Trains that once transported coal, timber, and other materials now take tourists up steep West Virginia mountains and through narrow valleys that, in some cases, can be accessed only by rail.
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park is the premier location for excursion trains in West Virginia. Located between Dunmore and Green Bank in Pocahontas County, it is accessible by State Route 28/92N or an 11-mile connector route, W.Va. 66, between Cass and U.S. 219 at Slatyfork. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so there may be more riders than seats.
The state park offers three trips: Cass to Whittaker Station, Cass to Bald Knob, and Cass to Spruce, all at grades so steep that switchbacks are necessary.
- At Whittaker Station, four miles from Cass, travelers can leave the train, eat, tour a re-created 1940s logging camp, and enjoy a spectacular mountain view.
- At 4,842 high, Bald Knob is the third-highest point in West Virginia. Eleven miles from Cass, Bald Knob provides a view of two states on a clear day. During the Bald Knob trip, the train stops at Whittaker Station for about 20 minutes. The trip takes four and a half hours.
- The trip to Spruce also stops at Whittaker Station. The Spruce Run excursion visits the Big Cut, the highest point on a standard gauge mainline railway in the East. The trip takes four and a half hours. The Spruce Run trip is not available in 2012 because of a habitat restoration project on the Upper Shavers Fork of the Cheat River.
The Cass Scenic Railroad State Park trains are made up of Shay steam locomotives used in Cass when it was a logging town and old logging flat cars that have been refitted to carry people. The locomotives include a Shay No. 2, Shay No. 4, Shay No. 5, Shay No. 6. Shay No. 7, Shay No. 11, Feather River No. 3, Heisler No. 6, and a Climax No. 9.
Restored company houses in Cass may be rented as vacation cottages. The town includes a company store, restaurant, free museum, train depot, and locomotive shop. Visitors may watch an orientation film, see a diorama, and take tours of the town.
The Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad, also known as Mountain Rail Adventures, is building a network of train excursions through central West Virginia. All but the Durbin Rocket leave from Elkins, in Randolph County, while the Durbin Rocket leaves from Durbin, in Pocahontas County. For information and reservations about the company’s trips, call 1-877-686-7245 or visit the company’s website. Trains generally operate April through October, except for The Polar Express, which runs in November and December only. All trains travel through the Monongahela National Forest.
- The Cheat Mountain Salamander, named for the endangered species that lives along its tracks, provides an 88-mile round-trip along the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. The train travels through a 1,500-foot tunnel under Cheat Mountain that includes an S-curve. Passengers may spot bald eagles and black bears. There is a stop at Cheat Bridge as well as the High Falls of the Cheat, a 150-foot wide, 18-foot high natural falls. The trip takes six and a half hours. A trip to Spruce is not available in 2012 because of a habitat restoration project.
- The New Tygart Flyer offers a 46-mile round trip from Elkins along the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. The trip features two mountain grades, the S-curve tunnel, a deep canyon run, and a ride over a high bridge. The train stops at the High Falls of the Cheat. All cars on this trip are climate-controlled. The trip takes four hours.
- The Mountain Explorer Dinner Train also is a four-hour trip. The trip includes a four-course meal, after which the train stops at the High Falls of the Cheat. Meals and destinations vary depending on the season.
- The Polar Express departs from Elkins about two dozen times in November and December for a ride that re-creates the Chris Van Allsburg book and the movie based on the book. During the excursion, dancing waiters serve hot chocolate, and the book is read aloud. Then, as the train passes through a dark forest, the lights of Santa’s village appear. Passengers see Santa’s sleigh and reindeer, and then Santa himself boards the train to pass out a silver sleigh bell to each child. Travelers should make reservations early because the excursions sell out quickly.
- The Durbin Rocket provides a two-hour trip along 10 miles of the Greenbrier River in northern Pocahontas County. The train is hauled by Old No. 3, one of three Climax locomotives still operating. The 55-ton engine was manufactured in 1910 for the Moore-Keppel Lumber Company in Randolph and Upshur counties. Passengers ride in 1920-era coaches and vintage wooden cabooses. The train departs from Durbin.
- Travelers on the Durbin Rocket have the option of renting the Castaway Caboose for one or more nights. The caboose sleeps up to six adults. The Rocket hauls the caboose to one of two remote locations along the Greenbrier River, leaves it there as a “castaway,” and then returns a day or two later to pick it up. The caboose is equipped with a refrigerator, range, heat, linens, towels, utensils, DVD player, full-size shower, restroom, and wood for a campfire.
There are also two fall foliage train excursions in West Virginia, one on the eastern slope of the Alleghenies and one on the western slope. In the east, the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad in Romney, Hampshire County, offers a three-and-a-half-hour ride as well as an all-day trip to and from Moorefield, with a rest stop in Petersburg. On the Potomac Eagle, passengers are likely to spot bald eagles while the train travels through Potomac Highland valleys and along the along the South Branch of the Potomac River. The Potomac Eagle generally is run by a combination of four General Motors locomotives: a Baltimore & Ohio GP-9 No. 6604, Chessie System GP-9 No. 6240, Potomac Eagle F7A No. 722, and a Chesapeake & Ohio F3Au No. 8016. Most trips include at least one open-air car, regular passenger coaches, an air-conditioned snack bar car, and first-class cars.
The Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society in Huntington operates day trips during two weekends in October on a former Chesapeake & Ohio rail line through the New River Gorge. One of the Saturday trips takes place on Bridge Day, the only day of the year during which base jumping and rappelling is allowed off the New River Gorge Bridge. The train passes underneath the bridge on its way to and from Hinton, the end-point on the trip from Huntington. Passengers also can board in Charleston. In addition, the railroad society offers day trips and overnight excursions to the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs as well as multi-day excursions to Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia. Passengers on those trips travel and dine in the society’s own cars, which are attached to the back of Amtrak trains.
Written by Jennifer Bundy