N&W J class (1941)
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The Norfolk and Western Railway's J class steam locomotives are a class of 4-8-4 locomotives built by the railway's East End Shops located in Roanoke, Virginia between 1941 and 1950. The first batch, numbered 600 to 604, were built in 1941–42 and were delivered streamlined. The 1942 unit had a booster engine on the trailing truck and the 1943 unit 605–610 were delivered without shrouding and lightweight side rods, due to the limitations on the use of certain materials during the war; they were classified J1. When N&W showed the War Production Board the reduced availability numbers because of this, the Board allowed the J1s to be re-fitted as Js with the lightweight rods and shrouding in 1944. The last batch, 611–613, were built in 1950, all streamlined.
The first J's had 275 psi boilers, 70-inch (1,778 mm) driving wheels, and roller bearings on all wheels and rods; after about 1945 boiler pressure was raised to 300 psi (2,100 kPa). Calculated tractive effort was 80,000 pounds (36,000 kg) – the most powerful 4-8-4 without a booster. The 70-inch drivers were small for a locomotive that was to pull trains at over 100 mph (160 km/h). To overcome this, the wheelbase was made extremely rigid, lightweight rods were used, and the counterbalancing was precise.
As delivered, the Js had a duplex (two) connecting rods between the primary (second) and third drivers, but in the 1950s Norfolk and Western's engineers deemed these unnecessary. The 611 and all of her other Class were rebuilt with a single connecting rod. The negative effect of the J's highly engineered powertrain was that it made the locomotives sensitive to substandard track. While on loan, #610 hauled a 1,050-short-ton (950 t; 940-long-ton) passenger train with 15 cars at speeds in excess of 110 mph (180 km/h) over Pennsylvania Railroad's "racetrack", the Fort Wayne Division (a section of flat, straight track).
The class Js pulled the network's prominent passenger trains, such as The Powhatan Arrow, The Pocahontas, and The Cavalier between Cincinnati, Ohio and Norfolk, Virginia, as well as ferrying Southern Railway's Tennessean, Birmingham Special and The Pelican between Lynchburg, Virginia and Bristol, Virginia. Despite their power and speed, the class Js were among the most reliable engines, running as many as 15,000 miles (24,000 km) per month, even on the mountainous and relatively short route of the N&W.
There is one notable accident in the J class's service history, when on January 23, 1956, No. 611 derailed along the Tug River near Cedar, West Virginia while pulling the The Pocahontas. It was determined that the engineer ran the engine at an excessive speed around a curve and its high center of gravity caused it to flip on its side. The 611 was repaired and continued revenue passenger service.
In the late 1950s, N&W began purchasing first generation diesel locomotives, experimenting with fuel and maintenance cost. They leased several sets of EMD E6s, E7s, E8s from the Atlantic Coast Line and Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroads. The diesels proved to be cheaper in maintenance and fuel cost, but several were required to equal the power of a steam locomotive. In the end, with steam parts suppliers closing because of other railroads switching to diesels, diesels prevailed and the clock began to tick until steam was retired. In 1958 and 1959, the railroad ran several Farewell To Steam excursions, with 611 pulling the last one in October 1959. While many of the locomotives went to the scrap lines, 611 was preserved. This was in part due to its superb condition after its 1956 derailment and subsequent repair, and also in part to the efforts of photographer O. Winston Link, who offered to purchase 611 himself rather than see it scrapped.
Accidents and incidents
- On June 12, 1946, #604 hauled the eastbound Powhatan Arrow after departing Cincinnati, Ohio at 8:10 A.M. for Norfolk, Virginia. But at 3:18 P.M., the locomotive derailed 4 miles west of Powhatan, West Virginia due to excessive speed at 56 mph killing engineer Grover C. “Nap” Roberts and fireman Beecher Lawson. In addition, twenty-three passengers, three dining car employees, and one train service employee were also injured.
Preservation and excursion service
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Due to the efforts of several men, including Link, engine 611 was saved. The locomotive was donated to the Roanoke Transportation Museum in Roanoke, in 1960, where it sat dormant for two decades.
In the early 1980s, Robert Claytor, president of Norfolk and Western in its last months, had his eye on 611. His brother, W. Graham Claytor, once president of the Southern Railway, was in charge of Southern Railway's Steam Program. This program had been around since 1966 with Southern Railway 2-8-2 4501, sending steaming ambassadors system wide. Robert Claytor envisioned a similar program for the N&W. He made a lease with the museum, and in 1981, 611 was sent to Southern Railway's Norris Yard Steam Shop in Birmingham, Alabama for an overhaul.
In 1982, 611 emerged under steam, with the only change being a dual beam headlight instead of the single bulb lamp it carried in the fifties, and effectively wound up replacing another locomotive, Southern 2716, which had its excursion career ended during the restoration of 611 due to firebox problems. Norfolk and Western and Southern Railway had by this time merged into Norfolk Southern; this now doubled the amount of track available for 611 to tour. 611's first trip was a ferry move up the Southern into Lynchburg, Virginia, and then over N&W home rails to Roanoke for a ceremony. In 1984, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers named 611 a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark and it has since been added to the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record.
On May 18, 1986, 611 was at the head of a Norfolk Southern employee appreciation train from Norfolk, Virginia, with Robert Claytor at the throttle. One of the passenger cars failed to negotiate a switch on the main line through the Great Dismal Swamp, causing it and 12 other cars of the 23 car train to derail. Many of the nearly 1000 employees and their family members were injured; some of the more seriously injured had to be airlifted to hospitals in nearby Norfolk for treatment.
The derailment prevented the use of the main line for freight traffic for some time. This derailment brought a wave of change to the program, including the retirement of many of the older passenger cars. Despite the rumors, the program continued, welcoming another locomotive, former Norfolk & Western 1218, a simple articulated 2-6-6-4. The two continued to pull the systems' trains, with 611 even participating in a triple-header with N&W 1218 and Southern Railway 4501, until 1994, when another disastrous blow hit. In September of 1994, there was a switching accident in Lynchburg, VA, involving the passenger cars of an excursion consist that 611 was to pull the next day. This damaged several cars, causing a shortage and the consequent need for more cars. A month later, NS executives terminated the steam program due to rising insurance costs, increasing cost of maintenance, and low spare system capacity.
The last steam excursion was in December 3 from Birmingham, Alabama to Chattanooga, Tennessee and back, pulled by 611. The next day 611 set off on a three-day trek home to Roanoke. Between Salisbury, North Carolina and Roanoke, 611 displayed black flags on the last run of December 7, 1994. That evening, upon arrival at Shaffer's Crossing in Roanoke, 611 blew its whistle one last time and had its fire put out for the last time in the 20th century.
Post 1982-1994 excursion service
In December 1994, 611 was put back in the museum, now known as the Virginia Museum of Transportation, under a new train shed. In 2003, a major renovation of the railyard brought a bigger train shed (The Robert B. Claytor and W. Graham Claytor Jr. Pavilion), and 611 was joined by twice former stable-mate, 1218. Both locomotives sat at the museum until May 24, 2014, when the 611 was towed to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, NC, for restoration.
As one of the last, most prominent, and most distinctive locomotives assembled in Roanoke, No. 611 often serves as a symbol for Roanoke and its railroad history. It is also depicted on the Commonwealth of Virginia's "Railway Heritage" license plate.
On April 2, 2012, The City of Roanoke officially donated both 611 & 1218 to the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
Second restoration and excursions
In 2011, the Norfolk Southern brought back their steam program, under the name 21st Century Steam, leading to speculation among some about a possible restoration of 611. On February 22, 2013, the Virginia Museum of Transportation formed a campaign called "Fire Up 611!" to conduct a feasibility study with the goal of returning the 611 to active service.
On June 28, 2013, museum officials said that they would restore 611 if they could find the money. The needed work includes repairing the engine truck, preparing a tool car and an auxiliary water tender, applying new safety appliances such as in-cab signals and an event recorder, installing new flues, boiler work, and hydro and fire testing, as well as test runs, inspection, and repairs of the tender, running gears, and air brakes.
On November 22, 2013, Norfolk Southern announced that they were donating $1.5 million of the proceeds from an auction of a Mark Rothko painting to the "Fire Up 611!" campaign. In February 2014, several key appointments were made by the Fire Up 611 committee to the locomotive's mechanical team. The following month, a formal agreement was made with the North Carolina Transportation Museum for restoration. On April 1, 2014, she was announced that after raising $2.3 million, the locomotive would move to North Carolina on May 24, 2014. 611 arrived in Spencer on May 25 and took part in the Streamliners at Spencer event the following weekend. Restoration work on the 611 began on June 2, 2014. The restoration was done with the help of volunteers, including several from the Age of Steam Roundhouse. Due to the generally good condition of the locomotive, restoration was complete within a year.
On March 31, 2015, the 611 was fired up with its maximum working boiler pressure of 300 psi and the crew open the throttle up to blow steam out of the cylinders' piston valves. The test fire was a complete success and the 611 blew her Hancock three-chime long-bell whistle for the first time in 20 years. However, 611 did not run sporting her original whistle in 2015 due to a disagreement between the whistle's owner and the FireUp611 committee. An original Hancock three chime long bell whistle was procured and installed for the 2016 and subsequent seasons to the delight of 611's fans. On May 9, it ran under her own power as part of the first round of post-restoration testing.
On May 21, 2015, 611 made a brief test run from Spencer to Greensboro, North Carolina, pulling the Norfolk Southern passenger cars.
On May 28, 2015, the North Carolina Transportation Museum held photo runbys with 611 leading passenger and freight consists, plus night photo session.
On May 30, 2015, 611 pulled its first excursion from Spencer, North Carolina to Roanoke, Virginia.
The locomotive was scheduled to run several excursions during the summer of 2015 such as "The American" from Manassas, Virginia to Front Royal, Virginia in June 6 and 7, "The Cavalier" from Lynchburg, Virginia to Petersburg, Virginia in June 13 and 14, "The Powhatan Arrow" from Roanoke to Lynchburg and "The Pelican" from Roanoke to Radford, Virginia in July 3, 4, and 5.
On April 9, 2016, the 611 ran "The Virginian" from Spencer, NC to Lynchburg, VA and "The Blue Ridge Special" from Spencer, NC to Asheville, NC on the 10 that year. On April 23 and 24, 2016, the locomotive ran "The Roanoker" from Greensboro, NC to Roanoke, VA. on the ex-Virginian Railway main line.
On late spring 2016, the 611 ran the excursions that it did last year such as "The Powhatan Arrow", "The Pelican, and "The American". After that, the 611 would stay at the North Carolina Transportation Museum for the summer and moved back to Roanoke on August 8 and back to Spencer again on September 7 until October 24.
On December 21, 2016, the Virginia Museum of Transportation announced on their 611-page that the locomotive will return to the main line in 2017 with a schedule of public excursions.
On January 6, 2017 the 611 returned to the North Carolina Transportation Museum under her own power for Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) inspection. After that, the locomotive would run "The Virginian" round-trip excursion again from Spencer, NC to Lynchburg, VA on April 8, 2017. On April 9, the 611 would run "The Charlotte Special" round-trip excursion from Spencer to Charlotte, NC in the morning and a second round-trip excursion "The Piedmont Limited" from Spencer to Greensboro, North Carolina in the afternoon.
In popular culture
The 611 was featured in a 2016 feature-length documentary called "611: American Icon" which represents the history of the locomotive and her restoration.
- Chant 2012, p. 335.
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- N&W Class J 611 - Virginia Museum of Transportation