Briana Heaney Published

Christmas Train Breathing Life Into Old Lumber Town

Families sit on a table on the train holding babies and smiling at each other.
Families come from all over the state to visit ride the train. Many families come from Snowshoe with young children to ride the train as well.
Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The Cass Christmas Train, West Virginia’s version of the Polar Express, chugs along the Greenbrier River at around five miles an hour. Big white plumes of steam interlace with black torrents of smoke and sink down to the river hovering just above the surface.

A river with smoke above it.
The train cart smelled like cinnamon and petrol.
Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Inside, the train cars are decorated with garland and ornaments. Families come prepared to this event with bags full of goodies and thermoses filled with hot chocolate. The families in the train cart sing along to Christmas songs, while elves pass out warm cookies and juice.

A man dressed as the grinch moves through a crowded train as a kid throws a fake snowball at him.
An orchestrated snowball fight broke out on the train after employees passed around fake snowballs.
Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Later there is a bake-off in town and a bingo night for the hundreds of weekend visitors to this little town — which has a year-round population of 30 people.

Expanding The Season To Christmas

This is all part of an effort to keep Cass open later in the year and keep a steady flow of tourism through the town, to generate revenue for preserving the town’s history.

A train station with a man dressed as a elf stands outside.
The Train Station has been there for over 100 years. It now sells hot chocolate, snacks, and souvenirs.
Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

J.T. Arbogast has a long family heritage with this town. His great grandfather owned the grocery store that rivaled the paper mill’s company store. Now he works to keep this town alive year round.

“There wasn’t anything past the fall really. Once the leaves were done, the state shut things down,” Arbogast said. “So the houses and the town were pretty dark to come driving through here.” 

photo of a man in a community center.
Arbogast is the third generation of his family to keep Cass’s history alive. Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The trains used to only be open for scenic rides in the summer and fall. 

But then President of the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad Incorporated, John Smith, had the idea to start offering a Christmas train experience. Arbogast said this inspired him to start hosting events during the winter as well. 

“We thought, well, if we’re going to be doing that, like… what’s a way that we can create an experience for people who are coming into town?” Arbogast said. 

Cass’s History 

The town of Cass is an old lumbering town. Every home has the exact same build, and all the town buildings are painted white. There are three rows of identical homes, a community center, a barber shop the size of a shed, the rail station, and a large house on the top of a hill where the mill owners lived. The town was founded in 1900, and the first houses were built a year later. 

A little building that looks like a shed sits with Christmas lights around it and a hair shop pole decal on the front of it.
A single person barber shop sits along the river in the little town.
Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Tammy Shoemaker grew up around Cass, and now works as an information specialist for the Convention and Visitors Bureau at Snowshoe Mountain and Cass Scenic Railroad. 

She says the town was founded by the Virginia Pulp and Paper Company- which is now the multibillion-dollar paper company, MeadWestvaco. They chose to set up in Cass because they needed Red Spruce to make paper. It  grows several miles from Cass, in small circles in some highest country in the state, around 4500 feet in elevation.  

The Red Spruce was carted down by train and processed at the sawmill in Cass. The whole operation went on like that for around 50 years and created a bustling economy for the area. At its peak, the town had more than 2,000 residents. 

“Yeah, that was a busy town — and that’s not counting the woodhicks that lived up in the mountain,” Shoemaker said. 

The mountain men responsible for timbering the wood only came down to Cass every six months. They would cash their paychecks, head across the river and party for a few days before heading back up the mountain.  

Arbogast said sometimes older visitors will get emotional when they visit the town because it so closely resembles their childhood in a old industry town, that now no longer exists.
Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The Track Forward 

All this history from the trains that went up and down the mountain, carrying timber and the occasional “woodhick”  to the company store is preserved in Cass. 

In 2018 Cass, and the scenic railroads around it became a state park. Superintendent Marshall Markley says it takes a lot of work and collaboration to keep this park going, but he says the park is unique.

“There are other historical parks, but there’s none quite like Cass,” Markley said. “Cass is probably the best example of a historic railroad logging town, in its most complete version. You notice that we have the railroad portion, of course, and the company houses, and the company store, the depot and all the supporting buildings, which, you know, in a lot of company towns, only a few pieces of that survive.”

A white church looking building sits along a road.
This old church is now a Community Center in Cass where the cookie bake off was.
Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

All this history, and more, is preserved, which Arbogast says is an uncommon fate for little towns like Cass. 

“Cass was destined to become what so many of these towns become, which is a memory. Right? Gone,” Arbogast said.   

However, Cass remains fully intact. It takes constant repairs to the quickly built, aging homes, special engineering of the steam-powered trains, and a group of people who keep finding creative ways to push this town forward. 

“We’re the only place in the country that has these three kinds of steam locomotives working. That’s worth celebrating,” Arbogast said. “The fact that these buildings, these houses, the history — that’s still here, that’s worth preserving and celebrating and figuring out the ways in which you honor that history but carry it forward in a new way for another generation.” 

A Santa sits next to a Christmas tree.
The old company story now has a buffet, a miniature Christmas train, and a photo opportunity with Santa.
Briana Heaney/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Beginning in January the oldest logging locomotive in the world will be running, there are other holiday-themed trains like a Halloween train during October, and through the summer and fall there are scenic rides through the mountains.