Morning mist, like a transparent sheath, rose from the green-carpeted Cheat Mountain in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest on that Memorial Day weekend, but the hot sun quickly intercepted it during its gentle ascent, leaving a flawlessly blue sky.
Like a pocket of history, somehow frozen in time, the town of Cass, accessed via curving, mountain-hugging roads and a short, Greenbrier River-traversing bridge, sported its railroad depot, historic buildings, and dual tracks, all cradled by a valley in Back Allegheny Mountain. The tracks themselves, stretching toward and disappearing into a dense forest, Seven Cities Virginia were the very reason for the town and its railroad and also the reason why neither disappeared into history.
Densely covered with virgin forests during the late-19th century, West Virginia ubiquitously sprouted oak, hickory, pine, walnut, and chestnut at its lower elevations and hemlock, spruce, maple, and birch at its higher ones, providing rich lumber resources, with its eight- to nine-foot diameter trees, for the houses, stores, churches, and schools demanded by the state’s increasing population.
Logging, once dependent upon rivers to power sawmills, evolved into a significant industry with the concurrent development of the steam engine and the circular saw, a combination which permitted location anywhere the operation required it, independent of external water power.
Trees were traditionally felled, cut into manageably sized logs, propelled down slopes by means of wooden skids to streams, and transported to mills on log rafts.
Because of the inherent imprecision and danger of the manual skidding method, the Lidgerwood Company of New York designed the first steam-powered skidder, which constituted another logging industry advancement. First used in West Virginia in 1904, the device, featuring a mile of 1 7/8-inch thick cable which extended up to 2,600 feet, was either mounted directly on the ground or atop a rail-provisioned flat car, gripping the log and transferring it from forest to stream in a secure, controlled manner. It significantly increased the capability of the horse-drawn method it often replaced.
Water-born logging rafts, as equally imprecise because of rock, boulder, branch, and rapids obstructions during the summer and ice in the winter, were eventually replaced with steam-operated loaders and logging railroads.
Large band saws, substituting for the earlier, circular device, converted timber into lumber more rapidly, precisely, and efficiently, eliminating needless waste, and had an average daily capability of 125,000 board-feet.
By the late-19th century, West Virginia had become one of the country’s largest lumber producers, more than one hundred railroads transporting raw timber to mills for cutting and processing before being shipped for sale as a finished product. Peaking in 1909, the industry cut some 1,473 million board feet of lumber per year.
One of the most major logging operations had been the West Virginia Spruce Lumber Company. Founded in 1899 when John G. Luke acquired more than 67,000 acres of red spruce in West Virginia, it was a subsidiary of the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company located in Covington, Virginia.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, foreseeing a need for freight and lumber transportation, hastened its own plans to extend its track into northern Pocahontas County, incorporating a subsidiary designated the “Greenbrier Railway Company” in 1897 and commencing roadbed and track construction two years later. The line reached the area that December. Threshold to virgin forests, it was uniquely positioned to carry timber to the Covington sawmill and also to connect with the Coal and Iron Railway, which itself was later amalgamated into the Western Maryland Railway.
Although it provided a vital link, it did not penetrate the mountain-clinging forests themselves, nor did it possess the proper locomotive equipment to do so. Logging railroad track, by necessity, exhibited several unique characteristics. Mountain forests usually dictated both sharp curves, which could equal 35 degrees, and steep grades, which required switchbacks to surmount, while track needed to be portable, moved after each area was cut and depleted. Resultantly, it was usually built up of short, skinned logs directly laid on the bare earth, without the benefit of prepared roadbeds, and the rails themselves were then spiked to them. Rail weight, ranging between 50 and 75 pounds per yard, was more than sufficient.
Although these temporary, impromptu tracks fulfilled the immediate need before being moved to the next location, they were ill-suited to conventional, rod-type locomotives with their rigid frames and fixed driving axles. Often falling victim to imperfections, they slipped and frequently derailed. What was needed was an engine with numerous, small drive wheels, ideally ranging between eight and 16, which could deliver low-speed traction, continuous contact, positive power, and effective braking, yet exhibit considerable flexibility.
Ephraim Shay, a Michigan logger who was well acquainted with such obstacles, designed the first articulated locomotive for logging purposes in 1874. Its driving force was subdivided into the cylinders-connecting rods and the driving wheels mounted on pivoting trucks, the side-mounted cylinders themselves counterbalanced by an offset boiler, while the tender truck’s own driving axles both contributed to this force and added to the locomotive’s adhesion weight. The geared steam engine, replacing the conventional locomotive’s rod-driving propulsion system, was equally easy to maintain and repair with its entirely exposed parts.
The first such Shay, patented and constructed by the Lima Machine Works of Lima, Ohio, in 1880, featured slide vales, a vertical boiler, and eight drivers.
Later, progressively larger examples sported three right-side mounted vertical cylinders counterbalanced by a left side boiler, which itself provided clearance for the cylinders, and a small water tender-connected coal bunker located immediately behind the cab. Since the engine was seldom far from either a coal or water supply, its relatively small capacity proved sufficient.
Cylinder pistons, by means of bevel gears, enabled each truck to independently negotiate the rail’s imperfections and their small, 36-inch drive wheels provided the needed adhesion and traction. Yet, since all wheels were interconnected either by line shafts or axles, single-wheel slippages were impossible.
The Shay locomotive, enjoying a 2,771-production run between 1880 and 1945, proved to be the most ideally-suited and numerically most popular powerplant for logging operations, whether specifically in West Virginia, where more than 400 were employed, or elsewhere. It also had limited application for steep-grade, heavy-load lines and industrial switching.
The West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company’s first locomotive was a two-truck, 42-ton Shay.
The first pulpwood shipment to the Covington, Virginia, paper mill, hauled by the Greenbrier Railway Company, was made on January 28, 1901, but what was needed for more immediate processing and independent operation was a strategically located sawmill. This became operational the following year.
In order to support the massive workforce required for a rapidly expanding logging enterprise, a company town, designated “Cass” after West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company Vice President Joseph P. Cass, arose from a small farming community and wagon road river crossing previously called “Leatherbark Ford.”
Carefully planned and revolving round the sawmill itself, the incorporated town, with an official major and council, was located on one side of the Greenbrier River and boasted of a 2,000-strong population, sustained by houses, schools, stores, offices, churches, and civic and social organizations. It quickly blossomed into one of West Virginia’s largest boom towns.
Its three-story Pocahontas Supply Company store, constructed in 1902 and partially rebuilt 16 years later after fire had consumed its upper floor, sold everything from food to appliances to furniture and was the nucleus of the town. It had also served as the site of the US Post Office and the lumber company’s offices.
The smaller shop next to it housed Nethkin’s Meat Market.
Residents used wooden boardwalks to negotiate the area by foot.
Contrasted with the brothels and hotels located on the town’s east side, which was alternatively dubbed “East Cass” or “Dirty Street,” the dual-structure comprising the Cass Hotel was frequented by businessmen, workers in good standing, and respected visitors.
The elite, in general, lived in the town’s Big Bug Hill section.
The mayor’s office, replacing a temporarily employed boxcar for incarcerations, ironically housed the more permanent jail on its first floor and the mayoral headquarters on its second.