do the locomotive

A ride on the Cass Scenic Railroad goes into the wilds of W. Va.

August 24, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,

CASS, W.Va. - Atop the third highest peak in West Virginia, an eerie whistle snaked its way through the thick birch and spruce trees. The sound echoed from a churning 1945 Shay steam locomotive, the last one ever built.

During the warm months, the 162-ton brute carries hundreds of tourists and a few campers up and down the Cass Scenic Railroad, the former artery of a century-old logging operation in the Allegheny Mountains.

Local residents and railway buffs fought to preserve the line in the 1960s, after a paper company moved on to fresher forests and hired a scrapper to tear up the railroad.

For many who stayed behind, the storybook railroad remains an important source of jobs and a memorial to their ancestors, many of whom scaled the trees or labored in the lumber mills of eastern West Virginia.

For the tourists - who can take day-trips up Back Allegheny Mountain or camp in an antique caboose perched at the end of the line - the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park is an escape.

When you're standing at the railway's peak, hearing only the swirls of the wind, overlooking a valley of bountiful forest and farmland, the place quiets the mind.

"You're sure not going to have any traffic jams in these parts," said train engineer Danny Seldomridge, as he leaned out the locomotive's window, checking the track for hikers.

Seldomridge's father repaired the tracks and locomotives for the old timber operation. Now he is considered the "senior man" on the Cass Scenic Railroad, having steered Shays since 1983.

Two railroad buffs recently drove from Pennsylvania to Cass to ride with Seldomridge, believing he has spent more time at the helm of a Shay than any other man working a railroad today.

Seldomridge, 52, said that in his youth, he wanted nothing more than to leave the hills. But he didn't stay away for long - just one summer in Washington, D.C. - before he grew tired of the city.

"Out here, I can fish and hunt and be laid back," he said. "Everything's better."

Caboose for two

The Cass Scenic Railroad runs from May to October with Seldomridge at the helm for every trip. My fiance, Eric, and I visited in early summer, driving five hours from Baltimore to Cass and spending two nights in a caboose perched on the side of a mountain.

Conductors used to haul the steel, World War II-era car to the end of the 11-mile line and then unhitch it for every overnight stay. Now, they park it at about 4,800 feet above sea level for the entire season.

Inside the red caboose are three bunks, a kitchen table, refrigerator, coal-heated stove and metal basin for washing dishes. Clean latrines with toilet paper and hand soap are about 50 yards away. A railroad employee delivered water every day.

Our "front porch" was a wooden platform with a 180-degree view of the Greenbrier River Valley and the Monongahela National Forest.

There, we read, ate meals and listened to folk tunes on a battery-powered radio. Every night at dusk, a lone doe roamed from picnic table to picnic table, chewing on scraps dropped by children riding the train earlier in the day.

At night, we played cards under the glow of lanterns. Before tucking ourselves into our sleeping bags, we peeked out a caboose window and watched thousands of lightning bugs dance.

Railroader's paradise

Will Hairston of Harrisonburg, Va., came to Cass with his teenage son and Boston-based brother for a five-hour day trip up and down the mountain. The train stops twice - at Whittaker Station, a former logging camp, and Bald Knob, the end of the line.

Hairston said his brother is a railroad buff and that Cass is something of a paradise for fans of Shay locomotives, the most widely used geared steam engines in the world.

"It's like a magnet," said Hairston, 47, who grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "Our main purpose in the area was to attend our parents' 50th wedding anniversary, but my brother is such a train fan that we had to tack on a trip to Cass."

The slang term for a Shay locomotive is a sidewinder because its drive shaft rotates on the exposed sides of the engine.

Each Shay was custom-ordered for the route it would work. The train Hairston rode was pulled by No. 6, which was built for transporting coal on the Western Maryland Railroad. But No. 6 hauled coal for only four years before being donated to Baltimore's B&O Railroad Museum and retired.

In 1981, however, the scenic railroad arranged a trade. The State of West Virginia would send the museum Shay No. 1 and another locomotive in exchange for the pristine No. 6.

"The one thing that really impressed me was the sound of the train," Hairston said. "It has this hauntingly beautiful sound. It made me think of times past, and how people heard that train whistle when the mail arrived or they needed a ride somewhere else."

Turning to tourism

During the final days of the logging operation, railway fans had already begun visiting Cass, among them Russell Baum, a well-traveled sporting-goods distributor from Pennsylvania.

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