Officials examining Cass power house project
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park is a treasure, providing a history lesson to visitors that no book can equal. Touching, seeing and getting a ride on a steam-powered locomotive helps people understand how people and machines worked together in the early 20th century.
In addition to the educational and cultural value, tourism dollars generated by Cass Scenic Railroad State Park's steam locomotives are a tangible treasure to Pocahontas County's economy.
But the trains are just a part of the industrial complex that existed at Cass. An enormous sawmill, powered by an advanced steam engine, produced billions of feet of lumber between 1908 and 1960.
In addition to the awesome steam trains, park superintendent Robert Sovine would like to preserve another piece of the sawmill operation for future generations - the mill's power house - where a Hamilton-Corliss steam engine provided power for the mill's machinery.
New York engineer George Henry Corliss developed and patented an advanced design for steam engines in 1849. Corliss engines feature rotary valves and variable valve timing. The Corliss engine improved the efficiency of steam power by 30 percent and made steam power more economical than water power, spurring industrial development.
The giant cylinder on the rusty old Corliss engine at Cass probably gave its last thrust in 1960, when the mill closed. Over the years, anything not bolted down has been carried away. But the enormous engine, with its 18-foot flywheel, remains mostly intact. The brick power house building appears structurally sound, but in extreme disrepair.
Sovine discussed the possibility of a limited rehabilitation project with members of the Mountain State Railroad and Logging Historical Association (MSRLHA), which supports operations at the park. During its March meeting, MSRLHA members discussed a project to make the Corliss engine available for public viewing via a walkway and viewing stand.
In a letter to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), MSRLHA expressed general support for the idea, but noted that neither the association or the park had money available for the project.
This spring, Sovine requested an assessment of the power house building from the DNR's Planning, Engineering and Maintenance division. Engineer James Schotsch conducted a walk-through of the power house in April. Schotsch reported his findings to Brad Leslie, chief engineer for West Virginia's parks.
According to Schotsch's report, several major building repairs would be necessary to allow public viewing of the Cass Corliss engine. Steam pipe insulation, believed to contain asbestos, would need to be removed and mitigated. The ceiling of the brick building requires stabilization and debris would have to be cleared from the floor. Metal stairs require repair and security fencing would be necessary to prevent visitors from wandering into dangerous areas.
On May 23, MSRLHA members Bill McNeel, Hank Jaeger and Geoff Hamill walked through the power house. The group hoped to obtain photos of data plates and serial numbers and gather any other information that would help to identify the machines inside the power house.
Unfortunately, no data plates or serial numbers on the Corliss engine could be located. But data plates on many other pieces of machinery, including compressors, generators and other devices, were photographed.
The MSRLHA team members were impressed with the sight of the Hamilton-Corliss steam engine, despite its rusty exterior. The huge engine provided reliable service for the Cass sawmill for nearly six decades.
Funding and manpower for the project is uncertain. MSRLHA is currently restoring a Climax steam locomotive and is expected to be working on that project for three more years. The power house project likely will have to wait a few more years for an improved economy and the availability of MSRLHA support.