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Cass in Two Nutshells
by Philip Bagdon

The following are two short manuscripts (A Brief History of Cass and East Cass) as submitted to Goldenseal, the Journal of “West Virginia Traditional Life” (published by the West Virginia State Department of Culture and History). To obtain a copy, call Goldenseal at 304-558-0220.

 A Brief History of Cass

A rather unsung ingredient of Cass Scenic Railroad State Park is its historical district – mostly intact, partially preserved reminder of a socially stratified company town. After taking backseat to the steam locomotive-powered main attraction, “Company Cass” is the subject of some deserved recognition on this, the occasion of its 100th birthday.

Despite the legacy of its band saw and planing mill’s output, the story of Cass actually begins with pulpwood. The Luke family’s success with “sulphite” papermaking and interest in expanding business put the saga into motion. Upon forming West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co. (today’s Westvaco), a plans for a new production facility led to the need for massive quantities of red spruce as raw ingredient.

Although not its first choice, the paper plant’s location was settled as Covington, Virginia – on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway’s mainline. That carrier dusted off a plan for building into the upper Greenbrier Valley when WVaP&PCo began eyeing the red spruce forests of “Cheat Mountain” in Pocahontas and southern Randolph counties. The only viable method for reaching the area was via logging railroad from a point on the C&O branch line. To coax the C&O into commencing work, the Lukes visited its brass on numerous occasions.

In the headwaters region of Shavers Fork, more than 67,000 acres of (mostly) prime red spruce were acquired by John G. Luke during 1899. Foundationally then, what would become Cass met the industry’s requirement for a shipping center after surveys of rail routes into the holdings determined that a torturously steep grade up Leatherbark Run was best.

With just one farmland buy – 136 acres in April 1899 – John Luke speculatively set the stage for a community of some size. For just pulpwood in the quantity WVaP&PCo required, basic needs of an operational base would have included offices, company store and supply commissary, employee housing (a hotel for singles, family homes for managers and laborers), schoolhouse, and a interdenominational church.

Enlarging the sphere beyond pulpwood supply operation was largely the work of Samuel E. Slay maker. A land acquisition, timbering and mill expert who had entered lumber sales/brokering, Slay maker pitched the merits of a supplemental involvement in dimensional lumber, flooring, laths, etc. There were persuasive selling points. Because the Luke’s railroad would be in place, capital outlay would be limited to mill and production machinery (expanded only as profitability was shown) and some additions to rail equipment (an additional locomotive and log cars). Slay maker already had an initial market. WVaP&PCo accepted the plan – deciding that capitalization and operation would occur under a new subsidiary, West Virginia Spruce Lumber Co.

A pledge to establish the railroad and ship pulpwood post haste allowed Slay maker to implement his scheme with occasional reminder from the Lukes about what was most important to them. His plan to run a mill on two shifts meant an increased company town size. Key to both the startup and the combined operation’s long-term success was Emory P. Shaffer, a Slay maker colleague who arrived to assume general manager’s post in March 1900.

What would become Cass predated the C&O’s arrival by more than eight months. Startup materials and provisions were tediously brought by wagon from Staunton, Virginia. In terms of investment and commitment, it was not feasible to wait until the C&O reached the site. Local portable sawmill operators were contracted to provide rough cut lumber for some initial structures; they then worked at capacity to cut ties for the railroad grade into the timberlands.

A two-story building (kitchen, dining hall and lobby on ground floor, sleeping on top) accommodated Italian labors for the railroad grade. Also erected was a small commissary; the existing farm house was apparently used as a temporary payroll office and managers’ housing. Camp No. 1, as it was called, served its first meal on July 4, 1900. For most of the period prior to October, when telegraph arrived (ahead of the C&O but along its right-of-way), temporary headquarters were maintained in Green Bank – about five miles away.

The town was named in honor of Joseph K. Cass, a successful Pennsylvania paper manufacturer who merged with the Lukes to create WVaP&PCo in 1899; at the time he was the organization’s vice-president as well as an incorporator of W.Va. Spruce Lumber Co. Determining exactly when the Lukes announced their choice of name is impossible. For a short time, Shaffer-Slay maker correspondence continued their references to “Leatherbark” (for years local folks had called it Leatherbark Ford) despite a May 24, 1900 Covington Sentinel citing of the place being named Cass.

When the C&O reached Cass after numerous delays on December 22, the company’s rail route up Leatherbark and over onto Shavers Fork was near completion except for rail-laying and spiking. Carloads of steel arrived five days later, followed by the first locomotive – a 40-ton Shay. Shipping of the red spruce for Covington began without fanfare on January 28, 1901. The two-car shipment was a humble beginning to a cycling routine that would quickly grow by leaps and bounds.

Passenger service on the C&O from its mainline depot of Ronceverte, Greenbrier County, began in January 1901. Prior to this, most of those who came to Cass “rode shank’s mare.”

The Cass Mill’s first cut occurred in late January 1902. As with all band saw-equipped facilities, it required time to really get up and running. Likely, a night production shift was added by year’s end. Single band saw production was joined by another such unit in 1910. There would also be a planing mill.

The intention was for the mill to cut all of the timberland’s hardwood plus the larger red spruce logs as Slay maker's sales efforts required. Slabs of red spruce were processed through a pulp shed and loaded out. A considerable amount flowed from the mill, but another facility established at Spruce specifically to process pulpwood cords, opened in 1905, was the major contributor for the large volume of carloads shipped daily via the C&O to Covington (Davis was also supplied for a period).

Corresponding with the pulpwood and mill product peak years, Cass thrived between 1909 to 1920. Although incorporated in 1902, Shaffer as the Boss maintained firm control of what took place in the company-owned sections of town. In 1910, he went to work directly for WVaP&PCo, after it absorbed the West Virginia Spruce Lumber Co. An already bustling environment received added dimension with the building of an extract plant south of town in 1914.

As it developed, Cass came to include unincorporated East Side and its outskirts (Blackhurst Addition) as well as an area north of the company section called Bohunk Hill, and several to the south, including Ralston Hill, Slabtown and the area of company-owned dwellings built in conjunction with the extract plant. The total population of this greater Cass is estimated to have been between 1,600 and 1,800. For a long period, Cass grade school enrollment hovered at around 400.

The company town was comprised of three basic districts. The large store/warehouse, meat market, business office and railroad depot defined “Downtown.” Up the hill, with its first row of houses hugging the river knoll, “Uptown” came to include more than 50 nearly identical two-story, weatherboard and wood frame family dwellings for mill workers, railroaders, machine shop/foundry employees and clerks, plus mayor’s office/jail, church and Masonic lodge hall.

North of Uptown was the section predominantly occupied by management families (there was also a privately owned doctor’s house, a short-lived hospital, horse barn and later a small doctor’s office). Apparently, it had no official name. Non-occupants tagged the area with numerous names, including “Big Bug Hill.” Those who didn’t live there understood the unwritten rule: stay out if you weren’t invited or didn’t have business. The largest house in the managers’ section was built for Charles Luke in 1916. After he left, the Shaffer family occupied the house for 19 years.

All company dwellings were built with running water – not taken for granted back in those days. Never touted as model community, Cass was well designed and maintained. Coal was delivered from the company store. A clerk visited each house daily for grocery orders and the company store wagon subsequently made deliveries. A doctor’s fee was deducted from each worker’s pay.

Two-hole outhouses and coal/wood sheds were features of all backyards. For many years, residents were allowed to let their cows wander around town between milkings. Picket fences kept the cows out of yards while plank walkways served another vital purpose – more often than not, the streets were a muddy, sloppy mess. Once a month the outhouse-related “honey wagon” would make its rounds and the prevailing odor of fresh-cut lumber would be annihilated. Indoor toilets began appearing in management houses in 1919. A high-pressure water line from the mill pump house and valve houses with hoses were the backbone of fire-fighting; there was also a hand-powered apparatus used to combat blazes.

The company store played heavily in town life – a place to meet and greet. C&O passenger train arrivals from the south were daily social events.

Cass had neither a bank nor recognized cemetery. An undeterminable small number of immigrant laborers had been buried in a potter’s field above town, but the bodies were later removed so a tennis court could be installed for some of the managers’ children.

The expansion of the woodland cutting in relationship to accidents (the nearest medical facility was in Ronceverte – 83 miles from Cass via only two daily southbound passenger trains) brought establishment of the small Pocahontas Hospital in 1903. It lasted a decade, then the needs were handled in Marlinton

In the mid-1920s, the Covington plant’s needs turned to other species. Cass retained WVaP&PCo’s favor despite not shipping pulpwood. The mill remained profitable, but a big draw for status quo was coal. Mining had been a side endeavor since 1908 – steam coal requirements solely of the Cass job, including town coal, was the original mission; WVaP&PCo instituted production at various sites in its 178,000-acre holdings and began shipping more and more coal to its paper mill locations; by 1930, the Baldwin mines (served by rail out of Slaty Fork) were important to the company.

Fire destroyed most of the Cass mill complex in February 1922. New, higher-capacity band saw and planing mills, as well as a large flooring products warehouse, were soon erected. Tallying the production of the first and second mills, one estimate is that during 58 years of activity about 1.2 billion board feet of lumber was cut.

Emory Shaffer’s retirement in 1933 marked the beginning of the end for WVaP&PCo at Cass. A tribute to his all-round management and production acumen, Shaffer was irreplaceable. The end had just about come for virgin timber; the last coal mine segment played out in 1939. In failing health, Shaffer departed Cass in 1940.

Apparently, WVaP&PCo had such respect for Shaffer that it got past notions to sell only after he was gone. Ed Mower entered the picture in 1942. There is no way of telling how things would have gone without Mower’s involvement with the Cass job, but likely a buyer would have been found to continue things.

One of the most interesting aspects to Cass is its longevity as a mill town. Although there were operational cutbacks, everything structure-wise remained essentially the same for almost 40 years after the boom period. All dwellings remained occupied until the mill went down.

For the 14 years prior to his death, Ed Mower and wife Dorothy spent time at Cass during summer months. The former Shaffer home was also his accommodations for inspection trips.

After Ed Mower’s death, the operation was reportedly visited by several prospective buyers. The June 30, 1960 closure of the band saw mill and rail-logging came as somewhat of a surprise to even the firm’s Cass-based general manager. Fred Weber received a call at his home from a company principal and, following instructions to drive out of town and place a return call, soon learned that announcement notices were to be posted the following day. A buyer had been found, but there was no interest in the mill or town – just the company’s undeveloped landholdings.

It’s not hard to imagine what things would be like today if not for the preservation of the old Cass logging railroad; the ravages of time (and fire) would have claimed most of the former company sections. Already in declining condition when the mill complex closed, structures and their lots would have fallen into private hands. As the result of a miraculous turn-of-events in 1960-61 which saved the railroad, its three remaining Shay locomotives and assorted essential equipment and facilities, our marking of the Cass Centennial is framed by living history of the iron horse variety.

Events leading to the scenic railroad’s creation directly stem from the mill sawing its last log 40 years ago this June 30. Service began in 1963, but the unproven nature of such an attraction, combined with expensive rehabilitation required to reopen the line all the way to Bald Knob, thwarted incorporating company town sections into the plan despite their obvious historic value. Two years after Don Mower’s death in 1964, this property and the Cass Mill fell into the hands of an out-of-state speculator. Instead of splitting it all up to attract buyers, the company town sections remained intact, but suffered considerable neglect.

Florida attorney J.W. Harrell recognized sizeable profit potential in the property. He bought it and almost immediately jacked rents beyond what the market would bear. Within a short period of time, there was an abundance of vacant houses. To lower tax assessment, he tore down the 1902-era company office building; the structure was sound and – due to its proximity to the railroad depot – would have made a wonderful park facility.

Lasting through one season of scenic railroad excursions, the former hospital, then Shaffer residence welcomed overnight guests as a boarding house. Bertha Haislop then operated the old company hotel (apartments later) and offered room and meal to town visitors. After Bertha closed, Kyle Neighbors rented a house and hosted train and history buffs. It was known as the “Johnny Pulp Club” (after a term for WVaP&PCo employees).

Don Mower Lumber Co. under Harrell’s control experienced marginal success in renting some of the “cottages” to tourists. A 1975 newspaper advertisement touted weekend (Friday evening to Monday morning) rates of $100 – other days $25 per night; full weeks for $150. Harrell initiated a plan to reopen part of the mill, but didn’t get very far. Numerous local residents reasoned that a tax write-off was the motive; others guessed the gentleman was a bit touched in the head.

Renovating the town was only an ambitious dream until Federal funds opened the way for inclusion into Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. West Virginia Hillbilly Editor Jim Comstock, writing about the State’s acquisition (in December 1976 at a cost of just under $700,000), described the affair as a midnight hour rescue and lamented how the owner had allowed most of the company property to deteriorate to the point of collapse.

In 1981, 96 structures were added to the National Register of Historic Places, but the renovation process was slow ; efforts first centered on stabilizing the town. Then a water and sewage system was installed. Three years passed before five of the old dwellings (four in the old Uptown and one in the manager’s section) were suitably repaired for rental as Park “cottages.”

Replica plank walkways and picket fences came into the picture during 1986-87. Over time, 10 additional dwellings were renovated for rental by visitors. Last year, several other houses received new porches and other repair. A considerable amount of work is yet to be done, but the company sections offer lots of old-time atmosphere.

In particularly sad shape are two structures in the old managers’ residential area – the doctor’s home and latter logging-era boarding house. Just south of Uptown, the big schoolhouse fell on hard times years ago.

Today’s visitor can not only explore an old company town, but enjoy accommodations in one of the refurnished family dwellings. Year-round, the State Park offers houses (all built prior to 1909) for up to a week. Several times daily during train excursion season, CSRR SP provides free interpretive walking tours. There has been recent discussion about renovating the Clubhouse as a bed and breakfast.

Cass reverted to unincorporated status in 1985; although a few of the houses are still occupied as residences, it really is more of a museum/park than actual town. Cass Community Center, spearheaded by a group of townspeople, survives. Lefty Meeks still offers haircuts and shaves in the space he first rented from Mower Lumber Co. in 1950. Although its congregation is tiny, the Southern Methodist church remains active. The Masonic lodge hall continues in service.

There are no surviving citizens of the the town’s heyday, but old-timers can only lend first-hand accounts to what followed. But still, they testify to the pristine conditions of the company sections, the frequent carousing and brawling that occurred across the river and two shifts of band saws and whistle signals. Family life, church and civic activities, special events and simple pleasures are offset by memories of hard work on the company’s behalf.

East Cass

Heavy drinking, incredible brawls, sudden violence and lurking danger: old East Cass was this and more. Located across the river from the company town, the district earned notoriety that rivaled infamous Keystone and Davis. Effects of the east side situation were broader than law and order on West Virginia Spruce Lumber Co. and West Virginia Pulp & Paper; more than a few skilled laborers got cold feet about venturing to Cass because of the reports.

In sum, Cass was not the peaceful, pleasant environment that management envisioned. Origins of what might best be described as the pleasure zone are rooted in failure to secure enough east side land to prevent the rise of such a place. The company’s presence was limited to a “pest house” (quarantine) and housing for African American families – eventually joined by one lot in the business district.

Several early letters exchanged between Shaffer and Slay maker lament over the woeful influx of intoxicants and upswing in lawlessness. By January 1901, both men firmly recognized their dilemma.

Known as Brooklyn until at least 1906 – when fire decimated everything except a few dwellings – the area came to be called East Cass. The district’s location was originally defined by the Green Bank Road’s route to Leatherbark Ford. Early on, the Company helped finance a new road that approached the river from the opposite direction, past the livery stable. Thus, the old road deteriorated into infamous “Dirty Street,” while numerous stores sprang up past the new intersection. A wire suspension footbridge linked Brooklyn to the main part of town, followed by a one-lane vehicular bridge.

East Cass catered to the 1,000-plus woods force. Hotels, restaurants, dry goods stores and barbershops served essential needs. Amusement options ranged from pool halls, shooting galleries and sparring ring to saloons and speakeasies, gambling joints, houses of prostitution and opium/drug dens. Dirty Street was the place to go slumming. At least to some, this strip (the Riverview Hotel and shack clutter) was called “Hell’s Acre.” (Many boom towns, it was said, had a half acre of Hell but Cass was larger.)

Considerable alcohol (beer in bottles, whiskey in barrels) flowed into Cass via the C&O. One early freight agent recalled how days without at least one whiskey shipment were few and far between. Additionally, liquor and narcotics were smuggled into town aboard passenger trains. There was also a prolific element of local moonshine peddlers.

After extended rigorous labor and camp life, a trip to town was in order. The majority of “wood hicks” arrived with a serious appetite for carousing. Whether relatively sedate or ready to “blow her in,” the first step after drawing pay was hotel check-in and getting civil – a first bath in months, shave, haircut, new clothes and perhaps a new pair of “caulked” (spiked soles for logging agility) footwear.

Shaffer described his labor pool as perpetually divided into thirds – coming, going and working. Some of those cycling through drew only part of their pay and spent limited time in town – perhaps a day or two. Others were predisposed to drawing everything and spending until it was gone (or “getting rolled”). There were murders, shootings and knifing incidents. Among themselves, the wood hicks were inclined to fistfight for no good reason.

East Cass not only attracted wood hicks but hustlers, flimflammers, thieves and hangers-on. The presence of females was limited to soiled doves, speakeasy attendants and merchants’ wives. (Men from the respectable side of the river might sneak across in the dark, but ladies kept their distance and ensured their children did the same.)

After the company section incorporated, a town sergeant was appointed. His presence had little impact on the explosion and adding two “special policemen” in April 1903 likewise brought marginal effects. The Company’s strict stance made clear that intoxication and disorderly conduct on its side of the river was not tolerated; even the mayor got involved with arrests. The small overnight lockup stayed busy; those caught for more serious offenses were transferred to the county jail via the morning passenger train. The district itself saw occasional raids, but it essentially remained wide open.

Fire was a threat during winter months because of all-wood construction. The first blaze, in early 1902, leveled a grocery/feed store. Surviving Company records include report that men and boys from the west side responded, thus saving other structures. “There was no air stirring or it would have been ‘goodbye Brooklyn’,” the boss noted. The mother of all fires occurred in late 1906. Other multi-building blazes dated 1913 and 1915. There were also five crippling floods between 1908 and 1932.

Prohibition put only a slight damper on proceedings; the big show continued until about 1920, when timbering relocated to distant Elk River. From the mill’s startup, there had been other, albeit smaller, crowds that patronized the district, so activities shrank but didn’t die. The last of the rough drinking establishments closed well into the scenic railroad era.

Several ventures attempted to attract park visitors; all attempts failed. Concerns that the historical value of Cass would be sullied by a wild West motif peaked after the old Alpha Hotel was bought by a flamboyant individual with intentions to spearhead development. Thankfully, the owner’s attention wandered and until it burned in 1972, the structure’s only frequenters were a few winos.

Granny’s, a pizza place/game room located in the old 1940s-era church on the north side of the former main block was the last business; three structures on the other side of street – all vintage commercial gems – served as reminders of times gone by. The 1985 flood brought unexpected closure to the long, colorful story. Lacking buildings, the area then lost definition to highway realignment. For most, it’s impossible to picture such a place ever existing.

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The late Kyle Neighbors – “dean of Cass true history” – contributed most to our accurate understanding of Cass. He rescued a wealth of company documents from the town garbage dump and vigilantly sought out other sources. Growing up in town, then working for the company, he also possessed vast personal knowledge. Mostly in novelized form, long-time resident W.E. Blackhurst left us with images of old Cass from various social perspectives. Cass native Dr. Roy Clarkson is author of a comprehensive historic study “Beyond Leatherbark: The Cass Saga.” Local resident Dr. George Deike has contributed to the public’s better understanding through “Cass, A Brief History and Guide To A Lumber Company Town” as well as considerable behind-the-scenes research.

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