Another steam icon, N&W 611, heads for restoration

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
NW 611

“The Spirit of Roanoke”—Norfolk & Western Class J 611, which has sat silently at the Virginia Museum of Transportation for the past 20 years—will soon be headed to Spencer, N.C., for restoration by the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

Planned work includes a complete overhaul to meet current Federal Railroad Administration safety guidelines and certification requirements. The restoration is expected to take approximately nine months, in order for the iconic steam locomotive to participate in Norfolk Southern’s 21st Century Steam Program in 2015. The 37-bay Bob Julian Roundhouse on the grounds of the North Carolina Transportation Museum is one of the last remaining roundhouses in the U.S. that can handle a locomotive the size of 611.

The Fire UP 611! Committee of steam locomotive technology experts, business leaders, and railroad consultants conducted a feasibility study in 2013. The study revealed that the Virginia Museum of Transportation would need $3.5 million to restore, operate, and maintain 611. An additional $1.5 million was identified as needed for an endowment. “Although the original plan called for raising approximately $3.5 million prior to the start of restoration, the Fire Up 611! Committee and our Board of Directors decided to move ahead with restoration, now that $2.3 million has been raised,” said Virginia Museum of Transportation Executive Director Beverly T. Fitzpatrick, Jr. “There is a tight timeline to participate in Norfolk Southern’s 2015 21st Century Steam Program, as well as Amtrak’s return to Roanoke.”

The Fire Up 611! Committee recommended that a preservation and education center be built at the museum to keep the locomotive in top operating form. “The goal from the very beginning was not only to get her running, but to keep her running for generations to come,” said Fire Up 611! Committee Chairman J. Preston Claytor (son of the late Robert B. Claytor, under whose watch at N&W and NS 611 was originally restored and operated). “The facility secures the investments railroad enthusiasts have made in the Class J 611.”

Amtrak’s plans to extend passenger rail service into Roanoke will play a role in the location of the preservation and education center. “Amtrak may need land owned by Norfolk Southern and leased by the museum at present,” Claytor said. “We are looking at ideas for the preservation and education facility’s location in conjunction with Amtrak service, the Class J 611’s restoration, and the overall planning of this facility.”

In recent months, the Fire Up 611! Campaign saw major momentum, and the museum said it’s confident the remaining funds will be raised. “We’re going at full steam,” says Fitzpatrick. “Based on our success to date and projection for the campaign’s final stages, we decided we could send 611 to Spencer for restoration sooner rather than later.” In nine short months, donations to the campaign have been received from nearly 3,000 donors from every state and the District of Columbia in the U.S. and 18 foreign countries.

Norfolk & Western’s Class J locomotives were designed, constructed, and maintained in Roanoke, Va., beginning in 1941. “They were the most technically advanced steam locomotive design of any type that was ever in service anywhere in the world,” says William Withuhn, Curator Emeritus, History of Technology and Transportation, Smithsonian Institution and editor and co-author of Rails Across America: a History of Railroads in North America (Smithmark, 1993). “The J was—and is now —under its graceful skin the apex and epitome of its era of design, helping to make Americans the most mobile people on the planet. They were built using American ingenuity, design, and engineering. Even today, 611 is the pinnacle of steam locomotive technology, the final fruit of more than 120 years of engineering development. A Class J could produce more than 5,000 net horsepower, and reach 110 mph. There was nothing like it.”

NW 611The 611 was among the N&W’s last steam locomotives. Built in 1950, she pulled the Powhatan Arrow, the famed passenger train, between Norfolk and Cincinnati. She was retired from passenger rail service in 1959. In 1962, she was moved to the Virginia Museum of Transportation. In 1981, Norfolk Southern brought her out of retirement and restored her to her original glory. In 1984, 611 was named a National Historical Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. She was retired from excursions in 1994 and was moved back into the Virginia Museum of Transportation. “Since her retirement, many have clamored, hoped, and dreamed that she would return to the rails, to blow her whistle and steam over the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains once again,” said Fitzpatrick.

Fans of the Class J 611 are invited to visit to learn more and to donate to the Fire Up 611! Capital Campaign. They can also visit the Fire Up 611 Facebook page, YouTube, and Twitter feed (#fireup611).

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