Book captures history of Cass Scenic Railroad

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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) - Three days a week, Kenova resident Tim Hensley drives the Amtrak train from Huntington on its route that snakes through the New River Gorge and between the mountains over east into Charlottesville, Va.

You’d think on his days off Hensley would be as far away from the tracks as possible, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In this past year or so, Hensley has teamed up with fellow railroad historians Bob Withers and Kenneth Miller to compile what they hope is the definitive book about Cass Scenic Railroad.

Called “Cass Scenic Railroad: Fifty Years A State Park - A Century of Steam on Bald Knob,” the mammoth, photoladen hardback book that weighs only slightly less than Shay #5, is now for sale at Empire Books and News at Pullman Square, at Tamarack in Beckley, at Cass Railroad State Park and at the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society Inc., 1328 8th Ave., Huntington.

As Cass Scenic Railroad and the state park’s world-renowned collection of Shay steam locomotives preps for its busy tourist railroad season that runs spring through fall, Hensley said it is full steam ahead for the book, which has already logged brisk sales and that is getting rave reviews among railroad trade magazines and publications.

A national award-winning feature writer and Marshall University journalism school graduate, Hensley said that as retirement approaches (his last run is the Oct. 26 New River Gorge train), he and Miller have formed Pocahontas Productions with a mission to preserve the history of the southern Appalachian railroading and the three regional coal roads, the Norfolk and Western, Virginian and the Chesapeake and Ohio that comprised the Pocahontas region.

Cass is their first book. They are already working on a new book on Norfolk & Western stations, and have a long list of railroading books they believe need to be done.

“Ken and I have a list of about 20 books we want to do,” said Hensley. “We want to try and do about two a year when I retire. We want them to be definitive histories. We want people to look at them and say well these gentlemen could not have done their research any better, and that we left no stone unturned in trying to present something.”

That seems to certainly be the case for the Cass book, which was done in conjunction with the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society.

Although they respectfully and lovingly refer to Roy B. Clarkson’s “On Beyond Leatherbark: The Cass Saga,” as “still the Cass Bible and as thick as ‘The Good Book,’ Hensley said they felt like there was too rich of a reservoir of photographs and history at the Historical Society not to share.

In fact, Hensley, who wrote the text for the famous photographer O. Winston Links’ “Steam, Steel and Stars,” calls this one of the largest collections of unseen rail-related photographic materials in the U.S.

“There were some soft back books and there was one done years ago by a gentleman, it was ‘On Beyond Leatherbark,’” Hensley said. “We drew heavily from that, but it didn’t use very many pictures. We tried to reach out and lasso what he had presented and present it in a more chronological fashion and that’s mentioned in there too.”

Told in 14 chapters that tell Cass’ unique story of 100 years of steam - 50 as a logging railroad and 50 as the best tourist railroad in the Eastern U.S. - the book mines the deep wells of photos from the Society and doesn’t waste a page in doing so.

The first two pages of the book come alive with a stunning photo that teenager Chase Gunnoe shot of a double-heading Shays 5 and 11 at Spruce during Railfan Weekend in 2012.

Unfortunately for Hensley, that was one of the more easily obtained photos.

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