Cass, West Virginia, is a special place. I have treasured memories and photographs of our young family’s trip to Cass, including riding up the mountain on the old logging railroad behind a restored Shay engine. Additional off-season visits fully established my fascination with the area. Wandering alone along the tracks, past the old station and company store, through the small community of white clapboard buildings, and by the ruins of the massive lumber mill, it was easy to imagine a time when Cass was a thriving lumber town isolated deep in the mountains. Spending two nights in a mill worker’s 100-year-old home was a treat that made modeling Cass even more compelling to me. This is why I incorporated a version of it into my proto-freelance Chesapeake & Ohio layout.
My 30×31’ HO scale layout is the C&O’s Ryder Gap Subdivision, named after the mountain pass the Greenbrier Subdivision would have traveled had the management team chosen the engineering division’s recommended route. Its proto-freelanced design has allowed me to focus on what I enjoy most about model railroading: building prototype-based scenes and hosting operating sessions that emphasize industrial and yard switching. My original design and development focused on the largest town, Mountain Grove, and its freight yard, engine facility, and paper mill (see Model Railroad Planning 2021 for the full track plan).
ABOVE: Extra 5817 is passing the original sawmill. The log pond has been drained and is overgrown. Trucks used the wood platform on the left to dump their logs, while railcars used the partially obscured platform on the right. The vertical spar tree remains, while the jack slip that lifted logs up to the sawmill is gone. The brick powerhouse is on the left behind the mill.
I worked on building and operating Mountain Grove for seven years before expanding the layout. During that time I designed, redesigned, and redesigned yet again the rest of the railroad. Cass was always part of the expansion plans, albeit in different locations and in different footprints. Cass’s Mower Lumber mill closed in 1960; my layout is set in the spring of 1974. I could use modeler’s license and pretend that the mill was still open, but this plan always left me a bit dissatisfied.
Less than 20 miles from Cass is Bartow, W.Va., home of the Inter-State Hardwoods lumber mill. Inter-State was a customer of the C&O in 1974 and is still a sizable active mill today. What if they had decided to expand by buying the abandoned Mower facility and then by redeveloping the site? I began to imagine a scene that combined the old, partially abandoned Cass wood buildings with the more modern sheet-metal structures in Bartow.
ABOVE: The Mill Gap Turn is preparing to leave from in front of the warehouses. The wood flooring warehouse on the left is the only part of the original mill still in use. The sheet metal lumber warehouse is kitbashed from a Pikestuff model and is painted a muted green to blend in with the surrounding scenery.
I located my new sawmill, Mill Gap Lumber, in Mill Gap, Va. Mill Gap is approximately 20 miles north of Mountain Grove and is reached by a lightly used branch line. Relocating the facility allowed me the mental freedom to create my own vision of Cass—a vision that is heavily influenced by Cass but also, to a lesser extent, by Inter-State Hardwoods.
Cass was served by two railroads, the C&O and a private logging rail system owned by Mower Lumber. Similarly, Mill Gap is served both by the C&O and a short line named the J&B. The J&B is named for the two tributaries it follows, the Jackson River and Back Creek (or perhaps for our two children, Joshua and Beth).
ABOVE: Empty woodchip hoppers are heading to the lumber mill’s chipping shed. The C&O painted the top ends of its woodchip hoppers yellow to warn crews not to contaminate them by loading coal. The wooded hill acts as a scene divider between the town to the right and the mill to the left.
I wrote a one-page history for Mill Gap, Mill Gap Lumber, and the J&B, thinking it might help my operators understand my vision. More importantly, it has given me guidance as I have designed and developed the town. As I made decisions about the track plan, structures, and scenery, I could look back and ask: “Which choice best supports the story I want to tell?”
Track Plan and Basic Construction
I have persistent tendinitis in both of my wrists, which all but eliminates my ability to use power tools. Fortunately, we had a next-door neighbor, Bob Lemon (a.k.a. Bob the Builder), who volunteered to help build the benchwork for Mountain Grove. Each time we would finish a section, Bob would ask, “What’s next?” Not knowing when I would have such a willing partner again, we kept building benchwork past what was needed for Mountain Grove itself. Building benchwork before you have a final design is a bad idea, but I could not pass up Bob’s offer to help. I am extremely grateful for everything he did.
Our building spree left a 13×17’ L-shaped section of benchwork that could be used for Mill Gap. This proved to be ample space to design a Cass-based plan with little compression. Minimizing compression is a key enabler to both of my overall goals. It creates enough space to develop a full prototype-based scene (not just a few prototype-based structures crowded too close together), and it also provides enough industrial trackage to support interesting switching operations…