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In the 1930s, the Bald Knob fire tower and cabin were part of the Monongahela National Forest fire detection and protection program.
The area was served by forest guards, fire patrolmen and local civilian cooperators – known as fire wardens – until the program ended in the 1970s.
When Cass Scenic Railroad State Park – established in 1963 as part of West Virginia’s Centennial celebration – took possession of the entire company town of Cass and expanded operations to include rentals of company houses and train excursions to Bald Knob, the park also took possession of the Bald Knob tower and cabin.
“That was a rentable cabin – the Wilderness Cabin – up to around 2011, 2015 – about the same time everything changed with the operation of the railroad,” Cass superintendent Marshall Markley said.
When Mountain Rail Adventures took over operations of the trains at Cass, the cabin remained unused and was slowly being taken over by nature when a spark of interest was ignited in Autumn Breeze Stables owner Skip Heater.
“My interest in it started about five years ago,” Heater said. “I rode horses up there from Snowshoe. I had no clue the fire tower and cabin existed and then I thought, ‘boy, this would be a cool place to ride horses and spend the night.’ Then one day, I was down here at Cass having lunch and someone said, ‘That’s the superintendent – he’s the one you need to talk to.’”
After discussing his idea with Markley, the two pitched the idea of renting the cabin to the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and soon, the project was on track.
Heater took on the task of making repairs to the cabin, while Markley sought a contractor to repair the fire tower.
“It’s all one big room,” Heater said of the cabin. “It’s got an old, early 1900s metal master wood stove. It’s functional – bought parts to get it working again. Other than that, all the shutters are operational, all the windows have been re-caulked. Redid things that were deteriorating because of roof issues.”
Along with restoring the cabin, Heater made a couple of upgrades to improve the stay, but at the same time, will keep with the rustic feel of the old cabin.
“The front porch had a little slab deck and now it’s full length – twenty-one foot,” he said. “Then there’s a twenty-one by twelve foot deck on the back. There were a lot of downed spruce trees up there and they were made into railing. So, we’ve got spruce logs for the roof supports and the railings. There was no reason to let some spruce trees go to waste.”
When he was doing the renovations, Heater noticed that the tongue and groove oak floor ran parallel except for one portion, which was perpendicular.
“It was a trap door,” he said. “There was an icebox underneath in a little cellar, where people used to set their ice and meats and whatever. I guess it was also to keep the critters away from the food. The shutters [on the windows] aren’t for vandals. I think they’re for bears.”
Because they will use Heater’s horses to access the cabin, he also built a corral near the cabin.
“Marshall picked up a nice corral from Watoga State Park,” he said.
As for the tower, Markley got several bites on the bid to repair it – and nothing could deter Patrick Smith, of Universal Engineering and Contracting LLC, in Elkins. Not even a trip to Bald Knob in January.
“That trip usually takes forty-five minutes and I think it took us two-and-a-half hours to get up to the top,” Markley said. “When we got to the tracks, it was winter, so there was still eight or ten inches of snow on the ground and there was just no way we were going to make it without getting hung up because that road’s rough anyway. We had to walk to the last mile.”
Luckily, Markley had a chainsaw in his truck to clear several trees from the road during this excursion.
Smith will begin work on the tower this summer, with no threat of snow to keep him away.
Although the tower is still under construction, the Wilderness Cabin experience is open for booking at this time. There are several types of excursions for visitors to choose from and more ideas continue to take shape as the project nears completion.
“The experience starts with just going up to the cabin,” Markley said. “You can spend the night there. You have your dinner catered to you by the tour guide, and then you have free rein of the Bald Knob area, so after the train leaves, you have the opportunity to go to the overlook by yourself.
“We live in a relatively rural area, but you really feel it up there,” he added. “You are completely by yourself. It’s an experience I don’t know you can get anywhere else on the east coast.”
Heater likened the area to that of a mysterious otherworldly place.
“It’s very enchanting,” he said. “It’s the kind of place you’d think Bigfoot or Yoda or someone is going to pop out of the fog – like you’re going to see a little fairy over there smoking a pipe. It’s that kind of remoteness.”
But visitors are never truly alone. A tour guide – whether it be Heater himself or one of his employees – will be close by at the cabin the entire time.
There are packages that go with the excursion, including fishing at the old town of Spruce, a whitewater rafting trip and a hunting trip.
For those with an exceptionally daring streak, the tower will be accessible for views and even those who might want to spend the night in it, although, unlike the tower at Seneca State Forest, it is a smaller cab without a full deck.
But, it does offer a great view.
“When you’re up in the fire tower, you’re higher than Spruce Knob,” Heater said.
“It’s really a beautiful view,” Markley added. “The Bald Knob view is one of the best views in West Virginia – if not the best. From the tower, you can see all of Silver Creek, all of Snowshoe. In the summer, you can see pretty much where all that stuff is, too, but you can also see forever in every direction.”
It didn’t take long for individuals to start showing an interest in the cabin once the project was underway. Heater updated the Autumn Breeze Stables Facebook page with progress photos and received messages from interested customers.
“I talked to a gentleman online who saw the pictures and he said his mother was the last person to work there as a fire observer,” he said. “A lot of people have shown interest just from the pictures we’ve put out, showing what’s being done.”
At this time, those who rent the cabin will travel with the tour guide by horse from Autumn Breeze Stables near Snowshoe to Bald Knob – approximately a four-hour trip – and spend their time enjoying the sights, extra excursions and horseback rides before returning to the stables.
In the future, there is a possibility that visitors will be able to ride the train to Bald Knob to get to the cabin or a combination of riding horses to the cabin and leaving by train. The plans are still in the work for those options.
“We’re going to work with people on whatever they want to do,” Markley said.
The cabin may be reserved through Autumn Breeze Stables at 1-800-759-7238 and online at wvtrailrides.com or Cass Scenic Railroad State Park at 304-456-4300.