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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.

"I think I went through 12 storage lockers full of stuff, scattered all about," Hensley said, shaking his head. "I went through it all for a year, through the rat turds and the dust. Basically I searched and organized their archives, I knew all of that Cass stuff was in there, and with Cass' 50th anniversary (in 2013) we wanted to do a book on it. I enlisted Bob to help frame the text and he did most of the historical stuff and the basic chapters, and I knew what illustrations I wanted, and I left no stone unturned in my research. We wouldn't take no for an answer, even among ourselves."

Because a lot of the photos had never been published, Hensley said it took extra time in documenting all of the facts surrounding them.

"He and his Amtrak crews have cars at Charlottesville and Huntington. A lot of times Hensley would from Charlottesville, run over to Cass and grab more interviews, photos and information," Withers said.

"A lot of these pictures have never been seen before but I knew pictures that I wanted and how I wanted to present them and maybe that delayed it but I think the end result was worth it," Hensley said. "We didn't quite make it for May like we wanted, but in doing that we were able to include some things from the anniversary."

Hensley and Withers, who is known around the country for his coffee table book, "The President Travels By Train," painstakingly made sure that every person in the book was identified and as much detail put in as possible for each photo.

"We went to great lengths to identify these people," Hensley said. "Arty Barkley who was an engineer was particularly helpful. He started out as a teenager on the Cass Railroad about the time the mill shut down. I got this picture of the majorettes and I was able to identify every majorette and that is the kind of detail that we got. I am proud that we did that. We were able to virtually identify every single person in the book."

Hensley, who at age 13 was the youngest person to ever snag the cover of "Railroad" magazine (May 1965), and Withers' also pay tribute to their fellow Society members including their friend Lloyd Lewis, and the late, John Killoran, a former news photographer for WSAZ, and railroad buff who co-founded and was the first president of the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society.

Killoran, to whom the book is dedicated, passed away in 2005 just four months after he had retired.

"It starts off with a dedication to Killoran," Hensley said. "Killoran got up there about the time the mill shut down and he made a lot of poignant pictures. Here's an old caboose photo he took. I wrote captions like that it probably provided more shade for copperheads than conductors."

As Hensley chugs toward retirement, he's far from looking for a shady place to rest.

The one-time resident vice president for CSX in West Virginia, has been working off hours on fixing up The Trainmaster Bed and Breakfast, which is now open in Kenova, and packed full of railroad history and artifacts, from a completely replicated train ticket office to memorabilia from when he was the main contact and engineer when President Bill Clinton came through the area to campaign on his whistle-stop tour.

Hensley said that while he and Ken are working on the next book, they're all proud they were able to shine a light on the work of the Society that is celebrating its 55th year in 2014 and which is considered one of the top five National Railway Historical Society chapters in the U.S.

And even more importantly to let more folks know about the uphill journey of turning Cass Railroad from a forgotten logging line into one of the best tourist railroads, and one of the most unique state parks in America .

"I think Cass is the premier steam venue in the Eastern United States certainly with the professionalism of the management and the employees, and the varied equipment they have and the spectacular scenery, you'd have to vote it the best scenic railway in the Eastern U.S."

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Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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