West Virginia Trains

On Tuesday, June 11, I got into my new car and started a 5 hour trip to the Appalachian region of West Virginia. My first stop the town of White Sulphur Springs and the Greenbrier Resort. An old fashioned and luxury hotel that has accommodated vacationers, since 1778. Most of the current facilities were built in the 1910’s and refurbished in the 1930’s and through the following years more modern amenities were added.

The Greenbrier Resort

Many sitting presidents stayed at the Greenbrier, including Dwight Eisenhower. During his administration and at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government approached the Greenbrier owners for assistance in the construction of an Emergency Relocation Center, a subterranean bunker or bomb shelter, to be occupied by the U.S. Congress in case of nuclear war.

Interior of the Greenbrier Resort

The bunker was built under a new annex to the hotel and its existence was kept secret for thirty years. During all these years the bunker was maintained fully operational and ready for use.

In 1992, after being exposed by an article in The Washington Post, the bunker is decommissioned. Since 2006 the bunker is been open for public tours. I took the ninety minutes guided tour, which was interesting and instructive. If interested, and don’t want to travel to White Sulphur Springs, you can watch a short video in Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3kAcJruEOs .

After the tour I checked at a Quality Inn hotel in the near town of Lewisburg, WV. (Although I ate lunch in one of the Greenbrier restaurants, I certainly couldn’t afford their room rates.). Later, I had a so-so dinner in a restaurant called Food and Friends.  

Cass train depot

Next morning, I headed to the town of Cass, about an hour and a half away. There is no much to see in Cass (population 52). There is a general store, a restaurant, a history museum, and 20 houses refurbished for tourist lodgings.  It used to be a company town for those who worked for West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, logging the nearby Cheat Mountain.

Cass Scenic Railroad on its way to Bald Knob

Nowdays, from its train station leaves the scenic Cass Scenic Railroad, a train pulled by a geared Shay steam locomotive, almost 100 years old, which follows an historic route through a logging area that supplied lumber for the pulp industry, between 1900 and 1960. The area that had been stripped of all its trees by 1960, has been reforested and lush trees grow high again on the hillside. The train slowly climbs the 11 miles route to the top of the Bald Knob Mountain, in about two hours. There are several spots where one can see panoramic views of the Allegheny Mountains. And once the train gets to its stop close the summit, the view is truly spectacular.

A view of the Appalachian Mountains
Whittaker Station

On our way back, we stopped at a place called Whittaker Station, where there is a restored logger’s camp and some impressive antique machinery used by the logging industry. There is also an abandoned forest fire outlook tower.

After the train returned to Cass, I drove North to Elkins, where I would stay the next three nights at the Iron Road Inn. After checking in I had dinner at a Venezuelan restaurant called El Gran Sabor, where I had cachapas a traditional Venezuelan dish, (corn pancakes filled with chicken) with a side of rice and beans.

Heisler # 6 steam locomotive

The next morning I headed south again, to the town of Durbin, a pretty run down town, which had better times during the years when it was a center for the logging industry that dominated the economy of the area.  Now, the only thing that remains from those years is the train station, from where tourists board the Durbin Rocket, a train that takes a scenic ride through the Monongahela National Forest. Don’t let the name of the train fool you: it isn’t a fast train. The train, pulled by a Heisler (# 6) coal-fired steam locomotive, chucks along the lovely Greenbrier River at less than 10 miles per hour. Passengers ride 1920-era coaches and there is a vintage caboose at the end of the short train.

At my return of the 2 hour train ride, I had the worst culinary experience of my trip. There are two restaurants in the town. I pocked my nose in the first one, Al’s Upper Inn Club, and it didn’t look very inviting. It was dark and smoky, so I headed to the second one: Station # 2, which looked like a nice family restaurant. There were about 12 or 15 people inside waiting to be served. I order a grilled chicken sandwich and a soda. It didn’t take long for the soda to arrive at my table, but I had to wait 50 minutes for my sandwich and when it finally arrived it was dry and totally tasteless. Perhaps, I should have gone to the “dark” restaurant…

Green Bank Telescope

In the afternoon I drove to the Green Bank Observatory, where there are eight radio telescopes distributed around its large campus, listening and mapping vast areas of the Universe. The observatory is located in the US National Quiet Radio Zone, where all radio transmissions are limited to avoid emissions toward the GBT (Green Bank Telescope). The placement of the telescope within the Radio Quiet Zone allows for the detection of faint radio-frequency signals which man-made signals might otherwise mask.

After spending almost an hour in the very interesting exhibition hall, I took a tour of the campus, ending at the large Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, which with its 100 meters diameter disk is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope.

Back to Elkins. The highway meanders through a section of the Appalachian Mountains and its curves seem to be never ending for almost one hour.  The drive is a bit nerve racking.

That night I ate at restaurant called C.J. Maggie’s in downtown Elkins. Had an excellent pizza with a local beer.

Tygart Flyer about to leave Elkins Depot

My last railroad trip the next day stated at the restored Elkins Depot. By 11 am I was sitting comfortable in the parlor car of the Tygart Flyer. This excursion was the most relaxing of the three I took. The train was powered by a vintage diesel locomotive, climbing along the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River and made a stop at the High Falls of the Cheats. We went through mountain grades, an “S” curve tunnel, a high bridge and miles of unspoiled mountain views. Lunch was served at the train and consisted of a cold sandwich buffet. It also included a glass of wine. What more can one ask?

At the end of the four hour trip I visited the WV Railroad Museum which commemorates the railroads that build cities like Elkins. A section of the museum celebrates the culture of the Appalachians and the different groups that have inhabited it.

The view from the Forks Inn

That night I had dinner at an outstanding restaurant overlooking the mountains: The Forks Inn. The serving staff was first-rate and the food superb. I had Steak Au Poivre Vert (a flat iron steak with a brandy and green peppercorn sauce) and an excellent glass of Californian cabernet sauvignon. A memorable ending of a very pleasant trip.

The trip back home on Saturday was unremarkable, except for the first hour when I had to drive again through what seem the unending curvy mountain roads of the Appalachians in West Virginia and Virginia. The rest of the journey was mostly through farm land and a by mid-afternoon I arrived at Carrboro, tired, but happy that I had been able to do this trip.