Photo of N&W 611 Steam Excursion in Front Royal, VA

Rock Star Return for the Spirit of Roanoke

Railroad Traveler Essays

Article by: Jim Spavins
Published: June 9, 2015

This article was originally published on the website Railroad Traveler.

A low whistle sounds in the distance. The tease of smoke rises from beyond the tree line. A low rumble builds as the distinctive chugging sound becomes audible.  An army of railfans, lining the right of way, who for the last thirty minutes have been leisurely lounging alongside the right of way, snap to attention. 

"Here she comes!" one yells.  A mad dash ensues as each person grabs their cameras and nervously fidgets with the settings to make sure everything is just right for the perfect shot.  For a split second everything is still, all attention is focused down the tracks as the faint chugging fills the air.  Then with a thunderous whoosh, out from behind the trees, the sleek streamlined steam locomotive explodes into view with a stream of smoke and steam pouring out in all directions.  Camera shutters whirr as the majestic locomotive thunders towards the assembled masses.  The noise now has turned from a rumble into a roar as she passes.  All those lining the tracks take a step back and then whip around to watch as the Roanoke-bred locomotive charges through.

Just as quickly as she arrived, she is gone - but for all those trackside - it was worth the wait.

Photo of N&W 611 Steam Excursion in Linden, VA

The American excursion lead by N&W 611 between Manassas and Front Royal, VA, glides east through Linden, VA, on June 7, 2015. | Photo by Jim Spavins.

Since 1994, the Norfolk and Western J-class 4-8-4, idled at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, VA.  She had pulled excursions for about 12 years before her fires had been put out without much of an inkling if there were would be more glory days ahead.  A smattering of incidents and a focus on cost cutting brought an end to the Norfolk Southern steam program.  The steam engines were sent to museums around the country with the 611 returning to her birth home of Roanoke, VA.   

Photo of N&W 611 Steam Excursion in Manassas, VA

Crowds welcome the newly restored 611 to Manassas, VA, for her first excursion in 21 years on June 6, 2015. | Photo by Jim Spavins.

During 2013, the museum decided to see if there were still enough fans of the locomotive around to help raise the funds to restore the locomotive to service.  After an initial inspection which confirmed that the project could be completed, a fundraising campaign called Fire Up 611!  was started.  Within several months, the millions of dollars needed to restore the locomotive poured in from over 3,000 donors.  In particular, Norfolk Southern stepped to the plate with a $1.5 million dollar contribution and - in many ways more importantly - the recently restarted program called  "21st Century Steam."  This would help ensure that the newly resorted locomotive would be able to roam mainline rails pulling excursions around the NS system.

Then last summer, it all started to become real.  The locomotive was gently removed from her perch inside the Virginia Museum of Transportation and pulled down to the North Carolina Transportation Museum where she was taken apart, inspected, repaired, and finally reassembled.  In the spring of 2015, it became official, she would steam again and carry passengers with the first excursions slated for the beginning of June 2015.

Tickets sold briskly, with reports that the opening weekend's three excursions between Manassas and Front Royal, VA, would sell 95% of their capacity - even with coach ticket prices starting at $129.

On May 30, 2015, just one day after the 65th anniversary of the completion of the locomotive, 611 was finally ready to be moved back to Virginia.  A send off event was held at the North Carolina Transportation Museum and she began her journey home.  Much to the surprise of many organizers, thousands of people lined the tracks on the trek through North Carolina and Virginia.  Numerous railfans attempted to chase the special move north but encountered so much traffic that many couldn't make it into Roanoke to see the arrival.

A week later, the first excursion was scheduled to leave Manassas, VA.  As an added bonus, that Saturday, June 6, 2015, was also the date of the Manassas Railway Heritage Festival - making a great weekend into a true celebration.  Thousands of folks turned out to catch a glimpse of 611 under steam.  It turns out it wasn't just railfans and train enthusiasts - but plenty of locals as well who wanted to catch a glimpse of history in action. 

For two straight days, the 611 thundered through the Shenandoah Valley delighting riders, railfans, and locals alike.  At every grade crossing or break in the trees, folks waited to see her thunder past and put on a show.  In the commissary car, the organizers of the trip were selling shirts evoking the spirit of a rock band with words "611 Virginia Tour" emblazoned on the back with the list of tour dates for each excursion this season.  Based on the response from this first weekend, the comeback tour has proven to be a success so far.

Photo of N&W 611 Steam Excursion in The Plains, VA

Crowds gather to watch N&W 611 charge west through The Plains, VA, on June 7, 2015. | Photo by Jim Spavins.