My Discoveries: Why West Virginia?

"All Aboard!" a Memorable Appalachian Rail Adventure


Five unique vintage trains are the ticket to stunning autumn scenery and rich history on West Virginia's Mountain Railroads. Traveling last fall with 34 friendly folks, I was DISCOVERIES Director for a delightful week in the "Mountain State."

Starting out, we were reminded that West Virginia was part of Virginia until 1861, when Virginia seceded from the Union. The western counties opposed secession, formed their own government and became the 35th state in 1863. Since it was discovered in 1742, coal has played a major role in the state's economy and the life of its people. So has lumber—hardwood forests cover 75% of the area!

Our first ticket was on the historic Cass Scenic Railroad, which in the early 1900s carried logging crews up the slopes and hauled their harvest down to the mill. With a burst of steam and ear-piercing whistle blast, a mighty coal-fired Shay steam locomotive pulled our train through forests decked in glorious fall foliage. The grade is steep, and there are switchbacks on the climb to Bald Knob station at 4,842 ft. elevation. As we got off the train to take in the panoramic view, tame deer greeted us, looking for handouts of our box lunch leftovers!

Each subsequent train ride was a new experience. We curved alongside fast-flowing rivers, cut through steep gorges and sighted eagles soaring overhead. Many of us chose to ride part of The Durbin Rocket and Potomac Eagle routes in open cars that offered fresh air, unhampered views—and sometimes a dusting of soot from the engine. Narration on the trains made the past come alive as we chugged along.

One chilly morning we huddled on wooden benches around a cozy coal stove in an old postal car as the friendly conductor shared stories. That afternoon, we stepped up in time and comfort to velvet seats in the Cheat Salamander train's classic Pullman.

Life in the Mines

beckleymine.web.sjsRails also took us underground in coal cars at Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine. Our guide, a retired mine engineer, made stops to show us the seams of coal and explain the dangerous extraction process. Buildings in the coal camp at the mine entrance have been preserved as a museum. Touring the homes, school, church and company store gave us a glimpse of the simple, hard life for miners and their families in the early 20th century.

That evening, our group enjoyed a special performance of "Coal Camp Memories" at Tamarack. This West Virginia art and crafts center also features an extensive shopping area that features quilts, food products, glassware, furniture and other handcrafted items.

We also spent a fun evening in Elkins at the American Mountain Theater's lively music and comedy show. And many of us enjoyed a sunset cruise on Stonewall Jackson Lake the night we stayed at a beautiful resort there.

More Around Each Bend

cassscenicrrstatepark.web.sjsLike all Country Travel Discoveries tours, this one had other off-the-beaten-track surprises. We loved our stop at Blue Smoke Salsa, where we saw fresh tomatoes, peppers, and onions being chopped and processed for their award-winning products. Of course, we sampled! My top picks were their Medium and specialty Peach Salsas.

At Appalachian Glass in Weston, Chip Turner and his family welcomed us like old friends and put on a glass-blowing demonstration just for our group. Many of us bought sparkling glass friendship balls and other handcrafted items for mementos and gifts.

Our amiable group (from 14 states) had such fun discovering West Virginia. We all agreed that it is relatively undiscovered, but has so much to offer travelers. I can't wait to go back this fall! Why not get your ticket and c'mon along?


Further Readings

  • West Virginia's Mountain Railroads Discovery Tour (Web page)


Also by Ann Kaiser



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