Explore the Greenbrier River valley in West Virginia with an overview of Cass and the connecting Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Greenbrier Division.
Cass, West Virginia is a company town that was constructed by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company (WVP&P) in 1901. The operations of Cass was the work of Sam Slaymaker, who had been involved in timbering operations along the Greenbrier River for several years in the late 1800s. After exploring the forests west of the Greenbrier valley at Cheat Mountain, specifically along Shavers Fork of Cheat River, he discovered red spruce, yellow birch and maple.
Slaymaker acquired numerous tracts of land when news came that the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O)’s Greenbrier Division, which followed the Greenbrier River north of Whitcomb towards Durbin, was going to be built. Slaymaker envisioned a rail line along Leatherbark Creek to 4,635-feet in elevation and then into the forests at the headwaters of the Cheat and Elk rivers. He secured 173,000 acres and built a construction camp near Cass.
Meanwhile, C&O right-of-way acquisition began in March 1899 and the first construction contract was let in April for five miles from Whitcomb north. The first train arrived in Marlinton on October 26, 1900 with work starting on the C&O north of Marlinton shortly after. By November 6, track had been laid across a temporary bridge over the Greenbrier River at Sharps Tunnel, and by Christmas, Cass had been reached.
Slaymaker graded the line up to the top of Cheat Mountain 1900 and by 1904, tracks were laid to an elevation of 3,853-feet where the town of Spruce and a pulp peeling rossing mill were established. The lumber company employed Shay logging locomotives, which were designed to climb steep grades and sharp curves, and were driven by direct gearing to each wheel.
By 1915, there were 81 miles of mainline, with logging operations extending all over Cheat Mountain. Cut logs were transported into the town where they were processed into pulp or hardwood flooring. The pulp was delivered by rail to its Covington, Virginia mill for processing into paper. The industrial operations consisted of drying kilns, a boiler house, power station and a double-band sawmill. The mill was the largest in the world and could handle 125,000 board feet per 11-hour shift and 35 million feet per year. Some machines were so large that it required 15 employees just to operate them. Over 2,500 were employed in the operations.
Cass consisted of 52 white-faced residences, with the larger houses for the managers residing behind the general store. Other houses were built across the Greenbrier River on privately held land and unlike the company town, “East Cass” allowed alcohol consumption and gambling. The Pocahontas Supply Company store was built in 1902 and provided food, dry goods, furniture and supplies. Two hotels were soon built, along with several restaurants, stores, two schools, three churches, a hospital, clubhouse and baseball field.
The peeling mill at Spruce ceased operations in 1925. By the 1930s, the town became a helper station for the WM but with the introduction of diesel engines, all locomotives that served Cass were transferred to Laurel Bank and Spruce was abandoned. In June 1942, the WVP&P sold its Cass operation to the Edwin Mower of the Mower Lumber Company who began to cut second-growth timber at Cheat Mountain. But lower production volumes meant lower revenues and cutbacks, leading to a reduction of operations to just one shift by 1950. After Mower passed, operations dwindled even further and all loggings operations ceased on July 1, 1960.
Shortly after closing, the railroad and its buildings were sold for scrap. A group of local businessmen, led by railroad enthusiast Russell Baum, convinced the state to make Cass Railroad a state park. Although skeptical at first, the lawmakers were convinced after the Joint Committee on Government and Finance took a trip to Bald Knob via the rails. After years of rehabilitation, Cass Railroad State Park operated its first excursion train from Cass under the Cass Scenic Railroad banner in 1963 with Shays Nos. 1 and 4. In the first year of operation, 23,000 visitors traversed Back Allegheny Mountain on about four miles of track and later to the top at Bald Knob. The state acquired the town of Cass in 1977.
In 1980, the Cass Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
As for the C&O Greenbrier Division, it once extended for 101 miles and connected Whitcomb between Lewisburg and White Sulphur Springs northward to Winterburn, east of Durbin. It was one of the C&O’s primary branch lines for timber products and served more lumber companies than any other in the state. But after Cass and other operations began to close up in the middle of the 20th century, the Greenbrier line became expendable and was placed out of service at the end of 1978. Track removal began in July 1979 from North Caldwell to milepost 78 and was completed by mid-1980. The abandoned lines were transferred over to the state for a rail-to-trail on June 20.
Development of the Greenbrier River Trail was slow, and portions of it were damaged in a flood in 1985. Federal Emergency Management funds were awarded only in 1992 to repair the damaged sections, and work was completed two years later.