Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series called "On the Road."
In 1902, Spruce became the highest town in the eastern United States, at 3,853 feet elevation.
It was normal to have frost in the warmest months of the year.
The Inter-Mountain photos by Lauren D. Ragland
The views in the abandoned town of Spruce are breathtaking, and it is fun to imagine what Spruce once was like. Visitors to Spruce today can see some foundations from the town’s old buildings, including the paper mill.
There has never been a road into Spruce. All necessities and materials are always brought in and out by train. Spruce has no cemeteries - the dead were carried out by train.
The Cass Scenic Railroad website shares that the town on the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River was a camp for workers during the week. On Saturday, the men rode the log train to Cass, returning the next afternoon. Maintaining a family life was difficult, and finally the company agreed to house the workers and their families at Spruce.
Thirty-five houses were built "near the low place where the railroad crossed over the mountain." With the construction of the houses, Camp No. 3 became a town named Spruce.
In the winter of 1905, a total of 480 men were employed, more to be hired in the spring. There was a mill, post office, three blacksmiths, shoemaker and the 40-room Hotel Spruce. A store opened, a branch of the Pocahontas Supply Co. Store in Cass.
In 1906, the company hired a doctor, Dr. Uriah Hevener Hannah. By 1920, the population was now 350 and Spruce built a two-room school. Times quickly changed. Within five years - after 20 years of operation - the mill at Spruce closed as many of the workers had moved to Cass or Slatyfork.
On Aug. 31, 1925, the Spruce post office closed. Two years later, in 1927, the Cheat and Elk River Railroad were sold to Western Maryland Railroad Co. The West Virginia Pulp and Paper Co. paid a set rate for the right to use the tracks. Spruce was now used for assembling trains to Cass and housed eight Western Maryland Locomotives.
I learned from the Mountain State Railroad & Logging Historical Association that the Western Maryland Railway took over the greater portion of the GC&E railroad (and the name) to take advantage of the developing coal industry of the area. WM railroaders moved into the town, which became a terminal for helper locomotives employed in pushing trains over the steep grades over the summit at Big Cut between Slatyfork (Laurel Bank) and Spruce.
Another bridge crossing Shavers fork was added at Spruce in 1929, forming a wye for turning locomotives. A new main line was built east of town, making a big horseshoe that crossed Shavers Fork at the south end of town and rejoined the original logging grade on the long climb toward the Big Cut.
The new line went right across Main Street, eliminating one house. The earth fill for the Shavers Fork bridge was dumped right over the former logging main line, burying a stretch of track. The hotel was demolished. A sand tower and a tall 75-ton coaling station were added in 1931 near the water tower. In 1941, WM built a new engine house in the center of town.
By 1939 Spruce had shrunk to 19 houses, one boarding house and one engine house. The school remained open for another 20 years, closing in 1950.
In October 1949, construction began on a new engine terminal at Slatyfork, which was to replace the facilities at Spruce.
Spruce officially was abandoned on June 1, 1950.
By 1951, the 20-plus families that had occupied Spruce for a quarter-century left for other jobs on the railroad. In 1953, diesel locomotives made their first run over the branch. In December 1954, the water tank was retired; in November 1956, the wye and remaining sidings were pulled out. Only a couple of houses were left for the occasional use of track gangs, and they were gone by the early 1960s.
Today there is little evidence left of the original wooden structures. The Cass Scenic Railroad's "Spruce Run" takes passengers to the Big Cut - the highest point on a standard gauge mainline railway in the east.
Presently the train is not running because of habitat restoration in the area. One can hike in from the Cass direction or from Slatyfork/Mace, like we did last weekend. The 12-mile roundtrip hike was both beautiful and rewarding to have actually walked to Spruce!
There is absolutely nothing there except huge cement foundations of the pulp peeling paper mill. The views are breathtaking. It is fun to imagine what Spruce once was like. Now all you hear are the birds planning their day and the waters flowing in the Shavers Fork.