The state of West Virginia would like to restore this nearly empty logging town into a West Virginian Williamsburg, a visitors' attraction that could also serve as a recreational community for skiers at the Snowshoe area six miles away.
"Our vision is that Cass would be an historic town with historic houses, but people would live in them and enjoy them," said Donald Andrews, chief of the division of parks and recreation of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. "These would be second homes for people who want to enjoy vacations in the mountains."
A thriving timbering center in the early part of the century, Cass in 1910 had 450 residents, 106 houses and a lumbering mill. The mill and most of the houses were abandoned years ago.
Eighteen months ago, using $1.5 million partly funded by the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and the Appalachian Regional Commission, the state bought the whole town from the Don Mower Lumber Co.
Included - for $669.000 - were 102 houses, 625 acres of land, the mill and various other structures adjacent to the town. The rest of the money is being used to maintain the town and relocate the 35 people still living in some of the houses.
The rest of the Cass revitilization plan calls for the state to pave the six-mile logging track between Cass and Snowshoe, turn the old mill into a logging museum, restore two of the houses to their 1910 appearance and lay sewer and water lines. Fifty-year leases on the empty houses would be auctioned off. The state would retain title to the houses and the leases would be renewable.
Most of the houses are frame buildings with two or three bedrooms and fireplaces. Individuals who win auction leases would be committed to restoring the houses to their 1910 appearance.
Restorers would have to install "air-bubble" distortion glass - the type used at the turn of the century - and wooded sidewalks and picket fences. The houses would have to be painted in a color used in 1910.
Although most of the houses are essentially sound, several of the roofs and most porches need repair, Andrews said. The houses, which are built high off the ground, are enveloped in intricate lattice work which would also have to be repaired.
Andrews estimated that the leases could sell for between $18,000 and $20,000 and that it would cost buyers $2,000 to $6,000 to restore the exteriors of the houses and make the interiors liveable.
"Some of the houses have the original plumbing and original bathtubs," Andrews said. "Personally, I'd want to keep those old tubs, but if the new owner wants a shower, he can go ahead and put one in."
"Cass was not like the poor coal towns that sprung up in the same era in West Virginia," Andrews said. "The superintendent's house was built of cherry wood, six inches thick and 12 feet long; a house nearby was built the same way but of oak. There was a club house for entertaining and other amenities."
In March the state legislature was asked for $1 million so that the Department of Natural Resources could begin restoring two houses and laying sewer lines. The legislature appropriated $750,000 and put it in the budget of the Department of History and Culture. But Gov. Jay Rockefeller, who had supported the project, vetoed the appropriation.
"He felt it was not enough money to do the project properly and he felt the money should have gone to Natural Resources, not History and Culture," Andrews said.
Andrews said his department would go to the legislature again. "I haven't given up hope. The coal strike hurt us. We'll be funded next year," he said.
The six-mile logging track that runs from Cass to the access road of Snowshoe was to have been paved this summer, but with the restoration plan in abeyance, the road work is also being held up. When the road is paved, skiers who stay in Cass will have quick access to the resort. In addition, skiers making the five-hour drive from Washington could cut about 45 minutes off their driving time by using the Cass-Snowshoe road.
There were hopes that a railroad line could run from Cass directly to the slopes, giving the area a European ski resort flavor. One idea was to have a spur railroad run from the Cass Scenic Railroad's Whitaker station to Snowshoe.
"Unfortunately, that plan would take really big money," Andrews said. "The grade for the spur is such that we would have to put in switch-backs. The track might only cover 10 miles of distance but we would have to lay 50 miles of track because of the swtich-backs."
A more likely project calls for a much shorter connector line between the Cass Scenic Railroad and the old Western Maryland Railroad. This line would take passengers from Cass to Slatyfork at the foot of the Snowshoe access road. Buses would transfer skiers up the mountain.
The plans to turn the mill into a museum are even further away than the auction/restoration program. "There is no good history of the logging/timbering industry and this would be the perfect place to do it," Andrews said.The state will approach industry sources who might be interested in the project.
Meanwhile, the state still runs the old steam engine logging railroad that once climbed Cheat mountain out of Cass and brought supplies to the 'wood hicks' (timber cutters) who lived in the logging camps. The spruce logs were planed at the mill and the lumber then went down from Cass to the valley and into factores, homes and ship masts. In its scenic reincarnation, the railroad runs between 85,000 and 90,000 tourists a year up and down the mountain.
There are mized feelings in Cass about the temporary halt in plans. Although the town is barely functioning, many residents don't want to relocate. Richard Dale, who supervises the Cass Scenic Railroad and who lives in the old superintendent's house, said he would rather see "smaller amounts of money used for practical things like new roofs and windows. It breaks your heart to see it this way."
At nearby Snowshoe there is disappointment that a plan that would have been a major improvement in terms of the travel industry and the economy of the area has been stalled.