West Virginia rail adventures take you into yesteryear

Su Clawson-Wicker

For all its sound and fury, the Old No. 3, one of only three operating Climax logging locomotives left on earth, is a slow ride. A white-tailed deer stares us down from the track ahead for whole minutes, jumping away only when we’re close enough to see she’s shedding her winter coat.

16-03 WV Rail durbin rocketSpeed is not what we’re about anyway at the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad as we take in views of the Monongahela National Forest. The Durbin Rocket, as she’s called these days, makes her way, huffing, clanking, and spewing acrid black smoke along the Greenbrier River. When the whistle blows, a plume of white steam erupts skyward.

Families and rail fans flock to northern Pocahontas County, W.Va., to ride the 1920-era coaches, open cars, and vintage wooden cabooses. The Rocket’s combination of open and closed cars gives children the option of free movement through the train as she chugs her way to and from Hevener Station.

But the Rocket is only one of several great trains of the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad brand. With departures from a handful of towns, these trains transport passengers into some of the most dramatic scenery east of the Rockies. Another option, the 1940s-era New Tygart, makes four-hour trips from Elkins to a majestic waterfall. The air-conditioned cars cross a bridge only slightly wider than the train and rumble through a tunnel a quarter-mile long.

Still another trip, aboard the diesel Cheat Mountain Salamander, travels into the high spruce forests of Cheat Mountain through true wilderness for nine hours. The excursion includes a long S-curve tunnel under Cheat Mountain, a waterfall, and opportunities for eagle and bear sightings, as well as lunch and dinner in the dining car.

Cass Scenic Railroad

Chugging along in an open car behind the antique Shay engine at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, you may feel you’ve been “switchbacked” into the 1920s. Spewing volumes of black smoke, the Shay follows Leatherbark Creek up the flank of Back Allegheny Mountain, pistons pulsing, crankshaft rotating, wheels driving, and seven cars moving smoothly along the tracks.

“This never gets old,” says passenger Jack Leary, who watches the Pocahontas County landscape unfold from the seat of a railcar each spring.

From late May through the end of October, the 162-ton iron beast hauls hundreds of tourists up and down the old logging line. The first stop is a re-created logging camp at Whittaker Station; the five-hour ride proceeds on to Bald Knob’s stupendous views.

A “Wild Heart of West Virginia Adventure” package now offers a combined ride on two trains — the Cass and the Cheat Mountain Salamander — with overnight options in Elkins or in the former logging town of Cass. West Virginia’s Mountain Rail Adventures hosts special rail events throughout the year including picnics, music, murder mysteries, and star-gazing events.

Potomac Eagle

Farther northeast, the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad focuses on its namesake, the American bald eagle. In fact, eagles are sighted on nine out of 10 trips.

The train features several open-top cars for wildlife viewing along the South Branch of the Potomac River. The 1950s GE diesel locomotive also pulls a vintage dining club car and a snack bar. The narrated trip, which runs from Romney to Moorefield, was featured as one of PBS Television’s “10 Most Scenic Train Rides in America.”

For more information:

Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad/Cass/Mountain Rail: mountainrailwv.com

Mountain Rail Adventures: mtn-rail.com

Potomac Eagle: potomaceagle.info 

16-03 Durbin Flying leaves

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