611. It’s a number synonymous with railroaders and railfans alike. A number that brings chills of awe to the spine. As a twenty year old, I am blessed to be in a generation of renaissance, where steam is once again allowed on the mainline. I am even more blessed to see “The J” alive and well in 2016.
When I hear the number 611, I think of elegance and efficiency. Not only that, but of graceful power. In the late 40s, The East End Shops of the Norfolk & Western Railway became the first railroad to independently combine those three things into one machine. Yes, the Pennsy and various others built their own steam locomotives – but not to the same degree as the N&W.
In my humble opinion, the 611 is the pinnacle of steam technology. One of the last steam locomotives ever built, the 611 was the answer to the growing need of post-wartime passenger rail traffic on the N&W.
She served her designers well, hauling fast passenger specials over the Blue Ridge grade and appealed widely to the public. Streamlining wasn’t a new idea, but it was a reforming process. By the time the N&W decided to streamline the “Little J’s” (the 4-8-2 Mountain-types), it was already a widely accepted practice in the industry. Railroads were in a fierce, new-era of competition.
In the 1950s, it wasn’t just against themselves: airlines and newly-built interstate highways threatened the livelihood of passenger rail operations. Not only that, but steam was a dying breed. The Norfolk & Western had tried and tested diesel power from EMD a few years prior, but still wasn’t won over by the manufacturer. Therefore, the decision was to stick with steam.
Above: N&W 611 crosses the Roanoke River Bridge outside of Huddleston, VA on the old Virginian.
The cost to build the engine was almost $2,500,000.00 in today’s money – proving the N&W believed in their people and the quality of the craftsmanship involved. Rolling out of The East End Shops in May of 1950, “The J” would be among the last of the great steam locomotives to be built in the United States. She was, in every essence of the word, a queen of steam. She did what she was designed to do and did it well, but her career would last only nine years, being saved in part by O. Winston Link. Without his efforts and without her derailment and rebuild in 1956, she probably wouldn’t be operating today. That derailment? An engineer suffered a heart-attack while at the throttle, taking a curve too fast and sending the train cascading into the Tug River at Cedar, WV. He was the only fatality.
Fast forward to 2016, 60 years after her major accident that would be a blessing in disguise, the 611 is operating again on Norfolk Southern’s mainline. Thanks to the expertise of Scott Lindsay, his Steam Operations Company, the volunteers, and the Virginia Museum of Transportation – she has been running the rails just as she did when she first rolled out of The East End Shops.
So far this year, the 611 has pulled excursions over former Southern and N&W mainlines, with the highlights being over the Old Fort Loops to Asheville, NC and her triumphant march up the Blue Ridge grades outside of Roanoke. You can see our aerial drone video of the locomotive climbing The Loops below:
This year, we have been working closely with Norfolk Southern’s media department to provide the most breathtaking footage of the locomotive. We are also in negotiations with the Virginia Museum of Transportation in producing an officially licensed documentary, which will tell the complete story of the locomotive and the volunteers who bring her to life. Stay tuned for updates on the project and in the meantime, enjoy this incredible video from on-board locomotive cameras that were mounted on the 611 for her trip out of Asheville:
We look forward to telling the amazing story of one of the most beautiful steam locomotives in the United States. From 1950 to 2016, the Queen of Steam is still inspiring people of all ages – including college students like me! Thanks for stopping by and be sure to support the Virginia Museum of Transportation. You can purchase tickets here: http://www.fireup611.org/.