The Norfolk and Western ‘J’ Model 611 steam engine steamed its way back from the dead. Originally there were 14 of these steam engine powered locomotives, now there is only one. When it was retired in 1959, diesel engines were gaining track. Eventually, this J-611 was donated to the now Virginia Transportation Museum in Roanoke, VA, where the little engine that could no more awaited her fate. As fortune would have it, the J-611 was given new purpose in the early ’80’s and was again top-dog, pulling passenger trains across the US until Norfolk Southern pulled the plug on its steam locomotive program for good. Back at the Virginia Transportation museum this lonely train sat in the elements, growing older and older, her future looking bleak. It wasn’t until 2013 that the Virginia Transportation Museum even discussed giving new life to this steam locomotive as an excursion train once again. Today, the J-611 is running several daytrips, allowing people to see firsthand what railroading was like in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Flash forward to 3 July 2015. Sitting on the tracks in Roanoke, VA, the J-611 prepares to steam off on the Powhatan Arrow tour, a 98-mile round trip train ride to Lynchburg, VA and back. It is early in the morning, earlier than I would like to be up on my day off, but it was worth it! This once in a lifetime jaunt on a soon to be retired engine was an unexpected Independence weekend trip. What better way to celebrate the birth of the US, than by appreciating the ingenuity of our country? I could barely wait to fly along the tracks at 110 miles per hour with the stunning Virginia countryside whizzing past.
We hopped on car 14 near the O. Winston Link Museum about an hour before departure. The Link Museum calls the Historic Norfolk and Western Passenger station home, so it was a fitting place for the homecoming after a long restoration in North Carolina! Winston Link documented the last days of the 611 in photographs, video and audio and the museum is dedicated to preserving these works. The city of Roanoke is found along the Roanoke River in, you guessed it, the Roanoke Valley not far from the Blue Ridge Mountains. A rail city since the 1850’s Roanoke owes a lot of its history and economy to the rail system, and is home to the Virginia Transportation Museum, in addition to the O. Winston Link Museum.
It was time for the steam engine to fire up and begin the journey. Slowly the big wheels begin to turn and steam billows from her steam stack. What I was waiting for in anticipation was the throaty wail of the steam whistle as we departed. Much like the train whistles you heard in old movies or TV shows as a child, the videos I watched of the J-611 roaring along the countryside blowing her whistle were majestic. The East End Shops, where 611, her sisters, and the 1200s and 2100s were designed, built, and maintained, is found just off to the left as we leave on our journey. We are finally on our way!
A very sweet woman and her elderly mother sat across from us as we departed. The woman was about the same age as my mom, and her mother was 94 years old. They were from Selma, VA, and were taking both train rides on this day. The woman’s mother was a fan of the train and wanted to take the journey, and as any good daughter would do, she booked the trip for both of them to enjoy. They reminded me of my mom and grandma. We chatted about various things and I learned that the woman worked for the Norfolk and Southern RR beginning in 1969 until she retired.
Apparently, although the J 611 is built for speed, it is only allowed to steam along at 40 MPH on these excursions. I am a little disappointed! I was really looking forward to flying down the rails, but I understand that safety is important, so there you have it. We take in the scenery – rolling hills, small towns, and farms – as we steam ahead. Every intersection we approach is greeted by photographers, siderodromophiles, and the curious. While crossing a tall train bridge over a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains I look at the river far below. Leaving the Gap, we pass through Bedford, where you will find the national D-Day Memorial honoring those who fought on the beaches of France on June 6, 1944. After passing Bedford, the train steams through the village of Forest, once the summer home of Thomas Jefferson. After leaving the town of Forest we slowly roll into the city of Lynchburg. In order to get the train pointing in the right direction the engineer turned the train on the wye at Norfolk Southern’s Montview Yard for the return trip to Roanoke.
After we returning to Roanoke, we disembarked en masse. About 800 people rode the train that morning on a once in a lifetime experience. In spite of the cloudy skies and on-and-off drizzling rain we waited on the bridge to see the J-611 depart for the afternoon excursion. Riding the train was special, but you miss the pomp and circumstance by being in one of the cars, especially so far back from the steam engine. As we waited for the train to steam on for the afternoon, it began to sprinkle. We waited and waited and finally, with great flair, the throaty steam whistle sounds and the chug-chug-chug of the train creeping along the tracks is heard on the bridge. Cheers from the crowd hailed the Queen of Steam as she left on her journey.
Flash forward to today. Now retired once again, the J-611 is back at the Virginia Transportation Museum. Hopefully this hiatus will be short, and the Queen of Steam will once again carry passengers along the rails from her hometown of Roanoke. Long live the Queen!