train's engines will reverse roles -- sometimes it pushes the train and other times it pulls.

Monica Fleming, commentator for the 50th anniversary run, has been employed at Cass for eight seasons. She said the train has four brakemen on board. Brakemen are responsible for operating the manual brakes on the way down the mountain.

"Brakemen have difficult jobs," Fleming said. "Each car of the train has its own braking system and each brakemen has the responsibility of manually stopping or slowing the train when needed."

Carolyn Grueser of Pomeroy, Ohio, was celebrating her 71st birthday the same day as the anniversary run Saturday. She and her husband have been bringing their grandson since he was 5 years old. Although he is 21 now, they still enjoy riding the train.

"The railroad industry runs deep in my family," Grueser said. "My grandson enjoys learning the history behind the Cass Scenic Railroad. We will continue to visit Cass for years to come."

Contact writer John C. Gibb at or 304-348-4872.

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