West Virginia Logging Railroads, By William E. Warden

Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

Author William E. Warden is quite well known by those who study the history of railroads in Appalachia, especially the Mountain State. In West Virginia Logging Railroads, released by TLC Publishing, he offers a very thorough history of the subject, particularly the larger operations including the Mower Lumber/West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company (today's Cass Scenic Railroad), Elk River Lumber Company/W.M. Ritter/Georgia-Pacific, Elk River Coal & Lumber Company, Cherry River Boom & Lumber Company, and the Ely-Thomas Lumber Company (other lines mentioned include the Pardee & Curtin Lumber Company, Moore-Keppel Company, and Beech Mountain Railroad). If you are looking for a history of logging railroads in West Virginia I would highly recommend picking up this book first. Additionally, the photos, despite being in black and white, are first rate and offer scenes we will likely never see again (the last few pages of photos are actually in color).

The book begins with and introduction giving the reader an idea of what the book presents from describing the West Virginia backcountry to the locomotives typically used in logging operations, notably geared steam types including Shays (the most common), Heislers, and Climaxes. In the opening chapter of West Virginia Logging Railroadsthe author provides a background of the state's forest density when the timber was still almost entirely virgin. If you have any interest in just the Mountain State's history you will enjoy the early reading of this chapter as Mr. Warden describes how this timber appeared; 70 to 80 feet tall with diameters sometimes stretching greater than 10 feet! As you will learn, early steam power and the development of the circular saw made the production of lumber much cheaper and more readily available by the early 19th century.

However, it was not until the development of the railroads could it be transported efficiently and cheaply. By the 1880s, however, this changed for the state of West Virginia thanks in large part to the development of the Shay geared steamer in the 1870s and the Heisler a decade later (the Climax became available in the 1890s). And this is actually the topic of chapter two, which looks at the motive power employed by timber companies of that era. Interestingly, before the geared locomotives became popular for their ruggedness and ability to lug heavy loads up incredibly steep grades most companies used early 4-4-0s, 2-8-0s, and 2-6-0s; standard rigid-frame rod designs that were simply ill-suited for such tasks. Additionally, the geared steamer decreased operating costs by allowing minimal grading and ever-so-basic right-of-way construction to reach the timber tracts.

In the second chapter the author provides a very good history and overview of the Shay, Climax, and Heisler. In chapter three West Virginia Logging Railroads begins to look at the individual operations beginning with the Mower Lumber Company owned by the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company. This is the property where today's Cass Scenic Railroad operates and it was able to ship out its product via the Chesapeake & Ohio's Greenbrier Branch, a line where many logging companies situated their operations being located along the Greenbrier River. Mower Lumber opened during the first decade of the 20th century and quickly grew into the largest operation in the state. Historically, the operation was famous for being where the Wright Brothers purchased an order of lumber to construct their first plane.

The Cass operation was also one of the longest surviving as it did officially shutdown until June 30, 1960 when the line was formally abandoned. Thanks to efforts of a few individuals the railroad was saved, reopening in 1961 as Cass Scenic and owned by the state. In chapter four Mr. Warden highlights the Elk River Coal & Lumber Company, which was part of the famed Buffalo Creek & Gauley Railroad system between Dundon (and a connection with the Baltimore & Ohio) and Widen (the ERC&L diverted southeastwardly from Avoca). It was chartered in 1903, was standard gauge, and moved logs until the late 1950s. The railroad was well known for its fording of the Lily Fork River in several locations, which is to say it crossed the waterway in shallow areas (something a diesel could never do for fear of ruining traction motors).

By the early 1960s the entire BC&G operation was abandoned. Next up is the Meadow River Lumber's operation in Greenbrier, Fayette, and Summers counties. The entire line extended throughout all three counties and was known in its later years as the Nicholas, Fayette & Greenbrier Railroad owned jointly by the C&O and New York Central. However, the logging operations were centralized to northwest Greenbrier County near Anjean. The actual railroad operations for logging here began after 1907 and remained in use through the 1950s (the last years saw a switch to small GE diesel switchers). Finally, the Ely-Thomas operation is highlighted located in Nicholas County with a connection to the B&O. It picked up services in 1938 from a former operation, Fenwick Lumber and survived only into the mid-1950s (in reality, many lumber operations around the country during the time stopped and started with different owners).

Overall, every logging line covered in West Virginia Logging Railroads operated at least one Shay with some Climaxes and Heislers sprinkled in here and there. Many of these steamers saw regular use for nearly 100 years and only a few companies actually felt it necessary to spend capital on small diesel switchers, most of which saw only a few years of service before abandonment occurred. With every operation covered Mr. Warden provides a detailed maps and sometimes diagrams of mills and yard layouts, which may even come in handy to modelers looking to replicate the line.