Riding Behind N&W 611
by John Delach
As I relate my experience from the weekend of April 22 to April 24, 2016, I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point you, dear reader, may think to yourself: You know that’s an awfully quick trip for such a long ride! You’d be right to think so.
In lieu of our usual spring baseball odyssey, Bill Christman, Mike Cruise and I, (rail fans all) decided to travel to Greensboro, NC to ride a train behind the vintage, newly re-built Norfolk & Western (N&W) J-Class steam engine, No. 611. The 611 is argumentatively the most beautiful passenger locomotive ever built. (Space does not permit me to post photographs of 611 so may I suggest that you explore: fireup611.org.)
Designed and built by the engineers and fabricators at N&W’s Roanoke East End Shops in 1950, 611 was one of the last of 14 Js built to haul the railroad’s named passenger trains like Powhatan Arrow, Cavalier and Pocahontas. The engine was rebuilt in 1956 after suffering a major wreck that fortuitously made this engine the best in class when the Js were retired two years later. Saved from the scrap heap, 611 became a static museum piece until Robert Clayton, then president of the Norfolk Southern (NS) – N&W’s successor, created a heritage steam program in 1981. The 611 wrecked a second time with Clayton at the controls in May, 1986 in Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp; fortunately with no loss of life and Clayton shaken but blameless.
Repaired, the engine re-entered service making excursions until 1994 when NS canceled the heritage program. Returned to the Virginia Transportation Museum, 611 remained in non-operational condition until “fireup611” gained the funds needed to return the engine to life in 2015.
The 611’s excursions sold out in the blink of an eye. But, as soon as the 2016 schedule was announced, Bill, Mike and I jumped on it like a dog on a bone recognizing that age-wise, all of us were in the top of the 9th in a nine inning game so we could not pass up this golden opportunity to ride behind this beautifully restored locomotive.
We arrived at the Greensboro Airport late Friday afternoon, Mike and I from LGA and Bill from DFW. We stayed at a pleasant Marriott in town and dined that evening at Liberty Oak, a local family eatery. Bill and I enjoyed southern fried chicken while Mike feasted on grilled shrimp over grits.
The organizers expected us to be present by 6AM so the train could depart promptly at 7. Their concern was understandable as the train would carry over 700 passengers in 19 coaches ranging from private cars, business cars and domes to day coaches and basic coaches. This made us arrange wake-up calls of 4:30 AM to 5 AM depending on our own morning needs prompting the young lady behind the front desk to believe we were insane.
By the time we arrived at the appointed hour we found close to 400 passengers already standing in orderly lines in the station’s waiting room. With rare exceptions, the bulk of our fellow riders were sixty and above, male and white. Several were unembarrassed to appear in costume like scarves, hats and even bib overalls usually associated with engine crews. Many others wore 611 hats and tee shirts. We soon joined the latter buying hats in the commissary car. Several women of a certain age accompanied their husbands most good naturedly but some noticeably demonstrating reluctance.
The schedule called for a five-hour run to Roanoke, a three-hour lay over and a five-hour return. We booked seats in one of the day coaches. These units, so called “heritage cars” dated from the late 1940s through to the mid-50s but didn’t exhibit too much wear and tear having received a good bit of TLC from their private owners. Ours bore the un-sexy designation, WATX 539, instead of an identity like New York or Saint Augustine. Even so, WATX 539 was handsomely appointed with four-across business class reclining seats. Most vital, the a/c and toilets worked without fail.
Alcohol was verboten but lunch in Roanoke provided the occasion to quaff a couple of lagers in Flanary’s Pub and we still had time to visit a museum dedicated to the amazing railroad photography of O. Winston Link.
On both the out and return trip, it seemed every crossing was lined with spectators waving and photographing our procession. The museum had issued an email message alerting folks of the estimated time our train would pass a particular mile-marker and railroad fans responded enthusiastically.
The train made its 8 PM Greensboro ETA letting us enjoy dinner at the hotel about nine.
Another early rise on Sunday, cabs to the airport and flights home. We accomplished our mission, to ride behind a Class 1 authentic passenger steam locomotive: A quick trip for a long ride, but we did check off this must to do from our bucket lists.
…and yet, as I write this, Union Pacific is refurbishing a Big Boy locomotive Number 4014 in their Cheyenne, Wyoming shops. Bill, Mike and I insist that the Big Boys are the biggest and grandest steam engines of all time. Can you imagine riding behind one of those western railroad’s monsters?
Who knows, but everything being equal…?