Cass Scenic Railroad State Park offers a holiday setting that rivals Hallmark.

This story was originally published in the December 2022 issue of  Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit

Written by Wendy Holdren

Photographed by Walter Scriptunas II

Picture this: It’s mid-December. You’re in a quaint, quiet town, nestled in fresh, powdery snow. Each home along the street is adorned with dozens of sparkling white Christmas lights. Pine wreaths circle every doorway, and garlands with bright red bows are strung along the picket fencing. 

This is not a fairytale. It’s not a Hallmark movie. It’s Christmastime at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. 

The town is beautifully lighted all throughout December into the first week of January—the 40 company houses and every house on Main, Front, and Spruce Streets as well as the company store, the bridge, and the trail, says park superintendent Marshall W. Markley. “It’s really beautiful,” Markley says. “It’s as close to a Hallmark movie as you’ll ever get.”

While the lights are spectacular enough on their own, there are plenty of activities for locals and visitors alike during Christmas at Cass. Activities abound for youngsters, including visits with Santa Claus, games, and arts and crafts such as DIY ornaments, tie-dying, and cookie decorating. 

As part of the festivities, a square dance is held at the Community Center. Local callers and musicians enjoy the wonderful acoustics of the space, where many square dances have taken place throughout the building’s history. Markley says local folks participate, and people travel from all over specifically for the event. During the last holiday season, he says, even Santa Claus himself could be spotted enjoying the square dance. 

An Experience Like No Other 

The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad will operate holiday trains the first two weekends of December 2022 for the first time since 2019. “Taking a train trip in the winter is a very different experience than the summer,” Markley says. “We’re already in a place that is surrounded by nature, but it’s no more immersive than when you’re on the river. There’s no population that way, so you can see a very natural environment that’s not easy to get to any other way. And when the snow is falling, there’s nowhere more beautiful.” 

For folks who want to experience the magic for longer than an evening, Markley invites them to stay in one of the 25 company houses available for rent. “The vacation rentals are popular for people in the winter going to ski, but it’s also an opportunity for folks looking for different places to stay. There’s such a different atmosphere here, and we keep it as family-oriented as we can. Typically, as long as there’s snow on the mountains, our houses are filled.”

Another sight to behold is the tree lighting ceremony, held each year as a way to thank all the staff and volunteers who have turned the dream into a reality. “It’s no small task to get everything lit up and installed,” Markley says. “We thank everyone who has contributed to that.” The atmosphere, he says, is truly magical—especially if there’s a blanket of snow. Snowfall happens in the Cass area sometimes as early as the end of November, so the timing can be perfect. 

History, Continued

Markley, who has spent the last six years at Cass and the last four as superintendent, says Christmas at Cass started before his time at the park. “It’s been a development,” he says. “Everything started subtly.” After an early period when lights were strung across a few of the houses, a volunteer group called Friends of Cass stepped in. 

Friends of Cass was formed by J.T. Arbogast and his wife, Kimberly Dilts, as an arm of the Mountain State Railroad & Logging Historical Association, a foundation of roughly 500 members working to preserve historical railroad and logging sites. Through their partnership with MSR&LHA, Friends of Cass was able to make the vision of lighting up the town a reality. “They applied for a grant with the Pocahontas County Convention & Visitors Bureau, and they have since received a couple grants to purchase the lights,” Markley says. “It was no small purchase. The group also rallied volunteers to help hang the lights from the houses as well as garland along the white picket fences.”

For Arbogast, the community of Cass is filled with childhood memories. Although he grew up in Pennsylvania, Cass has always felt like home. His parents met in the Cass area, with both sides hailing from the region. His maternal grandparents, Jack and Dess Kane, not only lived there but operated a general store in town. Each year, his family traveled home for the holidays—and every opportunity in between.  

“It’s home for me. We still have the house my mom grew up in here. It’s always had such a special place in my life, so much so that it’s important to me to come back, to spend time and be part of the community,” he says. “There are so many people who grew up here or came here with their parents or on class field trips—I know I’m not alone in my love of this place, and there are personal stories that exist here for so many people.”

Arbogast felt a calling as an adult to carry on the legacy of memory-making in Cass. He asked himself, “How do we help people make memories that will prompt them to bring others back to experience it, too?” For him, Cass has always symbolized community. To be able to share the stories of Cass and for other folks to make memories of their own is a dream come true.

He and a group of fellow Cass enthusiasts, including his brother Jonathan and Pocahontas County Convention & Visitors Bureau information specialist Tammy Shoemaker, banded together three years ago to form the nucleus of Friends of Cass. “We were just a few folks trying to come together. Now, a whole crew of locals are coming out of the woodwork trying to build these opportunities.”

A Nightmare Before Christmas

More than just train rides, the Friends of Cass wanted to help create and showcase the community experiences the town could offer. Before Christmas at Cass was created, the Friends of Cass volunteered to host a Halloween extravaganza at the park. Offering trick-or-treating at the company houses, the goal was to provide a safe area for youngsters to get their annual candy fix. The family-friendly event also offered glowing jack-o-lanterns, a haunted house, and a costume contest. 

Friends of Cass canvassed the residents about what they should do next, and someone suggested really lighting up the town for the month of December. “We didn’t want this to be in a Christmas light competition way—no lasers or inflatables—but in that classic way that matches the vibe of the time,” Arbogast explains. With Superintendent Markley’s approval, they submitted and received approval for a grant from the CVB. 

“The first response we got was, ‘This feels like we’re walking into a Hallmark movie.’ The first year, we hung 10,000 lights and strung the white picket fences with garland and bows, all in a way that didn’t damage any of the historic buildings,” Arbogast says. He remembers standing outside, watching vehicles crest the hill for the first time and seeing their brake lights as they slowed to view the lights. “It was incredibly exciting to see how it all came together so quickly. But I shouldn’t be surprised; everyone we asked to help immediately said, ‘Yes, what do you need?’ People are here for each other in a really beautiful way.”

Christmas at Cass has since taken on a life of its own, Arbogast says. Friends of Cass aims to grow the event each year, and they hope to one day light every street in the town. “It’s a wonderful experience,” Markley says. “We’re the only logging town I know that’s preserved in the condition we’re in, with the majority of company houses, the store, and the depot still in place. When people come here, it’s a chance to step back in history like no place else. We work hand-in-hand with the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture & History to keep things the way they’ve been, so people can continue to have that experience. ‘We’re not made to look old, we’re just old’—that’s a quote from Tammy Shoemaker, and she’s exactly right. We are just what we already are.” 

Cass is a jewel within the state park system and in the state as a whole, he says. “We had so much industry built in our state. Company towns and that way of life were not preserved, but many people have a history with that—their families worked with coal or logging towns. This is an opportunity for them to come back and see what that looked like, to get to experience the town, take a trip on the railroad, and see the town lit up with Christmas lights.” 

For information about booking train rides on this season’s holiday routes and about visiting and lodging in the community of Cass, navigate to the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad page at and the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park page at