Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Rhoderick D. Ice

Cass Railroad State Park in West Virginia. A living memorial to how things used to be when lumber was king in these hills.

I stood at the Cass train station waiting for the Shay Locomotive to come down the hill. I was thinking about the times of old and what it would be like back then. In my mind I was there.
Crowds of people had come to this boom town of Cass to work in the lumber industry. You have to go where the work is. I was here to find a good paying job.

"Chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff." The big Shay Locomotive now coming into the station sounds different from most steam trains. The big Shay has three cylinders which chuff away in a smooth rhythm. It came backing into the area in front of the depot, pulling a string of logging cars. Two Shays were hooked to this train. It takes a lot of power to get up to the top of this mountain. The Shays go all the way up to Bald Knob to bring back logging cars loaded with logs.

I walked around the Shay to look it over. It is beautiful, gleaming black, with polished brass fittings sort of a golden color. I could feel the heat from the firebox in its middle and see bright red flames through the cracks. Steam sprayed out here and there.

The fireman was shoveling coal into the firebox of the boiler. Pungent black smoke billowed out of the smokestack. The pump on the side of the boiler chuffed away as it pumped more water into the boiler to keep it full. Suddenly the safety valve sent up a blast of steam. Too much pressure would burst the boiler.

Jim Jenkins, my good friend, came over to me.

"Roger, I got my ax from supply. I'm ready for the big day!"

"Jim! I'm ready too. Imagine, cutting those big trees way up on Bald Knob Mountain! We've sure got our work cut out for us."

"Yeah, but think of payday! All that money at the end of the week! It is a job, and jobs are hard to find in this day."

The Shay's whistle gave a long blast. Men began hurrying to get on the train. We climbed on a logging car and braced ourselves against one of the posts sticking up from the edge of the car. The posts were to keep the logs from rolling off.

The whistle gave a short blast. There was a jerk as the Shay began pushing the cars up the hill. We went past the repair shops, moved a little faster past the water tower, and then up to speed toward the first switch-back.

The train slowed as it came to the switch-back. It gently eased into the long switch-back siding and then stopped. The brakeman jumped off and ran to pull the switch which would direct the train up the mountain on the other set of tracks. The switching rails moved with a "thunk" solidly against the other rails. We were ready to go on up the mountain.

Now the Shay was in front with the logging cars behind. We were on the way to the next switch-back. The switch-backs angle across the side of the mountain and make it possible to get up the steep grade.

"Chuff-chuff-chuff" went the Shay's three cylinders. We came to a steeper section of track and the Shay's drive wheels slipped. "Chuffchuffchuff." The engineer released sand which went down a chute to where the drive wheels met the track. The sand gave enough bite to give traction again, and we continued on up the mountain.

We arrived at the next switch-back and the brakeman jumped off to throw the switch to send the train up the next set of rails. He pulled the lever and the switching-rails moved. This time the Shay would be behind the logging cars again. It was safer that way. The heavy Shay had good brakes, and being at the bottom of the train would help control the heavy load of logs when coming back down the steep mountain.

"Jim! Here we are at the top! Brrr! Isn't it cold up here on Bald Knob Mountain! How the wind blows!"

Jim took a deep breath. "Yeah, so cold and clear and fresh! Makes me feel good to be alive!"

We stood a moment and just looked around. We could see mountains in the distance. They were probably over in Virginia. They seemed a long way off.

The small village of Spruce was up here on the mountain. It was mostly barracks for the workers to live in. There were sheds and barns and all the things we would need to stay up here for weeks at a time.

"OK. You ready? Let's get to work." Max Joist, the Foreman, led us into the forest and showed us where to work today.

Jim and I were to work on the same big tree. It takes a lot of chopping to cut a big tree down. Our axes were so sharp you could shave your whiskers with them. This wood is hard and you must have a sharp ax.

"Here we go!" Jim said. He gripped the ax with both hands, reared back, and swung as hard as he could! "Whomp!" A chip flew out of the tree-trunk. Then as he reared back for another swing, I swung my ax and chopped into the tree. "Thunk!" Another chip flew. We kept chopping away one after another.

Finally, we seemed to have the tree cut almost through. We heard a cracking noise and the tree began to lean over.

Jim yelled "Timber!!!" We ran to be in a safe area.

The tree came down with a crash and a thump that shook the ground, breaking limbs from other trees as it fell.

We began chopping the top out of the tree, then we chopped off the branches to prepare the trunk of the tree for loading on the train. By this time I wasn't cold anymore. The sweat just rolled down my face. We did stop now and then to drink plenty of water from the jug at hand.

The foreman came up to us. Two men followed him dragging a steel cable. They dug under the tree trunk and hooked the end of the cable around it. The foreman blew his whistle and the steam skidder began reeling in the cable, dragging the log - as it was now called - sliding it over the ground to the loading area - skidding it, as the loggers say.

We followed to see things as they happened. When the log was dragged to the logging car, men put props under it and attached more cables so that it could be rolled up onto the car. They guided the log as the cables pulled it up. When the logging car was filled with logs piled one on another, the Shay Locomotive would take it down the mountain to be sawed into boards.

"Clang!-Clang!-Clang!" Someone was pounding a gong. "Food!" the men shouted and we all began running to the cook-shack. We were famished!

Ham, lots of pinto beans, fried potatoes and onions, biscuits and cornbread. Plenty of good coffee, strong enough to float a horseshoe. And lots of pure fresh mountain water. What more could we want! We ate and ate and then ate some more. It takes a lot of energy to work in the woods cutting trees.

Back to work! Lots more trees to cut!

When we couldn't see anymore in the dark, it was time to quit. We were totally exhausted! We walked with the others back to our bunkhouse and fell into bed clothes and all. I was asleep before I hit the bed.

The sound of the steam whistle finally brought me awake. Another day was here. All of us washed as quickly as we could in the icy water. Then we ran to the cook shack.

Pancakes - only they called them flapjacks. They were thicker than the pancakes I knew, and heavier. But they did taste delicious to a hungry man! Molasses and butter to go with them. Biscuits too. They called them cat-heads. And brown gravy which they called poor dew. Lots of good greasy bacon. You do need all these calories when you work in the woods all day. And again that coffee that would take the varnish off a board. After a cup or two of the coffee I began to really wake up and feel alive! All that fresh air and exercise! I could live to be a hundred!

The foreman walked in the door and gave a blast on his whistle. "Get to work! It's a new day! Let's get at it!"

"Boss, you're a real slave driver!" one man said. Another just groaned.

Jim and I sighed, and headed out to cut down one more tree, or several. Will we ever make it to the end of this week? Payday! Won't you come soon!

But dreams end and I was standing by the tracks as the Shay came into the station. I'm glad I don't live in the past. But what memories! I'm ready to get on this train and ride up to the top again!

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