West Virginia’s railroad legacy lives on with exciting ways to discover the state and experience autumn like never before.
It was not so long ago that train travel played an essential role in West Virginia’s vitality and our residents’ way of life. Mountain towns harvesting lumber and mining coal relied on the railroads to bring supplies in and ship products out. Now, these rail lines are bringing history to life and allowing passengers to see the state in a whole new way. From dinner theater cars in Elkins, to eagle sightings in Hampshire County, to lumber camp tours at Cass, there’s something new to discover for first-time visitors and veteran rail-riders alike.
Cass Scenic Railroad
Visiting Cass is like traveling back in time. This once-booming logging town is now one of the state’s biggest tourism attractions and a hidden gem that no West Virginian should miss. The company store, the museum, and the train depot remain aesthetically the same as they were in the 1940s, while the restored company houses can be rented for overnight or extended stays. Plan to arrive early and stop by the Cass Showcase. The orientation video and diorama depict the town in its heyday and give visitors a glimpse into the past. The Last Run Restaurant serves up home-cooked meals and will even pack lunches for your trip up the mountain.
The same Shay steam-powered locomotive that once hauled lumber on flatbed cars now hauls passengers up the original 1901 rail line showcasing pristine mountain views and fun features like two switchbacks. A ride on Shay’s open-air cars can be chilly in the fall as altitudes climb to above 4,000 feet, but the atmosphere is unbeatable. The lonesome whistle sounds as steam powers up the wheels and the train begins its slow chug up the mountain. Clouds of coal smoke from the engine linger in the golden leaves of the surrounding trees as the train ascends past Leatherbark Creek to the opening at Whittaker Station. Feel free to stop and have a bite to eat or a warm hot chocolate from the snack bar. Restrooms are also available. Don’t miss the recreated logging campsite of the 1940s which exhibits living quarters and antique equipment—like the Lidgerwood tower skidder, used by the loggers to carry logs out of the woods on aerial cables at distances up to 3,000 feet. The 4 hour, 30 minute ride to the train’s end at Bald Knob offers unprecedented views. The third highest point in West Virginia, elevation here clocks in around 4,700 feet.
Ride this line in style with a group reservation for the Greenbrier River Car or the Leatherbark Caboose. The Caboose is the rail’s only enclosed car and offers a heated cabin with booth-style seating for up to 48 passengers. While the riding options are many, it’s recommended that groups contact the train reservation office for an optimal railroading experience. And with upcoming fall events, like the Murder Mystery evening train, featuring a theatrical rendition of ‘The Murder of Lumberjack Johnny Parker’; Harvest Day; a photography workshop; Fiddles & Vittles, an eclectic day of train riding and bluegrass music; and the Halloween evening train and lantern tour of Cass, there’s never been a better excuse to plan an autumn outing.
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park; PO Box 107, Cass, WV 24927; 304.456.4300; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.cassrailroad.com
In 1884, the South Branch Railroad Company built a line from Green Spring to Romney creating a 53-mile stretch of commercial rail line transporting everything from passengers in the early 20th century to freight in the 1970s. Though the tracks have experienced multiple owners and expansion over the years, one thing—the beautiful natural surroundings—remains unchanged. With seasonal rides departing from Romney’s Wappacomo Station, this three-hour, 17-mile excursion is the best way to experience the Potomac Highlands’ rolling hills and spacious farmland. All-day trips traveling to Moorefield and Petersburg last longer, but provide breathtaking views of the fall foliage.
Choose from one open-air cabin or the spacious and enclosed passenger cars, which feature reversible seating. When you enter the train, you’ll discover a number of features like the on-board gift shop and the concession stand. Pack a picnic for the trip, or book first-class seating in advance to experience a complimentary lunch while you roll past sprawling farmland, spotting landmarks along the way. And “The Trough” makes the trip. This narrow mountain passageway hugging the South Branch of the Potomac River is accessible only by train or canoe, and the steep gorge offers dramatic views while Bald Eagle sightings in their natural habitat are reported on over 90 percent of outings. There are special events scheduled all season long like the October fall foliage rides and the Hardy Heritage Days in September.
Potomac Eagle-Wappocomo Station, Route 28 North, PO Box 657, Romney, WV 26757; 304.424.0736; www.potomaceagle.info
The Mountain Explorer
This unique excursion gives the “dinner date” a whole new meaning. Departing from the Elkins depot, The Mountain Explorer offers a four-course meal prepared by the Rail Yard Restaurant with every ticket, and boasts two dining cars—the Santa Fe Dining Car or the first-class Pullman Palace Parlor car. While this particular trip on the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad runs every other Saturday from June 19 through the end of August, a few special nights remain some of which revolve around a theatrical element provided by the Old Brick Playhouse. Enjoy murder mysteries and interact with actors with the September 18 “Panic Circus Parade” in which the lion tamer goes missing, or the October 30 “Masquerade and Mayhem” which puts a ghostly twist on the famed story of Frankenstein.
Whether it’s just you and your sweetie or a large group, this train can accommodate any need. Reservations are necessary, but other fun activities in the surrounding area are just a stone’s throw away, like the American Mountain Theater or Canaan Valley State Park.
This ride departs from the Elkins depot and lasts around five hours. Exploring beautiful scenery along Shaver’s Fork and the Cheat River, the train’s climb ends in a wooded area that time forgot—the former logging town of Spruce. A 45-minute stop at the majestic High Falls of the Cheat allows passengers to unload and take in the natural mountain surroundings. A buffet lunch is included in the ticket price, though some passengers choose to ride in the 1920s-era Parlor Car where cold lunch items are available for purchase. On Sundays, treat your family to a trip on the Santa Fe Dining Car when The Railyard Restaurant prepares fresh meals on board.
Hitch a ride on the Durbin Rocket’s Castaway Caboose to a remote location along the Greenbrier River—and then stay there. Far away from any modern conveniences like cell phone service, overnight stays on one of two totally remodeled Wabash Railroad cabooses offer comfortable amenities with room for up to six adults. They include a refrigerator, cook-top range, heat, linens, towels, utensils, a full-size shower, and restroom.
This train departs from Durbin at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. and it’s powered by one of the rarest steam locomotives in existence. Old No. 3 is one of only three Climax geared logging engines still in use today. Though she originally toiled for the Moore-Keppel Lumber Company in Randolph County, she now guides riders through 11 miles of wooded terrain in the Monongahela National Forest in around two hours. Choose to ride in a 1920s-era coach or one of the vintage wooden cabooses. While in Durbin, don’t miss the Rail & Trail store located directly across from the depot—souvenirs allow you to take the train home.
Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, 315 Railroad Avenue, Elkins, WV 26241; 304.636.9477; 877.MTN.RAIL (686.7245); www.mountainrailwv.com