Festival Opens Today
Cass Holds Rich Place In W. Va.'s 125 Years
June 17, 1988
Festival Opens Today
Cass Holds Rich Place In W. Va.'s 125 Years
Editor's Note: The Cass Railroad Festival opening today marks the 25th annsiversary [sic] of the town of Cass and the 125th birthday of the state of West Virginia. The following article about the early history of Cass has been edited from an article by Mark Smith and Dr. George Deike.
Cass's history follows the evolution of several lumbering operations that populated this Pocahontas County valley under the auspices of the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company. The sawmill in Cass, victimized by fire and now in ruins, was a symbol of the driving economic force in this region until the middle of this century.
John Killoran in his book, Cass Collection, wrote that the mill operation was enormous during its heyday of 1922 to 1935. It ran two 11-hour shifts six days per week, cutting 125,000 board feet of lumber each shift - an impressive million and a half feet of lumber per week. The Cass mill also had drying kilns using 11 miles of steam pipe to dry 360,000 board feet of lumber on each run.
The adjoining planing mill was three stories high, measuring 96 by 224 feet. Massive elevators carried up to 5,000 feet of lumber to the separate floors and machines. Some flooring machines were so big that it took 15 men to operate them. Two resaws, large surfacing machines that finished all four sides of a board in one operation, could accommodate boards up to 35 feet long.
Dr. Roy Clarkson, in Tumult on the Mountain, estimated that in 40 years, the Cass mill and the mill at nearby Spruce turned more than 2.25 billion feet of timber into pulp or lumber. Each morning the C&0 dispatched a 44-car pulpwood train to the paper mill at Covington, Virginia. At its peak, West Virginia Pulp and Paper employed approximately 3,000 men. In an average week, six to 10 carloads of food and supplies traveled over the railroad to 12 logging camps. Indeed, the ruined mill is a symbol and is a reminder of a past resplendent with human achievement. But the story of the mills is also a story of the rails that linked the mills with the timber in the nearby mountains.
By the turn of the century, lumbermen eyeing the large tracts of virgin timber on both sides of Cheat fountain west of Cass decided to route the raw timber east through a mountain gap. An interchange between the Greenbrier and Elk River Railroad at Cass and the C&O was most economical, but it called for the difficult task of building a mountain railroad.
In 1900, Samuel Slaymaker, a Pennsylvanian, set up a construction camp at the mouth of Leatherbark Creek, the present site of the Cass railroad shops. He and his men pushed the rails up Leatherbark Creek, gaining altitude by constructing switchbacks. A camp named Spruce was established more than halfway up the mountain with no access except by rail.
In about 1904, more than a mile of track was built from Old Spruce to a new town on Shavers Fork of Cheat River, also called Spruce. At an altitude of 3,853 feet, Spruce became the highest town in the eastern United States. From there, loggers gained access to vast acreage of timber. The track ran another 35 miles west and north to the town of Bergoo and north 65 miles to Cheat Junction, where it interchanged with the Western Maryland Railroad. Spruce became the hub of the rail empire. The main lines, Cass to Spruce, Spruce to Bergoo, and Spruce to Cheat Junction, were 82 miles long. During the 1920's many miles of branch lines were built, but because of frequent adding and discarding of lines, not all 250 total miles of track were in use at one time.
At Spruce, a large pulp and peeling mill was constructed. Billions of board feet passed through Spruce and eventually went over the mountains behind big Shay locomotives.
After 1905 the railroad went through a succession of name changes. The Greenbner & Elk River became the Greenbrier, Elk & Valley Railroad in 1909, only to become the Greenbrier, Cheat & Elk Railroad (GC&E) in 1910. This quick succession of names reflects the early permutation so characteristic of a young and booming logging empire.
Actually, these name changes are misleading because West Virginia Pulp and Paper (WVP&P) owned and operated the entire lumber operation from its beginnings. The original lumber company was West Virginia Spruce Lumber Company, set up by West Virginia Pulp and Paper to develop the Cass property. (WVP&P) bought its own West Virginia Spruce operation in 1910, the year the railraod [sic] also became a common carrier.
In 1927, The Greenbrier, Cheat and Elk Railroad merged with the Western Maryland Railroad; long log trains still rumbled along their old routes but now in the company of massive Western Maryland locomatives [sic] pulling coal trains. On the tortuous Elk River branch, WM used up to 10 locomotives per train to contend with three percent grades and five-to-six degree curves.
____ began to die with declining availability of pulp logs. The peeling mill ceased operations in 1925. By 1945, the town was an isolated helper station on the Western Maryland line. After World War II, helpers were discontinued and Spruce became a ghost town. Today, all that remains is crumbling concrete slabs, rubble and a single railroad track, a point of interest for touring all-terrain bicyclists.
By 1940, the Cass mill production began to slide. First-growth virgin timber had been cut, and most of the pulp was gone. West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co. was now Westvaco, a world-wide paper manufacturer that was phasing out sawmill production. The company sold the sawmill at Cass in 1942 to Edwin Mower.
Mower Lumber Co. planned to cut second-growth timber on the Cass side of Cheat Mountain. Tracks were relaid into old logging areas. Huge steam skidding machines were rigged to the hillsides and knobs, bringing logs to the rail line. But second- growth could not feed the mighty mill for long. By 1950, the sawmill worked only one shift. The big four-truck Shay engines languished on sidelines while three worn and tired 70-ton Shays, Numbers One, Four, and Five, were assigned to the mountain.
With Edwin Mower's death in 1956, family members were unable to keep the operation going. The picturesque and antiquated mill ceased operations abruptly on July 1,1960. Three months after the mill closed, a New York company purchased all assets, including the Town of Cass and the railroad. A scrap dealer was subcontracted to dismantle the line. It seemed that the logging town and its. railroad had reached a bitter end, but other forces were at work.
In August 1960, Russell Baum, a Pennsylvania railfan, initiated an effort to save the railroad. He reasoned that the Shay locomotives and the logging track could become a big tourist attraction. A small number of state businessmen and rail enthusiasts, in spite of opposition, formed the Cass Planning Commission, and before the end of the year, the governor signed a bill bringing Cass into the state parks system.
But an old logging railroad doesn't become a tourist line overnight. It took until 1963 to get Shay engines Number One and Four into working order and a few flat cars equipped with safety rails and benches. The first year of operation proved all skeptics wrong. Twenty-three thousand people flocked to this remote rnountain town and its backwoods logging railroad. In 1987, approximately 77,000 people rode the trains to Whittaker Station and Bald Knob. State park officials say they expect to top 100,000 in the park's 25th anniversary year.
Dr. Deike is a logging historian, railfan, and resident of Cass. Smith is publisher of Locomative [sic] and Railroad Preservation magazine.
Parks and Recreation