Pocahontas County’s summer tourist season is off to an excellent start. The first two major events of the season have been graced with good weather and great crowds. The Great Greenbrier River Race a month ago was an unqualified success, as was Railfan Weekend at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park last weekend.
More than 300 railfans and family members attended Railfan Weekend, which started Friday and ran through through Sunday afternoon. The Mountain State Railroad and Logging Historic Association (MSRLHA) organizes the event every year. Railfan Weekend is the traditional start of train season at the Cass rail park, which features the largest collection of geared steam locomotives in the world.
Four vintage Shay steam engines and a Heisler steam locomotive were operational for Railfan Weekend this year.
Railroad enthusiasts from around the world, known as railfans, come to Cass every year for Railfan Weekend. Many railfans are photographers and the event includes several photo opportunities with run-bys by the vintage locomotives. This year’s excursions included trips to Bald Knob, Spruce, and Big Cut, a railroad grade cut through a hilltop near Mace.
A heavy, all-day downpour on Thursday gave way to partly cloudy skies on Friday for the start of Railfan Weekend. Some railfans who planned to stay at Snowshoe on Thursday night were blocked from their destination by high water on Route 219. Most found lodging in the Marlinton area overnight before making the trip to Cass on Friday, after high water had receded.
The group enjoyed a warm afternoon and a picnic lunch on top of Bald Knob on Friday afternoon. The third highest point in West Virginia, the site provides awe-inspiring views of the Appalachian ridgelines to the east.
On Saturday, vintage diesel locomotives from the West Virginia Central Railroad provided rides and run-bys at Spruce. A mob of railfan photographers crowded a hillside overlooking a rail junction in Spruce to take pictures.
Alan Gartner, of Dallas, visits several railroad sites every year.
Gartner was attending his second Railfan Weekend.
“I came about three years ago when they ran this event,” he said. “I wanted to come again when they had the Heisler running again. That Heisler was featured this weekend.”
The Heisler was the last variant of three major types of geared steam locomotive to be developed – the other two being the Shay and the Climax. Cass’ Heisler No. 6 was built in 1929 and is the park’s fastest locomotive.
Gartner said Cass is a top site for railfans.
“I’ve never seen five steam locomotives running at the same time,” he said. “This was a first for me this weekend. It’s worth the trip to come to Cass. This area is gorgeous. We don’t have any terrain in Texas and the trees aren’t so nice.”
“I’ve been a railfan for nearly 50 years,” he said. “My uncle gave me a model train when I was a small child. Since then, I have been a fan of the railroad, especially for the steam.”
Cass is one of the best railroad sites in the world, according to Hayama.
“I’ve visited sites in Japan, the U.S. and Canada, and some in Germany, England and France,” he said. “Cass is one of the best places to visit for railfans. The staff has lots of information for the railfan, so it’s very interesting and enjoyable.”
“I like trains, I like steam,” he said. “I started out liking stationary steam, from a sawmill where I was raised in North Carolina. My first trip to Cass was in September 1970 and I fell in love with the Shay locomotives.”
Bill Gough, of Meadville, Pennsylvania, became a railfan because of his brother.
“My brother became very interested in trains about eight years ago and it became infectious,” he said. “He was always talking about trains. He probably came to Cass five times and three years ago, he talked me into coming. My brother was Bob and he passed away last summer. But I was with him here in 2012 and then again last year. He was from Lexington, Virginia, so he was pretty close. He was actually working on the restoration of the Climax locomotive.”
For 12 years, MSRLHA members have worked to restore a Climax steam locomotive, located in a machine shop at Cass. The group has made substantial progress and the locomotive is expected to join the Cass fleet in 2016. The restored engine will be one of just four operational Climax locomotives in the world.
Bill Gough said Cass is a one-of-a-kind destination.
“It’s wonderful, it’s just such a special, unique place,” he said. “It really is and the last few years, people have come here from all over the world. It’s a real draw. There’s just nothing like it.”
MSRLHA was founded in 1982 and is an all-volunteer organization. The group is dedicated to the research, collection, preservation, documentation and restoration of equipment and structures related to West Virginia lumbering and railroad operations.
The Association is based in Cass and has over 500 members in the U.S. and several foreign countries. MSRLHA is the foundation of record for the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park and much of its focus is on the Park’s railroad and historic structures. For more information on the MSRLHA and its various activities, see www.msrlha.org.