6-24-13 Cass Railroad marks 50 years as a state park

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CASS, W.Va. (AP) — It’s still a West Virginia state park with trains powered by 90-year old locomotives, but things have changed at Cass Scenic Railroad.

Ed Gunno was on the first train after Cass became a state park, 50 years ago.

“We were in open cars,” Gunno said. “We didn’t have any enclosed cars like this.”

Gunno was 17-years-old when his family made the trip from Charleston to Cass to be part of the inaugural train ride on the steam locomotives at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, an outdoor museum of lumber railroading.

In the early 20th century, at the height of the timber boom, West Virginia had more than 3,000 miles of logging-railroad line. Today, all of that is gone, except for the 11 miles of track at Cass.

The park this month celebrated its 50th anniversary. The railroad’s first official run as a tourist attraction left the station at 10:30 a.m. June 15, 1963.

Gunno and his wife, Dorothy, have been on the train six or seven times since then. It’s especially beautiful in the fall, they said.

“As soon as we saw it in the paper that it was going to be (the 50th anniversary) . . . we called right away to get tickets,” Dorothy Gunno said. “It’s exciting to be here with him and see this.”

Shay No. 4, the same engine that pulled the train on its inaugural run, made a commemorative journey from Cass to Whittaker Station with about 200 passengers on June 15.

Whittaker Station, an old logging site four miles down the track from Cass now has a concession stand, picnic tables and restrooms, and visitors can tour the old logging camp.

“It was just an open field and nothing else was here,” Gunno said, noting the changes that 50 years have wrought. “Of course, the track ended here. It was later on when they extended the track to the top of Bald Knob.”

Bald Knob, the third-highest point in the state, is 11 miles from Cass and the ride there takes more than four hours.

But while there have been changes, the steam locomotives still exist as a relic of West Virginia’s history.

“A lot of history surrounds what we’re doing here today,” Frank Jezioro, director of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said. “These trains, the railroads, were put in here to haul the virgin timber off of the mountains back in the late 1800s.

“It provided jobs, and a lot of the wealth was taken out of West Virginia on these trains — timber, coal, whatever,” Jezioro said.

The railroad continues to be a major tourist attraction for the state, said Scott Fortney the superintendent of the park.

“We get people from all over the United States,” Fortney said. “It is what I consider one of the most unique parks in the country.”

Ben Dickens, the park’s first superintendent, in 1963, came back to celebrate the 50th anniversary.

Dickens recalled how park visitors and employees always took whatever happened in stride.

Like the time a train axle broke mid-trip.

“We tried to refund the money because we couldn’t complete the trip, but they wouldn’t accept it,” Dickens said. “There was nobody that would take their money back.”

Another time, an engineer threatened to quit because he didn’t get a raise.

“We talked to him and he realized that nobody got a raise,” Dickens said, “and he was content with what he had.”

Then there were the cinders that came off the coal-powered trains and blew onto visitors riding in open cars.

“Through the switchbacks, the cinders would blow down on them,” Dickens said. “So they ended up having to hold a large sheet of plastic over their heads to keep the cinders off.”

Like Gunno, Dickens noted many changes over the past 50 years.

“It has grown tremendously,” Dickens said of Cass. “Things are really wonderful. It’s a great experience for anybody to come up here. It’s living history that they’re going to ride up on.”

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