A train ride at Cass Scenic Railroad

Not too many days ago we had two gentlemen from Perth, Australia visiting DC. Like me, they find railroads exciting and had been traveling in Canada and the US, visiting railway museums and preservation rail lines. I must admit to a certain amount of envy, since they also travelled on the VIA "Canadian" train service from Vancouver to Toronto. That is a train ride which always has been on my "must do" list!

While they were here in Washington DC, I had arranged for all of us to go visit the Cass Scenic Railroad in Cass, West Virginia. It is not that far from DC, a bit more than three hours drive. The drive in itself is quite spectacular. US Route 250 is a "National Scenic Byway", climbing up in parts of the Allegheny Mountains to around 3000 feet on the way to Cass. 

The Cass experience can be done in one day from DC, albeit a very long one. We had opted to drive over and spend the night, then taking the train on the next day. Lucky we did: it was raining cats and dogs all the way, finally clearing up as we were checking into our accomodations for the night.

The Cass Scenic Railroad is a working West Virginia State Park with a fascinating history. (Read it in more detail here

It was an old logging railroad run with steam locomotives, now turned into a tourist attraction. The line climbs up to the top of Bald Mountain at about 4880 feet (1488 meters in real money), taking about 4 1/2 hours for the 22 mile (35 km) roundtrip. The grade on this line reaches 9% in sections, which is incredible for an adhesion railroad. US mainline railroads usually try not have grades more than 1.5%, but of course there are exceptions. BNSF Railroad's grade at Raton Pass is 3.3%.

Thus we come to the real exciting part of the Cass Scenic Railroad: The Shay steam locomotives. Normal side-coupled rod steam locomotives were just not suited for the logging railroad at the time. The grade was too steep and the track was rather uneven, since it was not laid down for permanent or main line style use on most parts of the line. Rather the track was put down, then logging began and after all the wood had been harvested, the track would be pulled up and put down again in another section of the woods to be logged. The engines did not need to be fast, just powerful and also flexible enough for the uneven track. 

A photo of coupled rods illustrating the typical, "normal" rod arrangement on steam locomotives. This shows the second set of drivers on my G scale Erie Railroad "Triplex" locomotive produced by MTH. Locomotives with side rods tend to have a rather rigid frame and drive set. 

To solve the problems of the uneven, steeply graded track and the heavy loads, some enterprising engineers and inventors came up with something altogether different: directly geared locomotives. Basically three successful variations of the geared steam locomotive emerged. The aforementioned "Shay" system, the "Climax" approach and finally the "Heisler" idea of gearing an engine. 

Cass Scenic Railroad Shay LocomotiveAs can be seen in the photo above, the Shay locomotive uses vertical cylinders (just in front of the cab) to drive a jointed shaft on the outside of the frame, connecting to each axle on the locomotive. This can be seen in more detail in the next photograph.

Detail of a Shay locomotive truck (bogie)This whole arrangement is rather flexible, allowing the locomotive to negotiate uneven track and since every axle is powered, with wheel slip not very likely, these engines were quite powerful climbers. Not very fast though: the maximum speed was around 15 to 20 miles an hour.   

Cass Scenic Railroad also has an example of a Heisler type Locomotive. It is also directly geared, but has the drive shaft inside the frame and the cylinders are arranged in a "V" type fashion. 

Detail of a Heisler type locomotive. (Photo from WikiMedia Commons)

Cass Scenic Railroad Heisler Steam Locomotive

The Cass Scenic Railroad does not have the third variant of a geared locomotive type. But the Durbin and Greenbriar Valley Railroad does have a Climax locomotive. This also is a former logging railroad and very close to Cass. So of course our little group had a look at it.

Climax engines are somewhat similar to the Heisler design, but they have no side rods. On the Climax the steam cylinders are located at an angle, powering a drive shaft via a transmission under the boiler. The drive shaft propels the front and rear truck of the locomotive. A lot of railroad engineers (drivers) considered the Climax superior to the Shay. Supposedly it had better stability, hauling capability and also was just a tad faster then the Shays. 

The "Durbin Rocket". A Climax steam locomotive on the Durbin & Greenbriar Valley Railroad

Here is a photograph of the steam cylinder arrangement on the Durbin & Greenbriar Valley Railroad.


A closer view of the gearing on the inside of the lead truck (bogie) of the Durbin & Greenbriar Valley Climax.

The Durbin & Greenbriar Climax at full speed on the line

But back to our trip on the Cass Scenic Railroad. To our great relief the weather had cleared up a bit. At Cass Station the temperature was quite tolerable, even in the open passenger coaches. However as we climbed towards Bald Mountain, the coats and hats and gloves came out! Alas there was no view from the top once we got there: Bald Mountain was fogged in. But some of the other views were nice.

View on the Cass Scenic Railroad

As I mentioned before, the whole trip to Bald Mountain and back to Cass Station takes about four and one half hours with a stop at Whittacker Station on the way up. The current timetable has one train a day, leaving at Noon, going all the way up the mountain. There are several other trains during the day which only go to Whittacker Station, not quite halfway on the line.

Whittacker Station on the Cass Scenic Railroad

Our train at Whittacker Station

If one goes all the way up to Bald Mountain, it is advisable to bring one's own food and drink. There is a small snack stand at Whittacker Station, but one may not get to the front of the line before the train continues on it's way.

It is also highly recommended to get tickets in advance, particularly during the peak autumn leaf changing season. The trains will be packed. On the day of our adventure the railroad had to add extra coaches unexpectedly, due to the unusually large number of passengers.

Shortly after our little group left to get back to DC, it started pouring down again. All the way home. Somebody must have looked out for us.

A short video of the "Durbin Rocket" and Cass Scenic Railroad Shay Nr. 6.

For much more information and technical details regarding geared steam locomotives, go to:




All photos by Ralf Meier / Brad Wing unless otherwise noted