Friday, June 18, 2021

A Steam Train Trip Up a Mountain and from Early Summer Back Into Springtime: Cass Scenic Railroad

Two weeks ago it was early summer but chilly in West Virginia as we wended -- there is no better term -- our slow way east deep into the mountains to an early 20th century logging town called Cass. 

This is what we were heading for: a nice, long ride on the Cass Scenic Railroad

First, Just Getting There

The Appalachians start less than hour east of our home in Lexington, and only a few hours of the trip were on the interstate. The rest? It was very late afternoon when our family left the highway for narrow two-lane roads, often lacking a shoulder on the side in case we had needed to pull off, winding in tight curves and steep grades up and down the sides of heavily forested hills and then mountains, passing through gaps and passes, snaking along ridgetops or threading along creeks in valleys so narrow that they're mostly shaded year-round. Kentucky has plenty of land rather like this, but in West Virginia I swannee the hills are even tighter, and ever as we drove they became taller and steeper, and less and less peopled. 

Evening drew on when the deer come out of cover to find water and graze, and so I slowed to a usual 35 miles and hour, passing a few deer within feet of the road and many more in meadows and glades in easy view. We met only a car or two, and by nightfall there were few lights in the few houses we passed, usually clustered in villages, but sometimes in ones or twos in the forest or in small farms in the few places where the hills weren't too steep for agriculture. 

I'm originally from a town of roads that cling to high hillsides, too, where multiple rather terrifying clifflines drop hundreds of feet to the valley floor a quarter mile from my then home, but there at least when you get to the top it flattens out, or ditto the valley, so that your mind can rest. This was a whole other level of driving.

Then it was pitch black. By this point we were on a long, very narrow road leading into Cass, entirely forested, the trees meeting overhead and their boles just off the roadway, making a such number of switchbacks and steep winding ascents and descents. I know to use the engine rather than the brakes to slow the car, but even so we began to smell hot brakes and I stopped and downshifted into the lowest gear. By this point I was so tired that I had to ask my husband how to do it: the brain was completely fried. It began to feel like I'd been leaning forward towards the windshield, peering around blind curves for days. A fox rocketed across in front of us.

And then we left the forest suddenly into a narrow river valley, the road lined by matching white plank houses, circa 1900, and a few commercial buildings, including a long and tall white wooden building containing what was once a very large general store. And a depot. Cass. Golly, the whole body was trembling as I left the car to meet my dad and stepmother and sister and her family, in front of one of the old worker houses now made into plain but comfortable lodging. Good to be there at last.

The Steam Train Trip: Upwards and Back Into Springtime

Next day showed gray and drippy, but still good for a ride in open-sided train cars pulled by a steam engine, box lunch in hand.

The little village is rather pretty in its plain way, mostly courtesy the mature trees that shade the houses now, and the soft mountain grass, the wildflowers, and the shallow little river in its stony way, and the deep quiet, except when the engines at the depot squeal or puff.

A lot different than the raw landscape in 1900, when the village was new, peopled mostly by Italian workers there to cut red spruce trees, and from the pictures, much of everything else, too. Once the wood was gone, they mostly left, and the place sank into quiet again, and the forest has regrown, thick with the amazing variety of species that the Appalachians and all shades of green, misted with a reddish tone where the red spruce are.

Here, mostly in pictures and video, the way up.

As we were leaving the rail yard, we passed cars and engines, specifically engines loaded with coal and fired up -- it takes a day to get them to the proper pressure. They're ready to rescue any engine that might have a problem on the track.

Here's a video (

Riders, including my family, looking serious for some reason. The rain? The coming chill? Still, it was a nice group.

Puffing out of the valley, most of the riders at the open arches, looking out. A scent of coal smoke every once in a while. I am not a fan of coal, as a rule, but for a ride on an antique steam train...

Beginning the mountain's ascent. We would end up high on top, up in the clouds we were looking at.

A red spruce pokes up from the forest cover.

Looking out across the mountain ridges; we're perhaps a quarter or a third of the way up, and still in maples, a few oaks, wild cherries, and on and on.

The air was so thick with moisture that "Blue Ridge Mountains" makes sense, doesn't it?

Every so often the train would stop to replenish water from a spring. At this point, the engineer had too much pressure in the engine so was letting off steam, as well. They run the train frequently but do not know the engines as intimately as the engineers who first used them did, and so this happens occasionally; apparently it happened less often when the engines were in constant use pulling logs.

Here's what it looks like in video (

As we ascended, the types of trees became to shift with the elevation, birches appearing, and increasing numbers of spruces, especially young ones. The leaves on the trees decreased in size, as if we were traveling backwards from early summer into springtime again. I drank in those views: the forest is lovely.

Replenishing water on the way up. Looks like the water is gathered into a tank from a spring, and fed into the side of the engine.

5,000 Feet In the Air, Looking Out, and Well Chilled In the Breeze

From the top of the mountain we looked down into what's rather a bowl, a large valley -- a surprise -- with mountains all around. It was beautiful. The Appalachians are not the Rockies, or the Alps, or the Andes. Not that kind of spectacular beauty. Much, much older, and rounded down with eons of water and flora and fauna plashing upon, growing upon, gnawing upon their rock. They are, for the most part, friendly mountains, deeply green, a temperate rainforest. I adore them.

Noah and Curte out on the overlook.

There was something odd down there, though you cannot see it in the photos. It looked like a white road making a sudden angle from that altitude, but I knew I was looking not at a road, but at part of one of the Green Bank Observatory telescopes There since the 1950s a series of enormous radio telescopes have been discovering the black hole at the center of our galaxy, pulsars, the composition of parts of the Milky Way, and much more.

It's quiet in that valley. No bluetooth, no TV or radio over the airwaves. Microwaves and light fixtures and such on observatory property are shielded so as not to contaminate what the telescopes receive.

We would visit Green Bank the next day, and thoroughly enjoyed the peace, and watching telescopes as they turned with a minimum of motor noise, shifting for whatever it was they were watching. Much of the telescope time is shared: teams of scientists from all over get time on it. How neat is that?

My it was chilly up there, and waves of mist and curtains of rain blew through. The trees weren't short, but they weren't nearly as tall as in the valley, and it was quite clear that springtime still had a hold -- summer hadn't reached the mountaintop yet.

We had a bit to inspect the engine. The engineer and crewmen did too. The engine's gears got a thorough greasing

Do you see two of what looks like a very wide gear, up against two wheels but back behind the horizontal shafts at the outside of the engine? Well, the shaft is driven by the steam pressure, and it turns those gears, which then turns the wheels. That's a Shay engine.

Here is where the steam is compressed and drives the horizontal shafts.

The air cleared a bit, but it was still chilly. Time to head down the mountain.

Back Down, Watching the Gears Drive the Shay Engine

Down through spruce, yound and old, through birches. All of us wrapped up from the damp and wind and cold.

Ridge after ridge...far beyond our vision.

Think about a train, loaded with heavy lumber, inching down a steep grade. They needed Shay engines, driven directly by big gears, to do the work: a regular steam train wouldn't do well.

Here's a video of it (

Replenishing water again, this time from a tower. 

Here is a video of it (

I noted that the railroad employees, one per car, often leaned out and looked at the brakes on each car, to make sure that all was well. Even a scenic ride is a bit of an adventure on such steep grades.

As we came back into Cass, the engineer blew the achingly haunting steam whistle into the valley air. I never tire of the sound. Here it is in video (not mine this time, but a better recording). Believe it's the same engine; it has a particularly resonant voice. There are lots of videos of Cass trains, and different engines have different whistle voices. Wonderful, isn't it?

So that was our ride. I grew up loving steam steam trains because my dad is a big train buff -- so is my husband -- but hadn't ridden one in many years. This trip was a welcome reminder of how nifty they are.

Working Eastward Again, the Mountains Are Easier

Leaving Cass and heading east again, to the observatory and then Floyd, Virginia, was a far easier trip than winding our way across the mountains from Kentucky. The mountains run more north to south rather than gidget all over the place, and though the ridges are higher, the valleys widen and become soft and full of farms and woodlots, and there are more towns and eventually the city of Roanoke. It's beautiful country, too, in a softer way. Alas, I have no pictures, as again, I was driving.

If you ever get the opportunity, the railroad is a neat one to visit...I hope you will!


MrsC (Maryanne) said...

What a marvellous adventure!!!

ZipZip said...

Dear Mrs. C.,

It sure was. Only wish my photos and videos could have been better. It turns out to be difficult to take pictures of forest close up without everything looking 2-dimensional in the resulting photos. In actuality, when you look into it, your gaze moves in and out of all kinds of depths, each with their own colors and textures...mosses, wildflowers, leaves, bark, dim air and bright air, spruce needles. Anyhow, hope that a little of the flavor of the place came through.

Hugs, and hoping all is well with you,


Anna said...

How delightful! There's nothing quite like a train ride. I'm not sure there are any scenic lines near me, but I used to have to ride the local Amtrak train back and forth to college on break, and there was something very soothing about not needing to drive myself for a few hours, to be able to relax and stare out of the window, or read a book.

ZipZip said...

Dear Anna,
I agree! The sound of the wheels on the tracks, the gentle rocking, woods or villages or cities slipping by your window. It's peaceful, unless the carriage is noisy. Like you, I used to ride Amtrak pretty often, visiting family in Delaware and North Carolina. The times we were able to have a nice dinner on board were especially neat.

Very best,