Firestorms, Falsehoods and Facebook

Posted by Chase Gunnoe
on Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Digital media is a company’s best friend and its own worst enemy. Keyboards give everyone a voice and while there are limitless perks to having such information readily available, there are just as many times when the technology can create for unnecessary heartaches. At the end of the day, digital tools like Facebook are great for consumer-focused companies and tourist destinations, but there are other times when half-truths, incomplete information, and emotions leave people picking up the pieces, fact-checking the inaccuracies, and making the internet great again.

That was exactly the case for me this week after a group of diehard Cass Scenic Railroad enthusiasts learned that the more than 50-year-old wooden welcome sign at Whittaker was taken down by the State of West Virginia and the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad.

Within a couple of hours, Facebook users were accusing the railroad of destroying history, eliminating a piece of iconic Cass infrastructure, and taking away a photo prop that has been a part of Whittaker Station their entire lives. Those presumptions derailed into allegations of deferred maintenance, egotistical leadership, the railroad’s decline under new management, and a plethora of other beliefs that stem from a much more complex diary of misconceptions, half truths, and plain ‘ole meanness. 

Here's a photo of the original Whittaker display sign that caused internet chaos on Cass Scenic Railroad fan pages earlier this week. Chase Gunnoe.

And before I continue, I want it to be a matter of full disclosure that I am an employee of this company. I joined as a marketing intern while still in college because I wanted to make a difference in an industry that I was passionate about. Why talk about the past when you could make yourself a part of the future? Young and eager, the internship evolved into a full-time position while still in college and I remain at DGVR today.

I’m grateful to work alongside many of the men and women responsible for operating the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad. It’s not just a railroad – it’s a company comprised of nearly 80 employees – a company that includes healthcare and railroad retirement benefits for those workers, and a company that has a board of directors and shareholders. A company that works diligently to promote economic activity and tourism in West Virginia through marketing and branding strategies that take the better part of a year to formulate and implement.

It’s what we do because we’re passionate about Cass, too. And Elkins, and Durbin, and we’re passionate about railroad preservation because frankly, it’s what makes you and us attracted to the railroad.

And that’s partly why I’m writing this blog today. We’re passionate about our jobs and dedicated to preserving the Cass Scenic Railroad, the Durbin Rocket, and the Elkins operations so that families from near and far can create memories and experiences you can’t enjoy just anywhere. That’s our goal and our obligation to people just like you.

But in order to do that, companies have to operate as businesses. It sounds basic, right? But it’s often overlooked, and it was certainly overlooked this week when people believed that the elimination of a half a century old welcome sign was the result of the railroad’s lack of appreciation, ignorance, and arrogant leadership. The internet was in turmoil and DGVR had disappointed once again.

The reality wasn’t near exciting as what the internet devised. Last winter, chunks of timber started to fall from the welcome sign during the railroad’s off-season.

The off-season is typically the time when people forget that Cass exists because the Shays are tucked away inside and there’s no trains running. The company still operates, though. Designing advertisements, repairing locomotives, and rehabilitating equipment, but that’s beside the point.

As wooden chunks fell from the display, the structure became less sturdy and that posed a risk to employees and the public. Taking the responsible path, a decision was made to cut down the sign before it collapsed entirely. Can you imagine the outrage had we allowed an ancient wooden display to collapse and cause damage or harm? There would have been a valid argument and we would have been responsible.

So, yes, the original display is gone. It, like many things, have and will continue to change. And that’s because railroads have to be operated as businesses. Big or small, railroad companies have to run as businesses.

And that’s why DGVR acquired the Cass Scenic Railroad. It needed to be operated as a business in order to sustain future operations. It has since benefited from the partnership DGVR has with its state agencies and it has created for mutually beneficial partnerships throughout the town, county, and state.  

In April 2017, the DGVR ran its first ever photo charter on a section of its newly restored Greenbrier River line that is on schedule to connect Cass with Durbin in late 2018. Chase Gunnoe.

While the internet and enthusiasts set in their traditional ways prefer to organize much more complicated theories that illustrate a dismal future, we choose to take a different path.

We’re celebrating the fact that our offices overlook four Shay locomotives under steam each day, we’re celebrating motorcar trips down the old C&O Greenbrier line where more than 6 miles of right-of-way has been restored for your future enjoyment. We celebrate the privilege to watch children see steam for the first time in their lives, and we celebrate with people who share the same vision of optimism and dedication amid difficult and challenging setbacks that are associated with this unique industry.

Your biased criticism has, and will continue to fall upon deaf ears because we simply have way too much work to do for people who appreciate and support West Virginia’s steam railroading treasure.

And by the way, the original Whittaker sign that motivated this? It’s inside the shops where it’s being repainted and refurbished so that it can once again be displayed on a brand new Whittaker display.

This open letter is designed to address those misconceptions from the perspective of those who work on the railroad and its properties. 

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