From childhood I have been fascinated by trains. Perhaps it is the gigantic mass of moving machinery, or the quasi-romance associated with railroads that attracted me, but whatever it is, it's still alive within me. I would have loved to have enjoyed a career with a railroad company, but I had the misfortune to be completing college at a time when railroads were in a precipitious decline and masses of employees were being shown the exit door. Spilt milk at this point.
There is an excitement that accompanies walking toward a restored and immaculately maintained railroad station with "1908" emblazoned on a stone tablet set high below a roof overhang. It's a chance to escape the disposability of today for a brief return to the strength, elegance, and permanence of long ago. The thrill fades a bit when faced with the 'gift shop frenzy' of children and adults pawing through pink engineer hats, multi-colored tee shirts, plastic trains, and wooden train whistles made in China. If you make an honest effort to stick with admiring the architecture, the buzz stays a bit longer. Then the building begins to shake and an ever-louder roar signals the approach of a 1500 horsepower shark-nose diesel-electric locomotive built in 1947. The blast of the horn is deafening and sends whiney children screaming back to their mothers, but sends a welcomed chill down my spine.
Stepping outside I am confronted by a huge beast that sits at thunderous idle, diesel fumes spewing from its exhaust stack. Power throbs from within it, vibrating anything nearby. It is sleek and beautifully curved, painted shiny black and emblazoned with "WESTERN MARYLAND" in bold yellow letters that seem to extend to the horizon. Like the impulse to touch a wild animal, I am filled with the desire run my hands over the smooth, curving surfaces. High above me the large glowing headlight shines like a single eye. All about the machine are wires, pipes, and conduits. A pipe railing guards workers who must stand at the front as well as inconsiderate and disrespectful tourists. High above sits the engineer in his windowed chamber, master of all that will happen on this day. There is a feeling of awe that mere men could build such a grand and powerful creature as this.
Ticket in hand, I carefully avoided the gift shop in favor of an old corrugated metal building labelled "Cass Showcase". Once inside I was treated to a scale model of the town as it existed in 1908, a narrated history provided by a knowledgeable gentleman, and a wonderful 10-15 minute movie. All were quite interesting, and the end of the movie was punctuated by the melodic scream of a steam whistle. When I exited the building, a huge black steam locomotive with four passenger cars sat at the depot. I would learn later that the engine before me was a 160 ton Shay steam locomotive, the second largest ever built, constructed in 1945 in Lima, Ohio. It was a magnificent creature, vastly different from the shapely diesel of Elkins and unlike anything I had ever seen.
An incredibly complicated machine, it had a boiler and a cab, but other than that it bore no resemblance to the usual steam locomotives. There are three exposed steam cylinders on each side and the cylinders drive a long crankshaft along the lower right side of the unit. This crankshaft drives gears at each of the six wheels, including two beneath the tender. Since the six wheels are rigidly connected to axles and the wheels on the other side, technically it is a 'twelve wheel drive' machine. It is the locomotive equivalent of 'all wheel drive', which was necessary to negotiate the steep grades encountered while climbing the mountains where logging operations were being conducted. As I studied it, I began to realize what an absolute marvel it is that something like this could still be in regular service after all those years. Unlike the relatively smoke-free diesel, a steady cloud of black coal smoke chugged from the stack while water leaked from the botton and steam hissed from relief valves. It was both frightening and strangly magnetic at the same time. It was like staring at a bomb with the strange compulsion to see what that large red button does.
Most trains operate at a maximum grade of about 2% or two feet vertically in one hundred feet. Beyond that, their drive wheels begin to slip on the steel rails. Applying sand to the rails may help gain an extra percent or two, but that is about the limit. Almost immediately we were at 9%, a gradient that sent most people to their seats and kept them there. The ancient engine worked its mechanical heart out with clouds of bellowing smoke and flying pistons spinning the driveshaft. But up we went.
After visiting the sites of two abandoned logging towns and a couple of engineering feats, we began our descent back down the mountain. It is disconcerting to start down an 11% grade in front of 160 tons of steel and steam on wheels. Looking through the open cars at that huge boiler, I couldn't help but hope that those 65 year old brakes would hold until we reached level ground. Despite trust in competent people, there seems to be a point where those 'Stephen King' thoughts start to pop up. But in the end, thoughts were needless as we slowly and steadily returned to the Village of Cass.
All told it was a very nice couple of days. I have grown to appreciate history and the people who comprised it. It is equally satisfying to experience the efforts of those who put their passions into action so that others may experience a bit of the times long behind us.