Some would call it serendipity. Others would call it coincidence. But when Cass Scenic Railroad park superintendent Scott Fortney saw rock sculptor Kevin Stitzinger demonstrating at the Leatherbark Ford Gallery at Cass, he knew he had found the right person to create a work of art for the entrance to the Cass Company Store.
“Scott came by and was really excited about what I was doing, and asked me if I’d be interested in doing something larger,” Stitzinger said. “I said absolutely. He wanted something that conveyed the essence of the place, ideally using local rock and local artists.”
Stitzinger went to the drawing board and came back with a sketch for Fortney’s approval.
“I wanted something that spoke to the place as a place where trains come to life,” Stitzinger said. “It’s an active, dynamic rail line, so I didn’t want to do just a sign. Scott’s other stipulation was he didn’t really want something really crisp with a lot of right angles and stuff, just to meet the character of the rest of the place. That works really well for hand carving. I love that.”
Stitzinger chose to feature the Shay #4 engine in the sculpture, with steam and smoke billowing around it, capturing the moment when the engine leaves or returns to the station.
“I wanted the bell to be ringing. I wanted the steam to be coming out of it. I wanted the whistle going off and the smoke coming off of it,” he said.
With the design in place, the search for the rock began. Stitzinger spent a few days “rock hunting” around Cass until he found the perfect sandstone boulder.
“What I ended up finding was this boulder right down by the lagoons, close to the head of the Greenbrier River Trail,” he said. “It was one of the larger ones that I had selected. This thing started at about 3,500 pounds.”
The Cass maintenance crew used an endloader to bring the boulder up to the yard beside the superintendent’s office, where Stitzinger has been working on it for the two months.
“It’s been a process,” he said. “A lot of people have been coming by. The Convention and Visitors Bureau, they let people know I’m working on it up here. The Co-op sends people up. It’s been a lot of fun just to talk to people and tell them about it, and what’s going on.”
Before he got too far into the sculpting phase, Stitzinger asked train engineer Dirk Caloccia to take a look at the sketch on the rock and see if there needed to be any changes.
“I wanted him to tell me, to make sure, that I had all the parts in the right places on the engine,” Stitzinger said. “The last thing I want to do is for it to be inaccurate. He had a few details that I could incorporate that make it the #4 engine. He gave it the thumbs up. I got started on May 1, and I’ve been working at it since then.”
Along with sharing his artwork with visitors of Cass, Stitzinger was excited to do the project because of his special connection to the town.
“What I kind of wanted to do is convey my image of the place,” he said. “My introduction to West Virginia was when I was thirteen-years-old and my dad brought the family down for a family vacation, and we came to Cass. At that age, you remember the steam engines for sure, but what you really remember is the smoke, the hissing, the noise, the ash in your eyes.
“Cass is West Virginia for me,” he continued. “It kind of gives something back to the area that brought me here. The other aspect is, the reason my dad brought us down here when I was thirteen was because my great-grandfather operated the Deer Creek Mill from 1902 to 1912, just down the line here at Deer Creek.”
Joining his past, present and future, the project has been a labor of love for Stitzinger.
“This past week, I had my eleven-year-old Mateus, down here working on it,” he said. “He worked on this, so now he has a good strong connection to it.”
Once the sculpture is finished, Stitzinger plans to wash it, let it dry, seal it and paint the lines of the train, smoke and steam to add depth to the image. He also plans to include a time lapse video of the sculpting process on his Facebook page to allow the public to see the image come to life.
While it has taken a lot of elbow grease and he has spent a lot of days in the rain chiseling away at the rock, Stitzinger has enjoyed the experience, especially working with and getting to know the staff at Cass.
“It’s been a whole lot of fun,” he said. “You come and visit the place. You see the trains and experience the trains, but it’s a whole different thing to do something where you’re actually interacting with the people who work here. They’ve definitely gone out of their way.”
A dedication ceremony for the sculpture will take place at a later date.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at email@example.com