The history of the town of Cass follows the evolution of the lumber companies that inhabited the valley and operated the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Mill. Once a symbol of the economic power that drove this valley, the mill building has been victim of two major fires in 1978 and 1982. Now only twisted steel and rusted machinery remain amid the cracking cement. Trees and vines grow in a place where humans once toiled among the machines of lumber and fine wood products production.
The mill operation was enormous during its heyday 1908 to 1922. It ran two 11-hour shifts six days per week, cutting 125,000 board feet of lumber each shift, an impressive 1.5 million 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 of the flooring machines were so big that it took 15 men to operate them. There were two resaws here that could accommodate boards up to 35 feet long. The large surfacing machines finished all four sides of a board in one operation.
Roy Clarkson, in Tumult on the Mountain, estimated that in 40 years the Cass mill and the mill at Spruce turned more than 2-14 billion feet of timber into pulp or lumber. The town of Cass was named for Joseph K Cass (left picture), Chairman of the Board of W.Va. Pulp & Paper Co. Each morning the C&O dispatched a 44-car pulpwood train for the paper mill at Covington. At its peak, West Virginia Pulp and Paper employed between 2,500 and 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 a reminder of a past resplendent with human achievement. But the story of the mill is also a story of the rails that linked that mill with the timber in the nearby mountains.
At the turn of the century lumbermen eyeing the large tracts of virgin timber on Cheat Mountain, west of Cass, decided to route the timber east through a mountain gap and down the steep grade to the planned mill. An interchange between the Greenbrier and Elk River Railroad at Cass and the C&O was most economical but it called for the building of a difficult mountain railroad.
In 1900 Samuel Slaymaker, a timber broker, set up a construction camp at the mouth of Leatherbark Creek (the present site of the Cass shops). He and his hardy men pushed the rails up and along Leatherbark Creek, and gained altitude by constructing two switchbacks. Tracks were laid around the face of the promontory -- up and up along the ridge, winding until at last the rails reached the gap between the mountains. Here a camp named Old Spruce was established.
Around 1904, 1-1/4 miles of track were laid from Old Spruce to Spruce, a new town on the Shavers Fork on the Cheat River. At 3,853 feet, Spruce became the highest town in the eastern United States. From Spruce, the track eventually ran 35 miles south into the Elk River Basin to the town of Bergoo and 65 miles north, along Shavers Fork of Cheat River. 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 1920s there were many miles of branches in use at once, but the total length was probably about 140 miles at maximum. Altogether the logging railroad built about 250 miles of track. At Spruce a large pulp peeling rossing mill was constructed. Billions of board feet of logs passed through Spruce and eventually went over the mountain behind the tanks of big 4 ton Shays like Number 12.
After 1905 the railroad went through a succession of name changes. The Greenbrier & 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 permutations so characteristic of a young and booming logging empire. Actually, all these names changes are a bit 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, set up by West Virginia Pulp and Paper to develop Cass property. WV&P bought (on paper) its West Virginia Spruce operation in 1910. At that time the railroad became a common carrier.
In 1926 merger negotiations were conducted between GC&E and the Western Maryland, which wanted to tap the rich coal reserves of the region. March 3, 1927 saw an agreement reached, and the Western Maryland purchased the 74 miles of north-south mainline between Cheat Junction to Bergoo. Shays were used to pull coal until the line could be renovated to accommodate the massive WM H-8 2-8-0's. Up to 10 locomotives were required to boost the coal loads up the steep grade.
The town of Spruce began to die when the peeling mill ceased operations in 1925. In the early 1930s the town became an isolated helper station on the Western Maryland. With the coming of diesels, all locomotives serving Cass were transferred to Laurel Bank and Spruce became a ghost town; all that is left now is crumbling concrete slabs, rubble and a two-track horseshoe curve of railroad track.
Mower Lumber Company acquired the Cass operation in 1942 to cut second growth timber on Cheat and Back Allegheny. Track was re-laid into old logging areas. Huge steam skidding machines were rigged on the hillsides and knobs, bringing saw logs for the mill on the rail lines. But second growth could not feed the mighty mill for long. By 1950 the operation was in decline. The sawmill worked only one shift; the big four-truck shays languished on sidings while three overworked and tired three-truck Shays, Number 1, 4, and 5, were assigned to the hill.
With Edwin Mower's death in late 1955 family members were unable to keep the operation going. The rail-haul logging operation and bandsaw mill ceased operation abruptly July 1, 1960. Employees were not notified until their shift ended on June 30. That night gloom and despair hung heavy over the town of Cass; it seemed likely that the town would go the way of Spruce. Three months after the mill closed, Walworth Farms (controlled by Peter Grace, a principal of W.R. Grace Co. of New York) purchased all the landholdings and acquired Mower Lumber Company. The town of Cass and railroad was retained by real-estate-oriented offshoot, The Don Mower Lumber Co. A scrap dealer, the Midwest Raleigh Corporation, was subcontracted to dismantle the line. It seemed that the life cycle of the logging town and its railroad had reached its bitter end.
But other forces were at work this time. In late September 1960, a rail fan, Russel Baum of Sunbury, Pa., initiated an effort to save the railroad. Baum reasoned that the Shays and the old logging track could become a big tourist attraction. A small number of local businessmen formed the Cass Planning Commission and state legislators were approached. Skeptical officials initially declined to participate. But when the state legislature's prestigious Joint Committee on Government and Finance took an inspection trip over the former Mower Lumber "railroad to the sky," to Bald Knob, the bureaucratic wheels were set in motion.
During the State Legislature's regular session in early 1961 an appropriation was approved and the governor of West Virginia signed a bill bringing Cass into the state parks system. The Midwest Raleigh Steel Corporation received $125,000 for seven miles of "main line" track from Cass to Old Spruce and four miles of branch line from Old Spruce to Bald Knob. Also included in the agreement were three locomotives, 10 flat cars, four camp cars, three motor cars and other equipment. Work began almost immediately, but an old logging railroad doesn't turn into a tourist line overnight. It wasn't until 1963 that Shays Nos. 1 and 4 were put in working order and safety rails and benches were installed on a few flat cars. Trains went about halfway up Back Allegheny Mountain, above the switchbacks to a pleasant pasture that has since come to be known as Whittaker Station. At that time there was not enough money to fix the tracks the remaining distance to Bald Knob.
The first year of operation was all that was needed to prove the skeptics wrong. Twenty-three thousand people flocked to this remote mountain town and its former back woods logging railroad.
Expansion of Cass continued. The shop, initially leased, was purchased from Mower Lumber Company. In 1966, $800,000 was invested in rehabilitating the line to Bald Knob; the total line was opened in 1968. In 1977, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources acquired the former logging Company properties in Cass. Buildings were repaired and repainted. And by 2010, twenty of the former company houses have been restored and are rented to the public as park cottages. People now have the opportunity to spend their vacation in Cass.
Since 1985, the West Virginia Department of Commerce has proceeded with plans to further develop the historic town. More company houses are being restored for use as cottages. Replica plank walkways have been constructed throughout the town, and white picket fences now surround the cottages.
Possibilities for development for the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park are limitless. The future will bring additional recreational facilities for park visitors, including a campground, hiking trails, and additional interpretive programs.
The people of Cass and West Virginia are deeply rooted in their own expansive and fascinating history -- the history of bold, pioneering men and women who settled this country and built a magnificent logging empire under very difficult circumstances. The spirits of the past were reincarnated in the original visionary and determined supporters of the Cass Scenic Railroad who engaged in the lonely, tough struggle of transforming a tired, worn-out and about-to-be-scrapped logging railroad into a first-rate living museum. Today the spirits of past achievement live on in the men and women who keep a priceless collection of antique steam locomotives running much longer than ever intended, on a railroad that is surely one of the most interesting and challenging in the world.