Logging engines still chug up the mountain

Short Hop

April 28, 2002|By Dallas Morning News

In Cass, W.Va., visitors can ride working steam trains to a replica of a logging camp.

Clanking and whirring, a steam locomotive in Cass, W.Va., noses three wagonloads of tourists past a mammoth leaking water tower. The train disappears up a rail incline into the forest. A whistle fit for a full-throated highball locomotive soon echoes through the ravine of Leather-bark Run.

Artie Barkley's baby is taking another trip.

Artie is the 54-year-old shop superintendent of the Cass Scenic Railroad, a state park in the Alleghenies about five hours from Baltimore. Artie has worked around loggers and locomotives since he was a teen-ager. His baby is Cass No. 5, an 80-ton Shay locomotive that came from the Lima, Ohio, factory in 1905 to pull red spruce logs off Cheat Mountain.

The loggers who managed to cheat death on the mountain are gone. The mill, the locomotive shop, the bawdy houses and a few of the company cottages are gone, lost to fire or flood.

But as a visitor, you aren't really sure what's real and what's spectral. Cass is a park that's part ghost town, part Briga-doon. Artie still rules the rebuilt shop, admonishing younger men about the folk wisdom of the forge, the lathe and the steam locomotive.

"The Pepsi generation doesn't know what a logging engineer went through," he mutters.

Lefty Meeks still rules the barbershop, just as he has since 1950.

Before the lumber company quit on Cass, Lefty sometimes would cut hair from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. as West Virginia "woodhicks" came into town after weeks or even months in the logging camps.

"You didn't have to worry about entertainment," Lefty says. "There were three beer joints, a theater, a restaurant across the river. It was pretty lively. Especially when the guys came off the mountain."

A ghost named George is said to walk upstairs at the Cass General Store, a three-story emporium that sold everything from soup to kitchen sinks. Bottled remedies from the 1920s still line the shelves of the store's pharmacy. Photos of floods, families, teamsters and their horses, doctors and their rail carts line the spruce walls.

The stars of the Cass Scenic Railroad are the locomotives, and they, too, are a mix of the living and the dead: cold, rusting hulks and steam-breathing ancients.

Ephraim Shay, a Michigan doctor, inventor and logger, designed a steam engine in 1874 that could crawl up serpentine mountain paths on rails hastily lined along the forest floor. An ordinary steam locomotive could climb no more than two or three feet of incline for every 100 feet of track. Named after the inventor, Shays could climb 7 percent inclines, and the Cass railroad sends them up one stretch at 11 percent.

Shays have three cylinders mounted on a boiler that turn a crankshaft geared at each of the locomotive's wheel sets. All the shafts, linkage, gears and bearings are exposed to the elements, and you have to wonder how Artie can keep any of them going for long.

But where ordinary steam locomotives spent half their working lives in the shop, the logging railroads kept their Shays on the mountain for months at a time.

Day and night, snow and rain, the Shays pulled logs down the mountains. The engineers often did repairs while waiting in the woods.

"There weren't much others to help a man out of there if the engine broke down," Artie says. "You had to keep the boiler up, keep the running gear up, but that's about all you needed. Elsewise, it's a lot of dinging, I call it."

Taking hairpin turns

Riders on the Cass Scenic Railroad leave the depot in passenger cars pushed by a Shay (sometimes two Shays) up the heavily wooded banks of Leatherbark Run. About two miles out, the train takes an unexpected siding to a dead end. A brakeman jumps down to throw a switch, and now the Shays are leading the climb in reverse up a switchback. After a hairpin turn at 2,978 feet, the train goes into another switchback putting the passengers in the lead once more as the journey stops in a clearing called Whittaker Camp.

The Mountain State Railroad and Logging Historical Associa-tion has turned Whittaker into a replica of a logging camp. The camp includes boxcar barracks and a steam-powered skidder that was used to lift logs out of the water.

Hardy riders go on as the train climbs to 4,840 feet and Bald Knob, West Virginia's second-highest peak. This is where the red spruce grew. The tall, straight trees were used mainly for fine paper that went into the pages of Harper's Weekly and other magazines.

Going back down the mountain, the brakemen (and brakewomen) set the shoes tight on the wheels. The Shays have to pull the cars downhill. Usually, brake shoes must be replaced once a month. Artie is annoyed that the latest set needed replacement after 10 days. The round-trip, 22-mile journey to Bald Knob takes 4 1/2 hours, while shorter rides to Whittaker last 1 1/2 hours.

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