No. 611 was one of fourteen Class ‘J’ passenger locomotives built for the Norfolk & Western Railway between 1941 and 1950 and the only one in existence today.
Simple lines, a bullet nose, and a Tuscan red stripe made the Js stand out as one of the most beautiful streamlined steam locomotives ever designed. The Js were the pride of the N&W’s crack fleet of home-built steam locomotives. They powered the famous named trains like the Powhatan Arrow, Cavalier, and Pocahontas. The Js along with the Class ‘A’ and ‘Y’ freight engines embodied the ingenuity of N&W engineers and represented the pinnacle of steam technology. Roller bearings on the driver and tender axles provided a smoother ride and quicker acceleration. More than two hundred moving parts were lubricated by a mechanized system cutting down time to service the engine.
The Js were the most powerful passenger steam locomotives ever built operating at 300psi with a tractive effort of 80,000lbs. Many Js operated upwards of 15,000 miles per month and several logged over three million miles by the time they were retired in 1959.
At a time when other railroads were scrapping their steam locomotives, the N&W was building more. No. 611 rolled out of the Roanoke East End Shops on May 29, 1950 at a cost of $251,344. She shared duties with the other Js pulling the company’s premiere passenger trains for the people along the N&W’s right-of-way.
Disaster struck on January 23, 1956. While 611 was pulling the Pocahontas, the engineer took a large curve too fast sending the engine and five cars off the track. No. 611 overturned and nearly slid into the Tug River. The N&W transported 611 back to the shops in Roanoke for a complete overhaul. She returned later that year in better condition than any of her sisters.
Due to rising operating costs, the N&W decided to switch to diesel locomotives in 1957. Due to its good condition, No. 611 was selected to pull the company’s “farewell to steam” excursions in October 1959. Once 611’s duties were officially over, her fate was uncertain.
Several people, including famed N&W photographer O. Winston Link and native Roanokers Graham and Robert Claytor, reached out to President Stuart Saunders to save 611 from the scrapper’s torch. 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 static display. She sat outside in the elements waiting for the chance to steam again.
That chance came in 1981 when Norfolk Southern president Robert Claytor sent 611 to the Norris Steam Shop in Birmingham, Alabama. 611 became the star of the Norfolk Southern steam program pulling excursions throughout the eastern United States. While previously limited to the N&W’s system, 611 was able to travel as far south as Florida, as far north as New York, and as far west as Chicago. For twelve years she traversed the mainlines recreating the golden age of American railroading and inspiring a new generation of steam fans. Norfolk Southern decided to end the program in 1994. 611 returned to her hometown of Roanoke, Virginia to once again serve as a static display. Once again, she sat and waited.
Norfolk Southern’s new “21st Century Steam” program brought steam back to the mainline for employee specials and public excursions. Thousands of people hoped that 611 would return to the her rightful place at the head of a passenger train. In 2013, the Virginia Museum of Transportation announced the “Fire Up 611!” initiative to investigate the possibility of returning No. 611 to excursion service.
The committee determined 611 was in excellent condition to once again serve as an excursion engine. Over three thousand donations poured in from all fifty states and 19 countries to restore the “Queen of Steam.” Norfolk & Western No. 611 is now serving a third career as a mobile ambassador for the Virginia Museum of Transportation meant to captivate, educate, and inspire the everyone that sees her. She is a living testament to the ingenuity of American workers and the spirit of everyone who worked on the N&W.