VINTON–Thousands lined the railroad tracks throughout the region on May 30 to welcome the Norfolk & Western Class J 611 “Spirit of Roanoke” steam passenger locomotive back to the Virginia Transportation Museum.
On the July 4th weekend thousands more purchased tickets to actually ride the 611 on excursions from Roanoke to Lynchburg or to Radford. Several Vinton residents were on the trains.
There were round-trips of 98 miles on the Powhatan Arrow tour from Roanoke to Lynchburg on the mornings of July third, fourth, and fifth departing from the O. Winston Link Museum at 8 a.m. and returning around noon.
Once the train reached Lynchburg it reversed its direction by turning around in a “wye” and headed back to Roanoke. In a triangular “wye,” the direction of a railway vehicle can be swapped around, leaving it facing in the direction from which it came.
There were three more journeys on the Pelican tour from Roanoke to Radford on those same days, leaving Roanoke at about 1:30 and returning at 5:30 p.m. The Pelican climbed the famed Christiansburg Mountain grade for which the 611 was designed in a trip of 84 miles.
There was space for about 800 passengers riding in 21 cars on each excursion. All six trips were sold out. Over 5,000 riders traveled with the 611 over the weekend.
Vinton First Aid Crew Chief Tom Philpott rode the 611 to Lynchburg on the Fourth of July. He was accompanied by Sydney Myers, also a rescue squad volunteer, who had worked for Norfolk and Western for 37 years.
Philpott’s grandfather John Robertson was a machinist who helped build all the Class J’s, including the 611. Robertson had only a fifth grade education, but the men who worked with him over the years said he was so skilled that if a train broke down and he was unable to repair it, the next step was to have it towed back to the shops.
He was such a good machinist that he took small pieces of metal and built a functioning miniature steam engine.
Philpott was raised in Bassett and would take the train to Roanoke to visit his grandparents as a child. He became well-known to the crew and was allowed to travel by himself. Once when he was eight years old, he decided on his own, without permission, to travel on to Martinsville instead of getting off at his appointed stop, causing some anxious moments for his family.
Paul and Mary Dress of Vinton were on the July third Powhatan Arrow journey. He is retired from Norfolk Southern.
Barbara Dillon and her family, which included four generations ranging in age from 13 to 92, made it a family outing with 10 members on board for the Pelican Excursion to Radford to celebrate the July 4 holiday. Her son Kevin Dillon arranged the trip for his mother, his wife Julie and their son Brad, along with Barbara’s son-in-law Kim Johnson, his two children Leslie and Chad Johnson, and Leslie’s son Cody Johnson. Barbara Dillon’s grandson Mike Falls and his wife Janet also made the trip. Chad is a Norfolk Southern employee. This was the first ever train trip for Cody and Bradley.
Dr. Matt Marry of Tuck Chiropractic in Vinton took the 611 to Lynchburg to celebrate the Fourth.
“It was great,” said Marry. “It was actually my first time riding on a train. The scenery was great, the ride was smooth, and the hospitality exceeded all expectations. What better way to spend Independence Day, than on America’s greatest 611 steam passenger locomotive. I enjoyed most seeing the excitement of Bev Fitzpatrick and everyone else associated with making the 611 restoration dream a reality.”
“Not being a native of this region, it was amazing to see the excitement of people standing on the side of the tracks watching the 611 travel from Roanoke to Lynchburg,” added Marry. “I hope the 611 gets the approval to do more excursions in the future. The reconstruction of this local legendary locomotive has been a great addition to Roanoke.”
According to the Virginia Transportation Museum (VTM), the 611 was one of 14 Class ‘J’ passenger locomotives built for the Norfolk & Western Railway between 1941 and 1950 and the only one in existence today. They were built in the N & W Roanoke Shops. Number 611 “rolled out of the Roanoke East End Shops on May 29, 1950 at a cost of $251,344.”
A Vinton Messenger article in 1984 said that the Class J’s were “designed, built, and operated entirely by Norfolk and Western employees.”
The J Class was used daily to pull passenger trains between Cincinnati and Norfolk and between Monroe, North Carolina, and Bristol, Tennessee.
According to the museum, “The J’s were the pride of the N & W’s fleet of home-built steam locomotives. They represented the pinnacle of steam technology. Many operated upwards of 15,000 miles per month and several logged over three million miles by the time they were retired in 1959.They could pull 15 cars at 110 mph. Due to rising operating costs, the N&W decided to switch to diesel locomotives in 1957.”
According to the Vinton Messenger, “the 611 was the only ‘J’ not to fall victim to the cutting torch and scrap heap.”
Several people, including famed N&W photographer O. Winston Link reached out to N & W to save the 611. President Stuart Saunders agreed to keep 611 as a reserve steam generator at the East End Shops until the flues in her boiler ran out. She was then donated to the new Roanoke Transportation Museum (later the Virginia Museum of Transportation) for display, where “she sat outside in the elements waiting for the chance to steam again.”
That chance came in 1981 when the 611 was sent to the Norris Steam Shop in Birmingham, Alabama and “became the star of the Norfolk Southern steam program pulling excursions throughout the eastern United States as far south as Florida, as far north as New York, and as far west as Chicago.”
The newspaper reported that the 611 returned to its home in Roanoke in 1982 “under its own power” as a gift from Norfolk Southern to Roanoke for its centennial celebration. Norfolk and Western and Southern railways consolidated in 1982 and became Norfolk Southern.
Those excursions continued for 12 years until the program was ended in 1994. The 611 returned once again to the museum in Roanoke.
In 2013, the Virginia Museum of Transportation announced the “Fire Up 611!” initiative to investigate the possibility of returning No. 611 to excursion service. They received donations from all fifty states and 19 countries which enabled the restoration.
The 611 Society said, “The Norfolk & Western No. 611 is now serving as a mobile ambassador for the Virginia Museum of Transportation meant to captivate, educate, and inspire everyone who sees her as a living testament to the ingenuity of American workers and the spirit of everyone who worked on the N&W.”
According to Bev Fitzpatrick, Director of the Virginia Transportation Museum, no more excursions are planned for the remainder of 2015. Putting together the excursions, borrowing the 20-some railroad cars from around the nation, and arranging to use busy railroad tracks is complicated and requires much planning and coordination.