This isn’t a travel blog, because well, we don’t travel much.
All our time is spent up, here in this place, and there’s no time left for somewhere else.
But for an early Christmas present Pedro and Olivier got us tickets for the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in Cass, West Virginia. And it was so much fun, you, dear reader, get to hear about it, see photos, and then, ahem, make plans to travel there yourselves. (In the spring. Although I’m told the same railroad line operates a Polar Express tour in November and December and they are already sold out for this year…)
It was a wild and wonderful day in late October in the wild and wonderful mountains of Pocahontas County, West Virginia. 60% of Pocahontas County is State or National land, and we took so many photos both our cameras died…
The Cass Scenic Railroad State Park is about 45 minutes east of Elkins WV. There are several scenic railroad trips one could take on this Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad; the old Cass logging train up the mountain to Whittaker Station is just one. The Cass logging train has been going up Cheat Mountain since 1901 when the line was first built. Shay Locomotive #5 is the second oldest steam engine in the country.
We got our tickets at the station and headed up to the logging museum to wait for the train.
The old company houses in the town of Cass have been renewed, and are now for rent to folks who would like to spend time hiking, kayaking, and exploring. Eight rivers have their headwaters in the mountains of Pocahontas County: the Cheat and the Greenbrier are the largest.
We couldn’t miss hearing the train come into the station. There’s just something about about those long slow train whistles.
On the way up to Whittaker Station, the train goes over two mountain roads, marked with nothing but a stop sign, and train crossing warnings. Of course, long blasts of the train’s whistle are a good warning too.
As you travel up the mountain in the coal-fired steam engine, the train is alternately pulled and pushed by the locomotive. There are two switchbacks; the train backs into them, with the guidance of a switchman, and then the train chugs off again, this time pulling the cars.
The switchbacks are for power. These Shay locomotives go up the mountain on an 11% grade. Today’s train tracks are considered steep if the grade is 2%. These locomotives are the same steam engines that are used in the mountains of British Columbia, but they were retrofitted to use West Virginia coal.
For one trip up the mountain, the locomotive uses one ton of coal to produce the steam. The coal is shoveled by hand by the fireman, just like it always was.
The scenery was spectacular and what a thrill it was to be riding in an open car up a steep grade with the train chugging on the rails and blasting its whistle and the coal cinders flying in your eyes. :-) It was cold, too. Snow and ice covered the tops of Bald Knob and nearby mountains.
You can also take the full tour up to Bald Knob (and even spend the night in a rustic caboose). At 4700 feet it is the third highest point in West Virginia.
We were glad to disembark at Whittaker Station for coffee and hot chocolate. Did I mention it was cold in the mountains?
The entire time we were on the train, I kept humming to myself “Life Is Like a Mountain Railway” a great old bluegrass gospel tune. Even the the wheels on the tracks kept the beat.
I wish I’d gotten a photo of the train stopping to fill up with water, but both of our phones had died by then. When we got back to the station, we checked out the Company Store and bought old fashioned root beer barrel candy; we stopped at the West Virginia Artisan Shop; and we had an early dinner of homemade chicken noodle soup and pulled pork sandwiches at the Cafe. While we were eating, the bluegrass band Donna Ulisse and the Poor Mountain Boys was tuning up for a hurricane relief concert.
It was a lovely day, and as we were going home over Cheat Mountain, the skies proclaimed glory with this fiery sunset.