by Steve Funsten/photos by the author
Looking to spend some quality fun time at the workbench? Have you ever considered scratchbuilding an entire town? Well, after deciding I wanted to get my NMRA Achievement Program’s Prototype Modeler Certificate, I did and settled on the town of Cass, West Virginia, home to one of America’s most famous heritage railways.
Founded in 1901, Cass began as a small logging town located adjacent to the Greenbrier River in Pocahontas County. The town was named after Joseph Kerr Cass, the vice president and cofounder of the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company (later known as “Westvaco”).
Cass was a small company town for those working the Westvaco, logging the virgin timbered hills of nearby Cheat Mountain. The cut logs were brought down the mountain by rail to the town where they were processed for paper and hardwood-flooring companies throughout the United States. Laborers working the sawmill and the locomotive repair shop lived with their families in 52 white-fenced company houses built in orderly rows on a hill south of the company store.
ABOVE: The scratchbuilt Company Store is seen under construction using Mt. Albert scribed siding. Interior bracing and cutouts for almost 100 Grandt Line or scratchbuilt windows and doors for the three sides of the building modeled are installed in this view.
The sawmill closed in 1960. In 1963, the state of West Virginia bought the logging railroad, converting it into a tourist attraction. Eager passengers were given the opportunity to ride the rails into the vast Monongahela National Forest. In the late 1970s, the state also bought most of the town and buildings to create a new Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. The Cass mill burned down in 1982 and was never rebuilt. In 1980 the Cass Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The present-day town of Cass includes a company store which houses a gift shop, a restaurant, a history museum, an old U.S. Post Office, and the depot resembling those built for the Chesapeake & Ohio. The Cass tourist railroad runs open-air excursion cars powered by Shay, Climax and Heisler locomotives from the town up to Whittaker Station, the halfway point where a logger’s camp has been recreated on the mountain. The train then continues its laborious journey up the Mountain to Bald Knob, the third highest peak in West Virginia. Grades on the railroad exceed 11 percent, making it the steepest adhesion grade railroad in the world. The railroad’s climb to the summit also includes two switchbacks. The low-geared Shay locomotives are always placed on the downhill side of the train.
ABOVE: A broadside view of the completed Company Store as Shay 5 loads passengers.
The reason for modeling this prototype diorama was envisioned about four years ago. Searching for logging railroads on the internet, I ran across what I thought would be a perfect scene I could recreate for the NMRA Achievement Program’s Prototype Modeler Certificate, one of the eleven categories to choose from in the AP program. The concept is to recreate a prototype scene containing a minimum of six models of prototype equipment and/or structures. The requirements for the six models are to have at least one from each of the following categories: rolling stock, railroad structure, caboose or passenger car, and motive power.
Modeling logging railroads and related sites have always been a favorite of many model railroaders. Having personally spent 30 years logging timber across North Georgia, modeling a scene like the logging town of Cass seemed to be a perfect fit. Blue Ox Timber was the name of my former timber harvesting company which operated across north Georgia. Blue Ox Timber shut down logging operations in 2008 and suddenly I found myself with ample free time. I ran across an old box of nice N scale locomotives and rolling stock I purchased as a teenager, but N scale seemed much easier to see and work on when I was younger, so the decision was made to sell them at auction online.
ABOVE: In front of the entirely scratchbuilt depot, passengers aboard the open car just heard the conductor’s “All aboard!” as the Cass Scenic Railroad train is ready to head up the mountain.
The new plan was to start modeling in HO scale. What started as a small hobby of selling trains grew into a full-time model train business with customers spanning the globe. Coming up with a name for the new model train business wasn’t difficult, and so it was named Blue Ox Trains after the old logging company. The store is located in Roswell, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, and is now one of the most popular brick-and-mortar train stores in the Southeast.
There was also an ulterior motive for building the three scratchbuilt structures for the diorama. All three structures could first be evaluated individually to hopefully score sufficient points for Merit Awards in the NMRA AP Structures category, and the same structures could be used again in the prototype model diorama. This is allowed in the regulations for AP Prototype Modeler.
While the town of Cass has remained relatively unchanged for most of its 100-plus years, the setting or era for this diorama is the fall of 1983. Having never visited Cass personally, I relied predominantly on a multitude of previously published photos for reference material I found readily available online…