This story originally appeared in the June 4, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.
CASS — When something breaks on a train at Cass Scenic Railroad, whether it’s as small as a bracket or as big as a boiler, the men and women in the park’s locomotive shops fix it.
They have to. Chances are, you can’t buy a replacement part.
Forget about instruction manuals, too. Although the state park serves as a living museum of the United States’ steam-powered history, there aren’t many reference books lying around.
“You pretty well go by what’s already there. You make it as it was,” said Danny Hoover, engineer for the Cass No. 5 locomotive.
Hoover, 52, has worked at Cass for 15 years.
He said he always has been fascinated by the trains—he remembers when engineers from Cass used to drive their locomotives to the Strawberry Festival in Buckhannon—but had no real knowledge about the machines when he started working in the shop.
Like all of the railroad’s employees, Hoover learned on the job.
“These old men passed it down to us,” said longtime engineer Danny Seldomridge. “What we learned from them is better than books.”
Seldomridge, 56, has worked at Cass for 37 years, but has been around the trains for much longer. His dad worked on the park’s track crew and in the railroad shop.
He originally wanted to work with airplanes after high school but married a local girl and started working with his dad.
“They started letting me mess around with these things, and that was it,” he said. “I’m train crazy.”
Seldomridge said he enjoys the challenge of working on antique machines.
“I just like fooling with them. I like taking something, building it back to where it’s better than new,” he said. “Every day you learn a little bit more. I’ve never stopped learning.”
Although most of Cass Scenic Railroad’s 96 staff members are seasonal, the dozen full-time employees in the locomotive shop work year-round. During tourist season, which runs from Memorial Day to the end of October, they work six or seven days a week.
There’s always something to do.
In addition to their duties in the repair shop, they also ride the trains as engineers and firemen (the lucky souls who shovel coal into a locomotive’s white-hot fireboxes). When their trains aren’t running, they work in the shop.
Once a month, crews take the firebox out of each train, let the engine cool down and wash the sediment out of the boiler. The job takes a week “at the fastest,”Hoover said.
“That’s if you’ve got several guys to help you,” he said.
Then, after a locomotive reaches 1,492 hours of service, railroad mechanics have to break down the train’s boiler and replace its flues, the pipes that run through the water-filled boiler carrying hot gases from burning coal.
If, for some reason, crews can’t repair a part, they hire a pattern maker to fabricate a copy of the original. The shop is rarely able to provide blueprints, so they send either the old, broken part or exact measurements.
Crews don’t get to do many heavy-duty repairs until the off-season, however.
Most shop workers take their vacations between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, because the real work begins in January. That’s when the major repairs take place, when all the trains get broken down and put back together. Axles are replaced, boilers are overhauled and coal bunkers are rebuilt.
“I came here in the first of February and everything was torn apart,” park superintendent Rod Sovine said. “I said, ‘We’re not going to make it!’”
They made it. Cass Scenic Railroad has four trains up and running this season.
Seldomridge’s engine, the Western Maryland No. 6, is the newest train in the rail yard. Built in 1945, it’s the last Shay locomotive ever made. It worked for four years in Elkins before retiring to live in the B&O Railroad museum in Baltimore. Cass obtained the train in the early ’80s.
The Cass No. 5, Hoover’s pet engine, is the oldest train on the lot.
A Shay locomotive built in 1905, it;s the only train that worked at Cass when it was still owned by West Virginia Pulp and Paper. Cass No. 4 was built in 1922 but arrived in Cass in 1943, when the Mower Lumber Company owned the property.
The Cass No. 11 came from San Diego, where it started working in 1923. It is the railroad’s newest acquisition and has been in West Virginia for 12 years.
“It didn’t look like that when we got it,” Hoover said.
He said the shiny-black Shay arrived in West Virginia as a bucket of rust. Shop employees gave it a major overhaul.
Two trains are still down for repairs.
Workers are replacing the coal bunker on Cass No. 6, a Heisler locomotive born in 1928. The train worked in Rainelle for the Meadow River Lumber Co. before the state purchased it in 1967 and brought the train to Cass.
Cass No. 2 is getting a major overhaul. Built in 1928 by the Shay Locomotive Co., it originally rode the rails in Vancouver, British Columbia.
It’s now in pieces at the Cass Railroad shop. It doesn’t look much like a train. The firebox and coal bunker still sit on the axles, but workers have removed the engine’s boiler for repairs.
Boilers in steam-powered engines are constantly expanding and contracting, which eventually weakens the metal. Crews are working to replace those weakened sections in the No. 2 boiler. When they’re finished, workers will use an ultrasound machine to determine the thickness of the steel.
Once that’s completed, workers plan to take the axles from under the locomotive and reshape the wheels on the shop’s massive lathe.
There’s no guidebook to read, no website to consult and no schematic to reference. The older guys like Seldomridge and Hoover teach the younger workers. That way, when Seldomridge and Hoover retire, the trains will keep running. Some young fireman will take their place in the engineer’s seat.
That’s what Andrew Cassell, 27, plans to do.
He’s currently the fireman on the Western Maryland No. 6. When Seldomridge pulls levers to move the train forward and back, Cassell stomps on a pedal to opens the train’s firebox. He heaves shovel after shovel of coal into the opening, working almost the whole time the train is in operation.
Remember the Bible story about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the great fiery furnace? That’s what Cassell stares into all day long.
He doesn’t make much money for the backbreaking work. Hoover said firemen make minimum wage. Cassell hopes to become an engineer, however. He’s worked at Cass since 2003.
“They handed me my diploma on Saturday, and I went to work on Monday morning,” Cassell said. “Once you get started. . .”
“You don’t ever leave,” Seldomridge said.