That story can be summarized in a few brief paragraphs:
West Virginia has 36 state parks. Of these surely the smallest is the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in Pocahontas County, which offers excursion rides on a historic logging railroad line. The railroad is the last segment of a once-vast railroad network built, beginning in 1900, to harvest the red spruce on Cheat and Back Allegheny mountains. Today, restored logging locomotives pull and push renovated logging flatcars full of tourists up the steep grades.
The logging railroad was abandoned when the mill closed in 1960. Two years later, the property, including 11 miles of track, the shop and other equipment and facilities, was purchased by the state to create the new park. And the first passenger trip ran on June 15, 1963, as part of the state's centennial celebration.
Over the years, the railroad and park have been expanded to include the town of Cass, additional locomotives, gift and craft shops, museums and a new depot and engine shop. The park even offers overnight lodging in historic company houses.
Those are the "facts," as television's Sgt. Friday might say.
But such a brief recitation doesn't begin to explain why Cass may well be West Virginia's most popular tourist attraction.
Nor does it pay tribute to those responsible for preserving the Cass Railroad for future generations to enjoy. Among those was the late John Killoran; the authors dedicated their book to the legendary rail fan. A onetime news photographer at WSAZ-TV in Huntington, Killoran moved on to the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources in Charleston and later became executive director of the West Virginia Railroad Maintenance Authority. The authors credit "his charisma, conniving and connections" with helping kick-start the Cass Railroad's transformation from an abandoned relic to a true West Virginia treasure.
When the state bought the Cass Railroad, the skeptics wrote it off as a waste of tax dollars. The first year of operation was all that was needed to prove the naysayers wrong. Twenty-three thousand people flocked to the former backwoods logging railroad for a fun-filled history lesson. And people have been coming by the thousands ever since.
The 2014 season at Cass starts May 16 and runs through Nov. 3.
"Cass Scenic Railroad" retails for $59.95. It's available at area bookstores or by mail from the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society at 866-639-7487 or P.O. Box 393, Huntington, WV 25708. Postage and handling is $6 and West Virginia residents must add 6 percent sales tax.
James E. Casto is a retired Huntington newspaper editor and the author of a number of books on local and regional history.