VIRGINIA. 2017. Roanoke was once the Alamo of steam railroading in the U.S. One of the final hold outs before diesel motive power banished the steam engine to local city parks to be stuffed and mounted or relegated to low speed tourist lines. Some background. I first encountered the sole survivor of Norfolk & Western Railway's sleek 'J' class 4-8-4's on her second public trip over Labor Day weekend 1982 in Alexandria, Virginia following her first restoration. At the young age of 6, I had been around numerous tourist steam engines. The year before I had my first taste of watching mainline steam track side with Ross Rowland's C&O #614 on the Chessie Safety Express.
The 'J', resplendent in her gloss black streamlining with a slash of Tuscan red down her side, captured my young mind and wouldn't let go. It wasn't until two years later in July of 1984 that I would first ride behind the 'J.' She accelerated out of Alexandria bound for Charlottesville on former Southern Railway track, and my face was firmly planted in the wind at the "Dutch" doors that were to become akin to the adrenaline rush that roller coaster lovers seek out. The January 1983 issue of Trains magazine had a feature article devoted to 611's return to steam, written by none other than editor David P. Morgan, with photos by John Gruber. A person named W.J. Walker had an inset piece titled "Twenty Minutes to Roanoke" about riding behind 611 in October of 1959 on one her last trips under steam before being silenced for 23 years. 34 years later and Walker's words still haunt me. More now than ever.
In June of 1986, I rode behind 611 again. I staked out my "Dutch" door early. You couldn't peel me away from that spot. This was the second trip after Dismal Swamp and there was no speed restriction yet. At every curve, I watched the side rods and Baker valve gear flail into a blur. This was high speed mainline steam railroading. Come 1987, the NRHS convention in Roanoke happened. By then, 611 had a co-star, in newly restored 'A' class #1218. One could argue that it was the Super Bowl of mainline steam in the 1980's. Side by side running up Christiansburg Mountain cemented in my mind that when I was old enough, I would get to Roanoke on my own terms, and not wait months to read about such events in a magazine. That dream wasn't to be. In 1994, the excursion program ended under dark skies. I had turned 18 that year and in theory could have seen 611. But, teenage things like sports and the like, got in the way. I was heartbroken like most people that were fond of the excursion program. However, 611 never left my life. When passing through Roanoke in the late 1990's, I stopped in to see my old friend. Of course, with my luck, the museum that housed her was closed. So, I had to cross some tracks and peer through a chain-link fence in the rain to get a view of my childhood. Again, in 2008 when crossing the country on a move to San Diego from Alexandria, and knowing that it very likely may be the last time I would see 611, I spent a fair amount of time reminiscing with the museum open.
All of that changed in 2013. It was announced that 611 would be restored and would join Norfolk Southern's "21st Century Steam" program. There were persistent rumors since 2011 that the 'J' would be restored. I couldn't get my checkbook out fast enough to donate! The 'J' was moved to Spencer, NC for restoration. By happenstance, I was in Raleigh for work in late 2014 and was able to get over to Spencer to see the progress on my old friend. Come late May 2015, Trains magazine editor, Jim Wrinn was putting on a one day photo charter at Spencer with 611 before her homecoming trip to Roanoke a la August 1982 and I wasn't going to miss any of it. The first public excursions were scheduled for early June out of Manassas, VA. 611 was brought back into an alien world. The internet is a constant in our lives. Smart phones that can capture high definition images and video that can then be uploaded to social media almost instantaneously for all the world to see. I watched the first fire up via live stream at my desk working in San Diego! Overall, I spent 12 days chasing and riding 611 (2015 images here); I rode the last leg of the homecoming trip from Lynchburg into Roanoke with Roanoke Chapter NRHS, chased the ferry move up to Manassas, and took my Father, who instilled in me this sickness of steam engines, first class on the first public excursion. The following year in 2016, we repeated the excursion in Manassas, but did not chase. Throughout 2015 and 2016, I had hoped to redeem myself from 1994. But, I still had this longing to see the 'J' on home rails over Blue Ridge or Christiansburg Mountain.
The final set of excursions for the 2017 season were slated for Memorial Day weekend in Roanoke. Two trips a day Saturday and Sunday. East to Lynchburg in the mornings and west to Walton in the afternoons, with Monday being morning and afternoon turns to Walton. With no northern Virginia trips this year, and an uncertain future for the 'J', it was a do or die situation to travel to the Alamo and right a wrong 23 years later. I flew into Louisville, KY and my friend, Chris Campbell picked me up. On Friday May 26th, we struck out for Roanoke. Arriving late that evening, we immediately beelined it to where 611 was tied down. Over the past couple years, we had become friends with some of the crew members. They obliged us to visit with them and take photos. To quote W.J. Walker; "Hours were spent with that engine, trying to assimilate its every detail." Saturday morning found us at one of the Holiest of Holy places on N&W; Blue Ridge grade at the Blue Ridge Parkway overpass. The bridge was quite crowded as one would expect. We set up ground level at the crossing below. To say that seeing 611 make short work of one of the very grades she was designed to overcome, was nothing short of religious, is an understatement. The sound, smell, and awe as I was bathed in a coal cinder baptism was all that one could yearn for.
Monday afternoon rolled around. Chasing two trips a day for the past two and a half days was taking its toll on us. We were exhausted from little sleep. 6AM wake ups, late night visits to the engine and processing photos from the day's chases at 2AM made for a long day. But, knowing the gravity of the situation, we forged ahead. We had seats in the first dome car after the power car. This would provide excellent views of 611 working west up the 1.3% ruling grade from Elliston to Christiansburg. The excursions of recent years were not like the '80's and '90's. There were no "Dutch" doors to be found. Hanging out of vestibules was a liability that no one wanted to undertake. The dome was crowded and stuffed as the consist was short one dome car and we found ourselves in an airline type seating situation. It was not comfortable by any stretch of the imagination. I reached out to one of the crew members and jokingly said that we would move to the tool car to make room for others in the dome. My request was responded to with "come on." Was he kidding? Was this reality?
Chris and I made our way to the tool car. The large doors on this former N&W baggage car, were wide open, with a chest high gate providing a front row seat to the show. The sights, sounds, and smells were now no more 50 feet in front of us. We made small talk with our friends and nervously anticipated being able to stick our heads out the door and eat cinders as in the old days. Engineer Scott Lindsay latched the throttle out passing iconic Shaffers Crossing and the mighty 'J' accelerated with a vengeance, as if she were powering the "Pocahontas" once again circa 1957. The trip to Walton was surreal. Famed author ("N&W: Giant of Steam" 1980, revised 2005) "Bud" Jeffries was on hand as was American Freedom Train legend, Ross Rowland.
There were moments left to myself with my head out of the door, grin on my face while the constant roar from the stack drowned out any nearby conversations. The low Hancock steamboat whistle announcing our approach at every crossing while hundreds of chasers plied into their cars and raced to the next location. Zac McGinnis was firing and had 611 running right as the pop lifted as the 'J' dug deep into the grade at Shawsville. I'm almost positive that C.E. Pond was smiling down on him. After turning the train on the wye at Walton, we made quick work of the return to Roanoke. I was in the right rear baggage door on the final leg into Roanoke. The tool car bounced through cross-overs and the trucks clattered. We passed Shaffers Crossing once again and my thoughts were on how much I missed during the heyday of steam on N&W. "If only I had been born much earlier." Haven't we all muttered that? The fortunate chance to ride the tool car on this stretch of railroad was icing on the cake to a phenomenal weekend. I won't soon forget the deep tone of 611's whistle as it boomed across the deep valley below Big Otter trestle. Climbing steep rock cliffs with new friends to get "the shot" that no one else may have. Or the hot orange glow that lit up those dark nights in the cab when the firebox doors were opened. Or the pure elation of young children seeing most likely, their first steam locomotive as it whistled into their consciousness. -Jeff Lisowski
Special thanks; Will Sadler, Zac McGinnis, John Otey, Chris Slate, Kelly Workman Alexander, Chris Campbell, Ken Miller, and Bob Lyndall.
Post Script: If anyone knows who W.J. walker is- tell Walker- thank you.