Cass, West Virginia is a former company town constructed by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company (WVP&P) for their paper mill and logging operations.
The formation of Cass date to the work of Sam Slaymaker, who had been involved in timbering operations along the Greenbrier River in the late 1800’s. 7 8 After exploring the forests at Cheat Mountain, specifically along Shavers Fork of Cheat River, Slaymaker discovered red spruce, yellow birch, and maple. There was no flowing water along the river for floating logs, and with no economical method of taking the timber to market, Slaymaker held off on a purchase of timberland.
Slaymaker reconsidered when news came that the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) considered constructing a branch along the Greenbrier River between Whitcomb and Durbin. It would be a timber railroad branching from the C&O, along Leatherbark Creek to 4,635-feet in elevation, and then into the forests at the headwaters of the Cheat and Elk Rivers. 7 Slaymaker formed the S.E. Slaymaker & Company, secured 173,000 acres of virgin timber, and built a construction camp near Cass. Meanwhile, C&O began right-of-way acquisition for its Greenbrier Division in March 1899. 3 The first train arrived in Marlinton on October 26, 1900, and by Christmas, Cass had been reached.
The West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company (WVP&P) was formed in 1901. 7 The company constructed a mill, which was operated by a subsidiary, the West Virginia Spruce Lumber Company (WVSL), 5 which began operations in 1902. 4
The WVP&P also constructed a company town named for Joseph Kerr Cass, board chairman 7 and co-founder of the WVP&P. 8 It consisted of 52 white-faced residences, with the larger houses for the managers residing behind the general store. 4 Other houses were built across the Greenbrier River on privately held land that, unlike the company town, “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 erected, along with several restaurants, stores, two schools, three churches, a hospital, a clubhouse, and a baseball field. 7 Eventually, the company town encompassed 400 structures.
The WVSL graded the line to the top of Cheat Mountain in 1900 and laid rail in 1901. 5 Initial rail operations were headed by the Greenbrier & Elk River Railroad and then the Greenbrier, Cheat & Elk Railroad (GC&E). 5 8 (The GC&E was used until 1926 when the 74-mile Bemis to Bergoo line was sold to the Western Maryland Railway (WM).) In 1904, tracks were laid to an elevation of 3,853-feet, where a pulp peeling rossing mill was built and the town of Spruce was established. 8 Spruce at the time was the highest elevation community in the eastern United States.
In 1910, the WVSL was dissolved and the mill’s ownership was absorbed into the WVP&P. 4
By 1915, the WVP&P operated over 81 miles of track with logging operations extending all across Cheat Mountain. 6 Cut logs were transported into 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. 3 Operations included a double-band sawmill, numerous drying kilns, a boiler house, and a power station. 5 8 The mill, which employed 2,500 spread, was the largest in the world and could handle 125,000 board-feet per 11-hour shift, 5 8 or 35 million board-feet per year.7 8 Some machines were so large that it required 15 employees just to operate them. 8 The mill operated 24 hours per day. 4
The WVP&P constructed a tanning extract plant for waste bark in 1913-15, which allowed the company to manufacture hemlock and spruce bark extracts. 2
A portion of the mill caught fire in 1922 but it was rebuilt shortly after. 4
The peeling mill at Spruce ceased operations in 1925. 8 By the 1930’s, 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.
The WVP&P sold its Cass operations to the Mower Lumber Company in June 1942. 7 8 Mower began to cut second-growth timber at Cheat Mountain, but lower production volumes meant lower revenues and cutbacks. By 1950, Cass’ population had declined to 417 7 and the mill was down to running just one shift. 8 All logging operations ended on July 1, 1960, at which point the company counted just 250 miles of track 6 and a population of 327. 7
In October, Walworth Farms acquired Mower Lumber and its landholdings, while the Don Mower Lumber Company, an offshoot of Mower Lumber, continued to own the railroad. 8 Dan Mower Lumber contracted Midwest Raleigh, a scrap dealer, to dismantle its rail lines and Shay locomotives. Dismayed, a group of local businessmen, led by railroad enthusiast Russell Baum, convinced the state to study the acquisition of the railroad, equipment, and landholdings for conversion into a railroad-centered state park. 6 8 Baum and state legislators formed the Cass Planning Commission. After the Joint Committee on Government & Finance took a trip to Bald Knob via the logging railroad and the Shay locomotives, the legislators were convinced that a state park would be a novel idea worth considering. 8
An appropriation for the state park was approved in early 1961, and the governor signed a bill that brought Cass into the state park system. 8 The state acquired seven miles of mainline track, between Cass, Old Spruce and Bald Knob, three Shay locomotives, ten flat cars, four camp cars, three motor cars, and miscellaneous equipment from Midwest Raleigh for $125,000. After years of rehabilitation, Cass Railroad State Park operated its first excursion train from Cass under the Cass Scenic Railroad banner in 1963 6 with Shays Nos. 1 and 4. 8 Trains initially ran just to Whittaker Station due to repairs that were needed on the remainder of the track to Bald Knob.
In the first year of operation, 23,000 visitors traversed Back Allegheny Mountain on four miles of track. 8 The railroad shop, initially leased from Don Mower Lumber, was purchased. In 1966, the line to Bald Knob was rebuilt for $800,000 and opened to tourists in 1968. The railroad shops were destroyed in a fire in 1972, 5 followed by a fire that consumed the depot in 1975. 4 Both were subsequently rebuilt. In 1977, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources acquired the company town. 8
The Cass Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Today, 20 of the former company houses have been restored 8 and others stabilized pending future rehabilitation.
Company Store & Town
Cass employed Shay logging locomotives, which were designed to climb steep grades and sharp curves. The Shay’s were driven by direct gearing to each wheel.
The shops were built in 1901 and burned in 1972. It was rebuilt shortly afterward.
The Cass train station, at MP 80.7 on the C&O Greenbrier Division, was constructed in 1901, rebuilt in 1923 and burned in 1975. It was rebuilt shortly afterward.