Eleven Percent Grade!
Jul 10, 2009
|It takes a Shay Locomotive to climb a hill that steep - Friday, July 10
Today our destination is the historic town of Cass, West Virginia. Cass is 40 miles north of Tea Creek Campground, and the town is famous for it’s logging history. A number of the old company buildings still stand, and several have been restored as it is now a State Park. They also offer a variety of train excursions on the old logging tracks. We’ve explored the history of coal mining here - now it’s time to learn about the timber industry.
We headed north on dry roads. We ran into a little fog, but we were soon out of it, and we reached Cass before noon. All the excursions but one had already gone out, so we signed up for the 2:30 trip to Whittaker Station. We spent the waiting time visiting the refurbished Company Store, and having lunch at the Last Run Café. The Company Store is a huge three story building with a full basement, and they believe it is the largest company store ever built by any industry.
At 1:30 they do a ‘Showcase’ presentation that tells you about the company and it’s history. The show consists of a good video, but the video is shown on screens that overlook a large and very intricate scale model of the town as it looked at the peak of logging operations. A man who helped build the model talks about the town’s history and uses a laser pointer to highlight the buildings he mentions. Electric train models are running on the tracks as he talks, and at one point smoke comes out of the mill smokestacks. The trains are HO gauge, which is half the size of Lionel’s full sized models, and the town is built to the same scale, which is about 1/96. Trains even run at scale speed, so the entire model is very realistic.
Cass’s logging railroad was built in 1901 and it operated until the mill shut down in 1960. At one time there were over 3,000 miles of logging railroad track in West Virginia. Only 11 miles remain, and today we were privileged to ride on four miles of that remaining track. The show was over and it was time to board the train.
This is a two hour round trip that goes up the hill to Whittaker Station, site of an old logging camp that has been partially restored. The train is pushed, and then pulled by a Shay Locomotive, a unique gear driven engine designed specifically for logging use. It has the power necessary to pull heavy loads up steep grades, and since logging operations were constantly moving it is designed to negotiate sharp turns and to operate on often flimsy temporary track.
The gear drive delivers power more smoothly than conventional locomotives, and in addition to the Shay there are similarly designed Climax and Heisler engines in the Cass collection. One of Cass’s Shay engines (Western Maryland #6) is the last one ever built, and at 162 tons it is the largest Shay still in existence. These engines are not only priceless antiques, but they are working artifacts as useful today as they ever were. The open passenger cars used on the trains are converted logging cars, and every piece of equipment on the train is painted and clean and meticulously maintained.
The trip begins with a blast from the steam whistle, and the train starts rolling from the Cass Depot. Coal smoke is black and sooty, and the ride is smooth but slow. While the total mileage each way is only 3.8 miles, time slows down to make the trip seem much longer. The train passes first through the old yards where lumber was stored after it was milled and planed. The mill buildings have not been restored, and they are sad and rusty relics so far gone having been burned in a fire that it is doubtful if they could ever be restored.
Next the train passes the working maintenance shops, and off on a siding there are a number of engines and rolling stock that are also in various states of decay. A precious few will be restored, but the rest are too far gone to restore. From the shops the train starts ascending a grade along Leatherbark Creek. It crosses several roads, and the grade gets gradually steeper as it travels through second and third growth forest. Logging operations began with the spruce, which was logged for it’s value as wood pulp for the paper mills. When the spruce was gone, logging continued with the hardwoods which were used for high quality flooring. Forests were clear cut, and no effort was made to replant them.
Halfway through the trip the train comes to the first of two switchbacks, places where the train passes a switch which is then thrown to allow the train to move in the opposite direction and onto a track that continues up the hill. This operation eliminates the need for long turned switchbacks, and the engine which was pushing from the rear, now pulls from the front.
At a second switchback a downbound train was waiting to pass. This operation required a longer siding so both trains could get by the switch at the same time. From this switchback the grade rose to 8.7 percent. Normal railroad operations consider a 2 percent grade to be steep! Other routes on the Cass railroad have grades as steep as 11 percent, and the Shay locomotive is able to pull them. Over the entire trip the train averages 8 mph.
The train stops for half an hour at Whittaker Station, and here they have several logging cabins, as well as a diesel log loader and a steam operated skidder. The wife of the station manager is on board and she does a walking tour of the logging camp that is very good. Madolyn asked her why the mills shut down in 1960, and she said there were three reasons. The company ran out of timber at this location and would have had to move, truck logging was making rail logging obsolete, and the owner of the company died suddenly.
The trip downhill was considerably faster, as the locomotive didn’t have to pull anything, and brakemen stationed on each car used wheel operated brakes to control the speed of the descent. We arrived at Cass Depot at 4:35 and raced to our RV in hopes of getting to our next destination by 5:00 It was seven miles away, and it is the subject of the next journal page.