Cheat Mountain Salamander excursion back on track

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about local vacations and scenic spots in wild, wonderful West Virginia.

The Cheat Mountain Salamander rail adventure is back on track.

After a two-year hiatus, the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad recently re-opened their popular 128-mile excursion into the Cheat Mountain wilderness to Spruce, the location of an old settlement established in 1902 near the headwaters of Shavers Fork of Cheat River.

The Cheat Mountain Salamander transports riders through untamed mountain wilderness that has remained untarnished since the time before modern civilization arrived. Passengers will be able to take in breath-taking mountain vistas and perhaps catch a glimpse of distinctive wildlife, including the bald eagle and black bear.

The railroad kicked off the re-opening of the excursion with an event on Saturday, July 13.

The Great West Virginia Train race – which pitted the Cass steam locomotive against the diesel-driven Cheat Mountain Salamander in an uphill race to the finish – brought hundreds of people to the high mountain plateau to watch the event and to view for the first time the newly finished $6.25 million trout restoration project on the headwaters of Shavers Fork of the Cheat River.

The project began in the spring of 2011 to restore brook trout fishing to the headwaters of Shavers Fork of the Cheat River, much like it was in the late 1800s.

When the project started in 2011, the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad was required to postpone the popular nine-hour Spruce run until the completion date of July 1.

In the early 1900s, when logging crews began moving into the upper Shavers Fork watershed, the stream teemed with brook trout. Photos taken at that time show fishermen with stringers of trophy-sized brook trout. The stream degenerated quickly with the advent of timbering. Lumberjacks floated huge rafts of logs down the river, rafts that bulldozed boulders out of the stream and left the bottom flat and featureless. Without trees and fallen logs to provide shade and cover, the temperature-sensitive brook trout died off.

The settlement of Spruce, at an elevation of 3,853 feet., was known as the highest and coldest town east of the Mississippi. The Spruce complex was built during 1904-1905 to supply pulpwood for the company paper mills in Covington, Va., and West Piedmont (now known as Luke), Md. Today, nothing remains but railroad track and a few rock foundations.

West Virginia Department of Natural Resources senior planner Steve Brown began wondering what it might take to restore boulders, logs, deep runs and oxygen-generating riffles to the flat, featureless portion of Shavers upstream from Cheat Bridge.

In 2009, former U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan assigned the state DNR a $2.25 million federal grant to begin work on the project. With the grant, DNR officials hired engineers to draw up restoration plans.

At about the same time, the federal National Resources Conservation Service was building a dam on Elkwater Fork of the Tygart River. The project’s parameters required Tygart Valley Conservation District officials to mitigate the loss of the free-flowing stream by doing restoration work elsewhere. They chose to help restore upper Shavers Fork to the tune of $4 million.

The Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, a coalition composed of fish and wildlife agencies, academic institutions and conservation organizations, heard about the project and contributed $50,000 toward the effort.

Two years of construction has resulted in a 4-mile stretch of the Shavers Fork being narrowed to create a positive trout habitat, complete with pools, riffles, and spawning ladders.

According to DGVR president, John Smith, the restoration project is an added feature to this unique rail excursion.

“It’s really the only way to view the project first hand,” said Smith. “This remote area can only be accessed by hiking or biking in from Snowshoe, or by rail via the ex-Western Maryland Webster Springs branch of track.”

The Cheat Mountain Salamander departs from two locations for Spruce: Elkins at 9 a.m. and Cheat Bridge at noon, for this remote excursion. Departure dates are: August 2, 8, 10, 16, 22, 24, 30; September 7 and 27; and October 12.

The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad offers a host of exciting railroad adventures, including the Mountain Explorer Dinner Train, the New Tygart Flyer , the Durbin Rocket, the Castaway Caboose and the Polar Express.

For more details on each of these excursions, please visit