100 year old steam locomotive goes back to work to help brook trout
More than a century ago in the high mountains of West Virginia, noisy monstrous smoke-belching railroad engines hauled men and machines up and down steep grades, around hairpin turns and over creaky rails as part of massive logging operations that helped build a nation and create a thriving state economy.
But the work also disturbed and sometimes destroyed streams and land features that provided a fruitful environment for some of the most beautiful and sought after brook trout in North America fish that once attracted sportsmen like Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford to the Mountain State for high-profile fishing expeditions.
More than 100 years later, what is left of those trains haul tourists instead of loggers, the trout that once teemed in the pure water streams have dwindled, and the fishermen have fewer places to fish.
Under the leadership of West Virginia Department of Natural Resources Director Frank Jezioro, a team of West Virginia University and DNR experts recently rode to the rescue of one particular stream, the trout, and ultimately the fishing economy of the state. Their unlikely partner in that process was one of the exact same locomotives that once chugged and rattled up the mountainsides in pursuit of profit and empire.
Shay Number 5 at Cass Scenic Railroad took on a tough assignment helping WVU and DNR officials restore brook trout habitat in Randolph County.
Shay Number 5 photos courtesy of Cass Scenic Railroad State Park.
WVU Research Scientist Paul Kinder of the University’s Natural Resources Analysis Center, DNR Fish and Wildlife Planner Steve Brown and their partners have been working together for several years on efforts to return once pristine mountain streams in West Virginia to conditions that will encourage the return of the colorful and prized brook trout.
With grant funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made possible by then-Congressman Alan Mollohan, and grants from the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, a consortium of eastern state agencies, Kinder and Brown have been undoing the damage done by logging and trains damage that makes it difficult to impossible for the attractive fish to move up and down the waterways to spawn and grow at levels that ensure a hearty future.
“Too many streams were altered by dredging, installation of railroad culverts and bridges and logging itself,” Brown explained. “When you alter those streams and take away the tree cover that helps control temperature, you make it very difficult for the trout to live in them year-round.”
Shavers Fork in Randolph and Pocahontas Counties flows at an elevation of 3,800 feet which should guarantee cool water temperatures that are just the way brook trout like it. But brook trout must depend upon tributaries for refuge in the warmer months and as spawning sites – if they can get there. Oats Run is one of those tributaries. Kinder, Brown and their colleagues waded the streams, analyzed data and came up with a restoration plan along with the Canaan Valley Institute to restore access for brook trout to Oats Run and other tributaries.
“Part of the restoration at Oats Run involves putting in 40-foot sections of molded pipe with baffles and dams built into it at eight foot intervals,” WVU’s Kinder explained. “Those baffles create resting spots or fish ladders that accommodate migration.”
Those 40-foot sections of pipe weigh more than one ton and fit together in sections to form fish-friendly culverts for the restored watershed area.
The closest vestige of civilization to Oats Run is a town called Spruce, WV and it is reachable only by logging train or on foot. The town, once a booming community that had a hotel, houses and a pulp mill, is gone. Abandoned when the pulp mill closed and nearby logging ceased, all that remains of the town are weed-choked foundations and scattered debris.
The problem at hand for Kinder and Brown: how to transport the hulking sections of new “trout highways” to such a remote and forbidding location. The answer has been working the mountains a few miles away first with logs and now with tourists for more than a century.
They were called Shay engines and they were invented near the close of the 19th Century to do what many considered impossible climb steep grades of between six and 11 percent, negotiate tight curves, power over frail tracks and pull the heaviest of loads all at the same time. The engines were a common sight in the West Virginia logging industry when more than 3,000 miles of logging railroad line once connected woods with mills. Today, there are only 11 miles left the rails of the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in Pocahontas County just a few clicks away and down a connecting track from the pending stream restoration work of WVU and DNR.
One of the many coal-fired engines that once helped log the nearby mountainsides near Cass was Shay Number 5 manufactured in the early 1900s by the Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio according to the specifications of Ephraim Shay (18391916), a schoolteacher, clerk in a Civil War hospital, civil servant, logger, merchant, railway owner, and inventor. She became known as the “Monarch of the Mountains” and weighs 80 tons just by herself. Add coal, 3,500 gallons of water and oil and Shay Number 5 presses 100 tons down on the mountainside tracks.
When Kinder and Brown had the brainstorm of putting Shay Number 5 back to work hauling men and equipment up the mountain, they approached Cass Scenic Railroad State Park Superintendent Rob Sovine who loved the idea.
“Some of the railroad guys who baby old Number 5 and keep her strong are descendants of some of the original engineers on the line,” Sovine said. “They take care of that old engine like it was a ‘68 Camaro. This project took them and Number 5 back in time to a real railroad job. When we talked to them about this job there was a gleam in their eyes.”
Number 5 is the second oldest Shay engine still in operation. During the first week of October, the healthy old engine will probably become the oldest Shay on an industrial-scale assignment.
Why was the old engine given the tough new assignment? Why wrestle tons of customized pipe into the ground in a remote mountain location so fish can swim? Why put streams back to where they were 100 years ago? Kinder and Brown’s answers are part aesthetic, part patriotic and part economic.
“The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service and even the US Bureau of Census have determined that the hunting and fishing industry in West Virginia is a $1 billion proposition,” Brown said. “Imagine what it would mean to bring back these streams to the levels where they can sustain trout like they did 100 years ago when fishermen like Edison, Ford and Firestone went there. It can be a real shot for the industry to have more available to sportsmen.”
According to the University of Michigan Museum Of Zoology, brook trout is a very highly sought after game fish and can be caught with artificial flies, spin casting, or with live bait. The pursuit of brook trout brings a sharp increase in related recreational activities to communities such as camping, , gear sales, guide services and transportation systems, all of which provide positive economic opportunities.
Brown added that the brook trout is the state fish of West Virginia and is “drop dead gorgeous.”
Brook trout coloration is very distinct and is described as “spectacular” by many experts. The back is dark olive-green to dark brown, sometimes almost black, the sides are lighter and become silvery white ventrally. In addition to pale spots on the side there are smaller more discrete red spots with bluish halos. The fins of the brook trout are also distinct with heavy black wavy lines on the dorsal fin and with white edges on the pectoral fins followed by black and then reddish coloration.
The designation of West Virginia’s official state fish began with a survey, conducted in 1954 and 1955, by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. The survey sought preferences from West Virginia students, teachers, and sportsmen for an animal and a fish that would best represent the state. In that survey, the brook trout was most preferred.
Kinder added that this particular project is offering the unusual opportunity to make progress in efforts to restore the entire watershed.
“People dream of working on improving conditions on an entire watershed scale,” Kinder said. “Conditions in these streams have cried out for attention for years. It’s the right thing to do especially for a University in service to its state. WVU is playing the intellectual role in this project to bring solutions to make improvements that make things better.”
According to Trout Unlimited, brook trout survive in only the coldest and cleanest water. Brook trout serve as indicators of the health of the watersheds they inhabit. Strong wild brook trout populations demonstrate that stream or river ecosystem is healthy and that water quality is excellent. A decline in brook trout populations can serve as an early warning that the health of an entire aquatic system is at risk.
Brown and Kinder say they believe restoring the Shavers Fork watershed can help return the waters of Randolph and Pocahontas Counties to the days before acid rain meddled with the chemical balance of the brook trout’s home and the iron engines of progress destroyed their transportation systems.
One of the goals for the WVU strategic plan is to enhance the quality of life of the people of West Virginia. Kinder said projects like the stream restoration follow that vision.
Incorporating the use of one of the state’s most recognizable industrial icons was an unexpected dimension of the work that will be sure to excite railroad fans as well as sportsmen.