State Parks & Rails: Exploring American History

By Charleen - July 04, 2023

For better or worse, railroads have played a key role in American history. The transcontinental railroad built by immigrant laborers tied this country together, while decommissioned rail-lines today provide quieter access to our riverways via rail trails. But what does it feel and sound like to ride behind a steam locomotive through lush green, river-lined forests? What role did trains play in mail, oil and timber industries? These answers and more can be found in PA and WV state parks set within scenic river valleys with access to hiking, biking and historic train stations.  

Cass Scenic Railroad locomotive.
Traveling up to Bald Knob from Cass.
The 78-mile long Greenbrier River Trail starts across the train tracks from Cass Depot.

The only Railway Post Office car in the US operates from the OC&T line.
Photo taken while standing in the open air caboose on the OC&T line.

Last month, we were fortunate enough to enjoy two great trips along Oil Creek in PA and the Greenbrier River in WV, both of which had been planned by good friends.  We camped, hiked, biked, stayed in historic rail company houses and went in search of extraterrestrial intelligence. But the highlight of both trips was a historic train ride through beautiful scenery on two very different trains.

Oil Creek State Park

We camped at the organized group rustic campsite in the Wildcat Hollow area of Oil Creek State Park. The site has three Adirondack shelters, a large expanse of grass, a firepit, covered pavilion with picnic tables, and two outhouses. One nice surprise was an extremely well-stocked wood shed for fantastic evening campfires.  
Campfire at the Oil Creek group camping site

We enjoyed homemade calzones that we brought from home along with a roasted cauliflower tahini salad, mountain pies on day 2, and lots of 'Smores. 
Modified the Smitten Kitchen recipe for crispy cauliflower and cabbage salad. I added chickpeas for protein, parsley and pickled hot peppers for even more flavor. 

Train ride on the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad

A short drive into town took us to the OC&T Rail Station, where we bought tickets to travel to the Drake Well Museum station. 

This was a delightful 3 h ride with access to an open air car, which was located at the back of the train outbound, and behind the locomotive inbound. The bench seats in the car are reversible.

We heard stories from Jim "Beezer" Bees, who had worked the railroad for over 4 decades, and learned why no one that works around trains wears a red baseball cap. 
Chatting with Beezer

The color red signals the engineer to stop a train. Indeed, you can flag down the train at a station right by our campsite using the structure in the below photo that looks like a white popsicle stick. It used to have a red dot painted on the end. 
A stop to drop off people participating on a tour

There is a little shop at the end of the line, with frozen treats in a chest freezer. We opted for some old fashioned Drumstick® ice cream cones. 
View from inside the OC&T train

On the way back, we stopped in the Post Office car and mailed some postcards. This is the only post office left in the US that operates on a moving train. 
Mailing postcards on the ride back

Hiking Oil Creek

After we returned from the train trip, we took a 4 mile hike up to a scenic viewpoint overlooking Oil Creek. Part of our group continued on to find Miller Falls, getting lost and having to bushwhack our way down to the logging road. 

Hiking from the scenic viewpoint towards Miller Falls

We cooked dinner at the campsite and saw a porcupine eating leaves in a tree. 

Porcupine in the dusk, photographed through binoculars.

The next morning, I spent some time exploring interesting trails that started at the end of the group camping area, past the picnic pavilion. The trails go through forest and wetlands, and include an Oil History Trail that is also accessible from the road. It's hard to believe that this area was once so rich in petrolium, it spontaneously appeared on the surface of Oil Creek, where it could be harvested by floating a flannel cloth on the river and then wringing it out.  

View up Oil Creek from the Miller Farm bridge

We hear the train books up full during Fall Foliage Season.  And we simply must find the time to return for the Murder Mystery Dinner trips that run May-October!

Cass Scenic Railroad State Park    

While on a fantastic, unplugged getaway involving two couples and 4 dogs in one of the Pioneer Cabins in Seneca State Forest last year, we drove past the Cass area and decided we needed to come back. 

First there was this huge satellite dish-shaped object in the distance...  We discovered it was the telescope at the Green Bank Observatory. They offer tours in the summer, some of them requiring registering for security clearance at least 48 hours in advance. We also drove by cute rows of white houses that comprise the historic district of the company town that grew up to support the lumber industry in nearby Cass, WV. 

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Tour

On Fridays at 1 pm through the summer, Green Bank hosts a 3 hour tour focused on radio telescopes and the history of the SETI missions. As we found out, they sell out more than a week in advance as half of our group got the last tickets. Through some additional phone calls, they offered a nice solution as discussed below. 

Chicken salad sandwich at the Green Bank cafeteria

Project Ozma, the precursor to the SETI missions, was the subject of a conference in Green Bank in 1961, when Frank Drake convened scientists from around the world including Carl Sagan and Melvin Calvin, a Nobel laureate who received his phone call while in Green Bank, to discuss the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations and how best to search for them.  

The Drake Equation, which was developed ad hoc at the 1961 meeting.

Drake had selected the hydrogen line as the wavelength to monitor. Hydrogen emits at 1,420.4 MHz, which corresponds to a 21 cm wavelength. Although there have been some exciting hits, later explained by other phenomena, there was at least one that has still not been explained. Unfortunately, it has also not recurred. However, other important discoveries, such as the black hole in the middle of our universe, were made as a result of the search.

To minimize interference to ongoing SETI monitoring, you are not allowed to have any battery operated, electronic equipment in operation once you pass a gate into the telescope area. This unfortunately includes most modern cameras. I suppose my Dad's old Olympus film camera with manual focus would fit the bill, but it is sitting in a drawer back in California. They sell little disposable film cameras in the gift shop. Phones and smart watches have to be powered off, and they have a box in which Fitbits and other items can be placed on the bus. 

We were able to enter a room with original monitoring equipment at the first radio telescope, to climb up onto the "deck" level for great views at a second telescope that had been designed by a Navy guy, and to stand near the large telescope that we had seen from the road. A highlight was that it quietly and rapidly started to move to a new position just as we were about to leave.

The Green Bank telescope

While four of us went on the 3 h SETI tour, the other four took a 1 h bus tour departing at the same time.  These tours drive by each of the same telescopes. They then spent some time visiting the interesting free museum, and paid a bit more to meet up with the longer SETI tour for a lecture by an astronomer in "the room where it happened" back in 1961.  

The room where it happened...

Cass Company Houses

Our friends had booked two historic houses in the nearby Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, which are in the perfect location to enjoy both the historic railroad and the Greenbrier River. Each house had three bedrooms, two with double beds and one with twins. 

Church, a Company house and a Shay locomotive pulling in front of the Company Store.

Each house prepared a dinner for all 8 of us, and we enjoyed walking around the town after dinner. The first night, we had a choice of two chili's, one with meat and one vegan. And on the second night, we prepared a carnitas bar!

Clockwise from top left: Salad and fresh guacamole; black bean soup with toppings; roasted sweet potatoes; pork carnitas with pickled red onion, pickled peppers, salsa; mushroom carnitas with roasted root vegetables.

For the omnivores and carnivores in our group, I prepared Diana Kennedy's sublime and easy carnitas as featured as a Food52 Genius Recipe. I cooked it to the tender stage where the chunks were just about to start browning, before putting it in the refrigerator. 

Pork carnitas, tender inside and crispy outside

At Cass, I reheated it and allowed it to brown. Next time, I would cut larger chunks because the extra cooking time caused the meat to fall apart a bit too much. I separated the remaining chunks from a plateful of crispy bits.

We also had vegan mushroom carnitas prepared using a fabulous recipe from Veganricha, cilantro-lime brown rice cooked in my Instant Pot, roasted radishes -- both red and white/Daikon, roasted sweet potatoes, and a delicious black bean soup.

Carnitas bar filling options

These were topped by salsa that my husband made using the Pioneer Woman's recipe, fresh and pickled vegetables (cowboy candy & dilly beans) from my friend's garden, plenty of sangria, guacamole, corn tortillas and flour tortillas.

Toppings for carnitas and black bean soup

For dessert, my husband made lime bars, served with vanilla ice cream and garden fresh blueberries picked the day before. 

Lime bars on a hand-cut shortbread crust, with blueberries

In the morning, we biked along the Greenbrier River for beautiful views of grasslands, woods and water. Members of our group saw a deer with its fawn in the tall grass in a ditch, red salamanders, large birds and even a bobcat pursuing a fawn. 

A nice morning for a bike ride along the Greenbrier River Trail before the train ride

We had plenty of time for showers and a nice break before walking down to the Cass Depot for our train ride.

The Cass Scenic Railroad 

I recall reading a book in high school that detailed for pages the excitement felt in a small town for days prior to the arrival of a train, powered by a steam locomotive belching black plumes into the sky. These "iron horses" transformed commerce and travel in the 19th century, while having devastating impact on the environment. 

The town of Cass was founded in 1901 as a company town for loggers, and the railroad was used to haul lumber from the surrounding mountains. After staying overnight in one of the company houses, we were eager to experience a train ride up to the the third highest point in West Virginia -- Bald Knob (4842 ft).  

The Durbin Greenbrier Valley Railroad has the largest collection of operable historic Shay locomotives. We took a 4.5 h, 22-mild round trip ride pushed and pulled by a Shay locomotive up steep grades along the banks of the river valley. I never knew that trains used switchbacks, and it was impressive to hear, feel and smell the locomotive working hard as we ascended the mountain.

The Shay steam locomotive that pushed us up the mountain.

As it departs the station, the locomotive is situated at the back of the train pushing Car A, Car B, Car G (has restrooms), Car H and Car I in the front. We went past some impressive metal ruins, which represents the burnt out remnants of where they used to fix up and maintain these historic locomotives. 

Ruins of the burnt out train restoration center from the train.

The next morning, I walked back along a mowed path in the nearby riverfront park for a closer look at the ruins.

A close up view of the ruins from the river side.

Upon boarding the covered, but open-air railcars, we were handed a bag lunch and bottle of water. The train has two long benches facing either side of the cars for great views. We elected to sit on the side facing the parking lot, which gave mostly downhill views to the Leatherbark Creek, while the other side had views up the mountain. 

Our group of 8

This first section of the ride was quite impressive. Whereas Shay #5 is the oldest and longest operating locomotive (since 1905), we were powered by Shay #2. This is a C class locomotive weighing 93 tons and the only Shay to have burned three different fuels -- wood, coal and oil.  

From Car B, we had clear views of the massive plumes of white steam, with intermittent eruptions of billowing grey and black smoke trailing away from us each time the engineer shoveled in a new batch of coal as the train headed uphill. 
Steam, smoke and soot

The website indicates that the ascent of 2,390 feet is the equivalent to traveling 800 miles north to Canada in terms of climate and the types of plants and animals encountered. It was certainly clear that the vegetation was changing as we ascended Back Allegheny Mountain. After we passed Whittaker Station, the track looped around so that we could see Bald Knob on the other side of the horseshoe shaped ridge.

At one of the switchbacks, we paused so that they could grease the pistons that give rise to the chugga-chugga-chugga sound of a moving train. At each road crossing and junction, there were lots of enthusiastic chooo-chooo whistles. A bit later, they stopped to refill the water tank. So lots of maintenance even during the journey. They said that our round trip would consume 4 tons of coal!

There were several overlooks beginning with Gobbler's Knob that afforded nice views into the valley below. At the top, we ascended a platform that gave amazing views. We saw the Green Bank telescope in the distance. 

View from the top of Bald Knob. The telescope is the white dot just to the right of the middle of the three cloud shadows on the left.

There were long lines for the restroom, so I returned to Car G to use the restroom on board. I then spoke to the engineer and asked him how he came to learn how to operate these antique locomotives.  Turns out, he learned from his father and grandfather. 

On the way back down, we noticed the worker leaning over the side to see if the wheels were turning or sliding, and then adjusting the brakes to keep them turning. He warned us that soot and small particles would rain down on us as the locomotive got started, and to be careful not to get it in our eyes, nose or mouth. We were now being pulled by the locomotive as it backed down the mountain. 

We stopped at Whittaker Station for about 20-30 min, where we could buy snacks. They had kettle corn and a rather disappointing pepperoni roll made by a local bakery. The Mountain State Railroad & Logging Historical Association maintains a re-created logging camp, and you can peek into the sleeping rooms and view several different types of loading equipment.

Recreated camp shanties from one of the several models of loaders at Whittaker.

The trip down was less enjoyable than the trip up due to the short periods of raining soot, but at least they did not have to feed coal into the firebox as often going downhill. 

We pulled back into Cass Depot with a full complement of railroad bells and whistles, chugga, chugga, chooo, chooo! Overall, it was a vivid and unforgettable experience -- bringing to life the sights, sounds, feel and smell of travel in era of iron horses.

View of the Route 66 bridge from the riverfront park

Other train-centered adventures

Central PA in the Altoona area is a mecca for train enthusiasts.  We took a spring break driving trip a few years back, and found to our disappointment that many of the local sites that were closed for the winter did not open until late Spring. However, we had a fantastic ad hoc vacation visiting a series of National Park Service sites that are open year round. 

I highly recommend visiting the Allegheny Portage Railroad before venturing to the other sites, as you can then experience the race to bring goods between the East Coast and Pittsburgh, the "Gateway to the West," using first canals and then railroads. It was also interesting to learn how the PA turnpike fits in to the story. 

Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site 

The docents here made this visit into one of the most exciting glimpses into the heavy competition among the Erie, Pennsylvania and C&O canals. 

Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark

This amazing section of rail has been in continuous operation since it was graded and laid by hand in the 1850s.  It now makes sense that control of the PA railroad is so important in games such as Rail Baron. You can also view the trains as they pass through the nearby Gallitzen Tunnels.

Love2Chow Tips

🐾 On the OC&T Rail, head all the way to the right to be seated in the car adjacent to the open air car. 

🐾 The bridge to the Rail Trail side of Oil Creek is out, so there is currently no way to take the train one way and bike the other way. 

🐾 The Cass railcars are open air and the temperature drops as you ascend in elevation (although it can also feel hot at the top if it is a sunny day). So bring warmer layers. For better views of the river valley, sit facing away from the station.

🐾 Although the locomotive pushes from behind for most of the ascent to Bald Knob, there are sections where the locomotive is in front. Cars A & B get the brunt of the ashes when the locomotive is working hard and pulling from the front.  It might be nice to have a P95 or N95 mask if you are sensitive.

🍃 The town of Cass has two electric car chargers. One is in the parking lot for Cass Depot. The other is near Lefty's Barber Shop. The people at Snowshoe did not know if theirs was functional. 


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