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Review: Handsome book celebrates Cass Scenic Railroad

By James E. Casto

"Cass Scenic Railroad: Fifty Years a State Park -- A Century of Steam On Bald Knob." By Tim Hensley and Bob Withers with Ken Miller. Pocahontas Productions. 238 pages. $59.95.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's Cass Scenic Railroad celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013 and, sure enough, there's a commemorative book to mark that historic occasion.

And what a handsome book it is.

"Cass Scenic Railroad: Fifty Years a State Park -- A Century of Steam On Bald Knob" offers a detailed history of the tourist railroad and the logging town that gave birth to it. The encyclopedia-sized volume is illustrated with more than 500 color and black-and-white photographs, many of them published for the first time.

Over the years there have been other books about Cass, and no doubt there will be still more in the future, but this volume seems likely to become the standard reference work on this popular West Virginia attraction.

The book is the handiwork of three fellows who know their stuff -- Tim Hensley, of Kenova; Bob Withers, of Huntington; and Ken Miller, of Salem, Va.

Hensley, a former CSX employee, has spent the last 12 years as a locomotive engineer on the Huntington-Charlottesville, Va., portion of Amtrak's Cardinal route. He's also the engineer for the popular New River Train, which each fall runs between Huntington and Hinton. A nationally recognized expert on the Norfolk & Western Railway, he wrote the text for "Steel, Steam & Stars," a collection of O. Winston Link's justly famed N&W photographs.

Bob Withers is a retired reporter and feature writer for The (Huntington) Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of train books, including the authoritative and richly detailed "The President Travels by Train."

Miller is a talented graphic designer and the author of "Norfolk & Western Class J: The Finest Steam Passenger Locomotive."

Their book is a joint venture of Pocahontas Productions and the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society. Pocahontas Productions is a newly formed partnership between Hensley and Miller with a goal of producing quality books on the region's considerable railroad heritage.

Among them, the three men have made more trips to Cass than they can count and, accordingly, they've laced their new book with their own recollections. But more than that, they've reached out to dozens of other folks for their memories (and their photographs). From the outset of their project, the authors were determined to tell the Cass story in as complete a fashion as possible.

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.


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