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West Virginia Travel Guide

This West Virginia Company Town Feels Eerily Like an Episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’

There's just about Cass.

Imagine returning to your old neighborhood after years away. The streets and houses are unchanged, but no one lives there. No kids run down the streets and no dogs can be heard barking. Driveways are bereft of cars and silence is deafening. It’s empty and ghostly.

Here, in this particular town, the sense of weirdness extends beyond mere desolation. Maybe it has to do with the nearby Green Bank Observatory, part of the National Radio Quiet Zone. Forget about making a cell phone call in these parts. Not happening. And GPS doesn’t work at all or sends you somewhere you don’t want to go. Your wristwatch may not start running backward, but something in this mountain hamlet just feels…off, like the beginning of an episode of  The Twilight Zone.

Welcome to Cass, West Virginia.

The Rise and (Near) Death of a Company Town

At the turn of the past century, the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co. built a lumber mill on the banks of the Greenbrier River, 30 miles from the Virginia border, in one of the most mountainous regions of the Mountain State. A steam railroad served the mill by hauling red spruce down from the surrounding slopes and knobs. Dozens of two-story, two-and three-bedroom whitewashed cottages accommodated the company’s unskilled mill laborers, railroad workers, “wood hicks” (loggers), and their families.

The managers quickly realized they didn’t have just company housing; like it or not, they had an actual town. Laws needed to be enacted (no alcohol was permitted, nor is it today). A jail had to be built for rowdies, a school for children, a church for the pious, a store to purchase staples, and all the other accouterments of a thriving village. Many of those structures have survived to this day.

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The company town boasted more than 2,000 inhabitants by the 1920s. The lone church did triple duty, hosting Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians at separate Sunday services. Over on Big Bug Hill, where the managers lived in fine homes with their families, the lavish Luke House, named for the company’s owner, sat at the top of a knoll, higher than any other structure around. But after a long decline in the lumber harvest, the mill and railroad shut down in 1960. Employees packed their bags for better pickings elsewhere. Cass had been forsaken.

The Steam Railroad Is the Big Draw

A scrap dealer immediately expressed interest in dismantling the moribund steam railroad. That dismal prospect induced the state of West Virginia to buy the Shay locomotives, the right of way, equipment, and a handful of essential rail side buildings in 1961. The next year, the newly legislated Cass Scenic Railroad State Park began offering tourist excursions, as it still does today.

Not until 1976 did the state buy the entire Cass company town—the Masonic Lodge, one-chair barber shop, workers’ houses, community building, mayor’s office/jail complex, and more—and set about returning Cass to its original appearance. Today, visitors can take a tour of the still-standing civic buildings and even spend the night in one of the employee houses.

Most visitors to Cass, though, simply take the rail excursion up to Bald Knob, West Virginia’s third-highest peak, then browse the postcards, T-shirts, souvenir coffee mugs, and refrigerator magnets at the Cass Company Store before driving home. Maybe they grab a sandwich or a plate of creamy chicken and noodle casserole next door at Shays Restaurant. But few venture beyond the station complex to where the ghostly, once-vibrant, century-old company town looks as if it were deserted mere hours ago.


Settling in for an Overnight Stay

My plan, like the majority of tourists here, is to make the Bald Knob trip, one of the most scenic railway journeys in the nation. But because I’ve driven from far away, I’ve also decided to spend the night in one of the 25 former employee cottages available for rent.

My wood-frame, weatherboard house is simple but sturdy and big. There are three bedrooms and a full bath upstairs. The place can easily sleep six. The living room has a couple of sofas, a lounge chair, a rocker, and a TV set. The dining room is mostly bare, but has a long table that can seat half a dozen people. And the roomy kitchen is kitted out with a full-size refrigerator, combo oven-stove, and coffeemaker, plus cookware, plates, cups, utensils, and plenty of counter space. It isn’t fancy by any means; there’s no elaborate woodwork, the staircase is utilitarian, and some exterior peeling paint needs scraping and sanding. But I can easily fancy myself living here for a week or longer.

Earlier in the day, I met Marshall Markley, the bearded, soft-spoken superintendent of Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. He lives on the premises and is passionate about the site’s history and uniqueness.

“There’s no place that has anything like we have here,” he says. “We’re the best-preserved company town anywhere.” He’s unequivocal about that. “There’s been such an effort put into preserving the history here.”

Wicked East Cass

But there was also a seamy side to Cass.

East of the Greenbrier River, which parallels the railroad tracks and marks the edge of the company town, a competing, slightly more lascivious settlement arose. Booze, sex workers, gambling, and all the other vices you couldn’t get in Cass proper were available. Especially on payday. The zenith of East Cass’ wicked, wicked ways was in the 1920s.

“When I was a teenager [in the 1970s],” says Tammy Shoemaker, a 32-year veteran of the Pocahontas County Tourism Department, which includes Cass, “I’d come to Cass to visit my grandma. She’d tell me I couldn’t go over to Dirty Street. That’s what we called East Cass: Dirty Street. I mean, it was really wild in the ’20s, but it had lost all that by the time I was a girl. To my grandma, though, it was still Dirty Street, and she didn’t want me anywhere near there.”

East Cass had hotels, grocers, jewelers, and movie theaters. Workers who had saved could buy their own homes there. To the state park’s credit, current signage acknowledges the town’s segregation: Black families were consigned to a section of East Cass in substandard housing compared with the tidy whitewashed houses in Cass proper.

Today East Cass, the erstwhile Dirty Street, consists of a few private homes and the Route 66 general store and café, still the only place where you can get a beer in Cass. Mostly, the general store fills the needs of fishermen and hunters who drop by for supplies, as well as the occasional tourist who would like to have a Coors Light with his chicken wings, such as myself.

An Evening Stroll Through History

The sun is still out as I cross the bridge back to the town across the Greenbrier River, so I decide to go rambling with the photocopied Cass Town map I received when I checked in. At an elevation of 2,400 feet, the air is cool and a light breeze is blowing through the pine branches all around me. The train rides have stopped for the day and the large parking lot in front of the station is empty. You can still hear the mild clatter of plates and cups over at Shays, but otherwise, all is hushed.

The first thing that catches my eye as I traipse across the crunchy gravel roadway is Lefty’s Barbershop, so small it looks more like a child’s backyard playhouse than an actual place of business.

Crossing past the houses on Front Street, I see a railroad siding where a diesel switcher engine painted in the Baltimore & Ohio’s blue-and-yellow livery looks ready to push an adjacent Reading caboose. When I climb onto their outer platforms and peek through the windows, though, they appear not to have been used in months, perhaps years.

Fancy Digs on Big Bug Hill

Over on Big Bug Hill, where the managers lived, I pass the home once assigned to the company physician. The town doctor was especially important since he was the only medical expert to serve the hundreds of men, women, and children who lived in Cass.

“There was a doctor here back in the day,” says Superintendent Markley, “and he treated people as best he could. He worked for the mill. Whatever was wrong with people, he’d prescribe them something, either something he had or they could get in the pharmacy in the general store. But he wouldn’t send them to the hospital unless it was very serious, because that would have been expensive for the company.”

The physician’s home, with its wide front porch, bay windows, and picturesque trim work, is impressive and large, but clearly in disrepair. So rotten are the floorboards on the front porch that I’m reluctant to stand there and look through the parlor windows to see inside.

Lording it above all the other structures is the Luke House, named for the West Virginia Paper & Pulp Co. founder, and the most arresting residence in town. The structure is surrounded by mature hardwoods, lending a near-constant shade to the grassy yard. Visitors have to climb 24 steps to the entrance, where they find a stately porch with four sets of windows flanking the front door and its two oversized sidelights. The condition of the Luke House is far better than the doctor’s quarters, but it’s still not ready for public viewing.

“The first floor is secure,” says Tammy Shoemaker of the county tourism office, “but the upstairs still needs a lot of work. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s one of our long-term projects.”

INSIDER TIPCass tour schedules and rental information are available on the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park website.

Check Your Wristwatch—and the Calendar

The sun has nearly set, so I venture along the neighborhood’s unique wooden sidewalks back to my house on Spruce Street. Cass is utterly quiet now, but one can easily imagine the sounds of a century ago: children at play, refusing to come inside for dinner despite their mothers’ calls. A Model T harrumphing over the gravel roads to park behind the owner’s company house. The creak and slam of an outhouse door (every cottage had an outhouse in the backyard). A radio blasting out Fred Allen’s weekly broadcast. Dogs baying at squirrels and roaming free, as they did in those days. The distant whistle from one of the steam locomotives, bringing home a late load of red spruce from Bald Knob, the engineer eager for a hot meal and a hotter bath.

In my comfy cottage, I brew a cup of coffee, plop down on the living room sofa, and wonder about those who once lived in this house. Were they happy, overworked, religious, political? Did they drive the locomotives, plane the timber, or clerk in the general store? I’m not alone here. Ghosts sit beside me. I look at my wristwatch. Just to make sure it’s not running backward.