|August 2, Monday: What an exciting day – and it was all about roads. The only thing we had to do today was drive from Beckley to Cass. Today we really knew we were back in the hills of WV. We started out on I-64 and coming into Sandstone we hit a huge cut in the mountain that included a 5.5 mile 7% down grade. That’s a long hill. I’m glad the truck is a six speed with a jake brake. That means that Larry doesn’t have to use the truck brakes as much.
From there we headed north on US 219. That’s a small two laner that is curvy and winds up the sides of the mountains. It surely kept Larry on his toes with no time to get bored with driving. On this road we hit hills with a 9% grade. Going up and down the mountains we’d go from an inside curve to an outside curve just tilting first one way and then the other. I’m not sure how steep the curves were banked, but they were mighty steep. I think they wanted to make sure that centrifugal force didn’t throw you off the side of the road. We’ve seen the curves at Daytona Speedway, and they weren’t that high, but definitely more than what we see back home. The day was overcast, and we drove through some of the low lying clouds as we went up the mountains.
We passed through a small town of Hillsboro and noticed a sign that said it was the birthplace of Pearl Buck. Further along we saw an information sign in front of the house where she lived. Pulling a trailer and on a narrow road, it’s hard to pull over every time you want to stop and look at something. We’ve already decided that this is an area we’d like to visit again – this time in the Barracuda.
We had to take an even narrower road from route 219 to the campground that went past Snowshoe, a big ski area. Then we turned onto the campground road which is supposed to be a two way road, but if you met another camper, one of you would have to back up. The campground is probably one of the worst we’ve stayed at as far as improvements with a price that indicated they were the only game in town. The sites are just out in a field and you have to dodge the rocks. But we were glad to be here.
We’re down in a high mountain valley with no satellite service, so no TV for Larry. In addition, there is no cell phone service here or in all of Pocahontas County because of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory not far from here.
After we set up camp, we drove into Cass to reconnoiter and see what’s what for tomorrow. We were just in time for a guided tour of the town, so we did that.
Cass was named for Joseph K. Cass who owned a pulp and paper mill in PA. The Luke family formed the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company and needed massive amounts of red spruce pulp for papermaking in Covington, VA. In 1899, John Luke bought 67,000 acres of mostly red spruce and then built the town around 1901 to house the workers needed for lumbering the spruce. The company store was the largest in the US at one time. You could buy your food, clothes, and even furniture there. Unlike the miners, the company did not own the workers. When the men were on the mountain logging (and they could be gone for 4 – 6 months) the company provided housing and meals and of course their tools.
Mr. Luke was a staunch Presbyterian, but he neglected to buy the land on the other side of the Greenbrier River (and the tracks). So a number of enterprising people built hotels saloons, and … um … other establishments. The main street there was known as Dirty Street. It prospered along with Cass until about 1960 when the logging ceased. The 1985 flood washed away the remains of Dirty Street.
Jim, our guide on the town tour, reminded us that this was logging country, so everything was built of wood. The hotel in town was built in 2 halves with a walkway in between. That way, if a fire started at least half of the hotel would be saved.
Housing for the workers was much better than for miners. The houses were two stories, came with a fuel house (for coal and wood) and a “necessary”, and had electricity when they were built in 1901 as well as a town switchboard for telephone service. By 1921 they had indoor plumbing. They had board sidewalks sort of like you see in the old western towns. All the houses were built the same, but you could go to the scrap pile of seconds lumber and build any addition you wanted to. While the houses for workers might be the same, they did have different sections in town: the white hourly workers were on the hill, immigrants down by the mill, and blacks by the river. Managers, called the “big bugs”, lived on Big Bug Hill. They had homes that were larger and more finely finished. Highest up the mountain of all was the summer home of Mr. Luke. It is a fine house with large wrap around porch. The state is in the process of restoring the house, and we’d love to come back and see it when it’s done. We could look in the big front windows, but that’s all now.
At its height, Cass had a population of 2,000, but the lumber mill closed in 1960 and the population declined so that only about 50 people live here now. The schools were segregated, but by the mid ‘50s there were only 6 students in the black school, so the town decided to integrate the schools, the first in the state to do so.
The town had its own doctor (lovely house that needs to be restored), and he had a separate building that housed his office and there was also a small hospital. Workers paid $.75 per week for all the medical services they needed. Families paid $1.00 per week. Was that considered socialized medicine?
The mayor’s office was over the jail that had 4 cells and could hold 12 prisoners. The last prisoner was incarcerated in 1985.