Tracking a Lumber Town's History
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
At Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in southeastern West Virginia, it doesn't take long to get derailed from the present. A nearby radio observatory renders mobile phones useless, leaving the tweets to the birds. And with few modern trappings in this historic railroad community, you feel as though you really have backtracked to the early 20th century.
A quest for the unusual yet historical drew my friend Tracy and me to Cass late last month. We found a town still thriving since its birth in 1901, when the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Co. laid the railroad to haul pristine timber from Cheat Mountain back to Cass. A mill would then process the wood for the country's booming paper and hardwood-flooring industries.
The mill closed in 1960 (and burned down in 1982), but within three years the state had bought the railroad and started sending trains chugging up the hills again, carrying tourists instead of trees. In the late 1970s, the state bought most of the town and its buildings for the park, though some residents stayed on. Fewer than 10 people still live in today's Cass, which has a general store, the Last Run restaurant (with an old-fashioned soda fountain), a history museum, 20 houses refurbished for tourist lodgings, and more. It's also the nation's only surviving lumber company town, a place where every building was owned by a single company.
"Most people come here and want to take a little train ride," park interpreter Gerri Bartels told me on my first walk through Cass. But "this place is not just about the trains. It's a huge piece of West Virginia's logging cultural history, as well as American history . . . how the logger came in, stripped the mountains, if you will, and [provided] the timber for a nation that was popping at the seams."
As we waited at the depot for our noon train ride up to Whittaker Station, the site of a restored loggers' camp, fireman Jerry Beck and engineer Brad Hoover invited us into the engine room of the Shay locomotive that would be pulling our train.
As we inched uphill, Beck shoveled coal into the firebox, releasing blasts of heat tinged with a tangy, peaty smell. The steam engine was designed in the 1870s to climb steep mountains. But "here we are in the 2000s, and it still works like a Swiss watch," Beck said. "Well, with a heart murmur, maybe."
The high-pitched whistle announced our arrival at Whittaker, elevation 3,100 feet. Wiping soot-smudged faces and picking what Tracy called black dandruff from our scalps, we toured the mid-20th-century loggers' camp, situated in a large field, where men dubbed "wood hicks" -- mostly European immigrants -- had once toiled. We peeked into the men's movable shanties, insulated with cardboard, and stood in their dining car, where they ate 2,000-calorie breakfasts in shifts of enforced silence. At the far end of camp was the enormous steam-powered skidder, a machine used to drag cut logs to the trains. Accidents were common ("We have OSHA today, it was 'Oh shoot' back then," Bartels said), but the men who made it off the mountain had months' worth of wages to spend.
The first priority once the men were back in Cass was a kerosene (yes, kerosene) bath to kill lice and bedbugs, Bartels said. Many of the newly debugged men then crossed the Greenbrier River to East Cass, or, as it was better known, Brooklyn. Here privately owned saloons, bars and other businesses allowed loggers on a bender to "get a room, get a date, get some good hard liquor and a poker game," Bartels said. A 1985 flood did in the already dilapidated entertainment strip.
Back at Cass, Tracy and I returned to our company house, where we'd stayed the first night. (We had planned to spend our second night in one of the two detached cabooses that are permanently kept near the loggers' camp at Whittaker, but we were warned that impending heavy storms would make that unwise.) Cass's skilled laborers, who worked in the mill or the locomotive-repair shop, and their families lived in the 52 white-fenced houses, which sat in orderly rows on a hill south of the general store. Compared with housing in other company towns, the roomy, two-story homes "would have been Potomac living of its day," said interpreter Bruce Elliott, referring to the upscale Maryland suburb. As we relaxed on our front porch swing that evening, listening to cicadas and greeting passing neighbors on Main Street, I was feeling quite comfortable in the early 1900s.
Putting off reality the next morning, I stopped by Lefty's Barber Shop, where Lyle "Lefty" Meeks has been cutting Cass's hair for 61 years. The southpaw barber (who will turn 90 on Christmas Day) described a lively Cass of old, with its movie theater, three grocery stores and, as he added with a hearty laugh, three beer joints that were "pretty well loaded up on Saturday nights." As I was about to say goodbye, the train whistle screeched from the depot, startling me for at least the 10th time. But Meeks kept on talking, the sound long ago woven into the rhythm of his daily life.
Christine Dell'Amore is a freelance writer in Washington.