This is a shout of “All aboard!” to fans of the Norfolk & Western Class J 611 steam engine: You have a date coming up with the lady of your dreams.
Mark your calendars, because that date is May 30.
That’s when the 611, often cited as the most powerful steam locomotive ever built, will return to its hometown under its own power.
“This is such a big dream come true for so many people,” said Bev Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Virginia Museum of Transportation, which owns the 611.
Built in Roanoke in 1950, the 611 has been inoperable for 20 years. Since May 2014, the engine has been in Spencer, North Carolina, undergoing restoration.
The 611 will thunder into town sometime between 2 and 4 p.m. that day, with a stop at the former N&W Passenger Station that now houses the O. Winston Link Museum and the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau. The museum plans a homecoming celebration with free events to accompany the 611’s return.
Alas, fans won’t get to ride the 611 on its first trip back — but they won’t have long to wait.
On the first weekend of June, the 611 goes back to work, pulling train cars from Manassas to Front Royal and back as part of Norfolk Southern’s 21st Century Steam excursion program. The 611 will pull six round-trip excursions from Roanoke during the first weekend of July.
“The majority of the trips will leave out of Roanoke,” Fitzpatrick said. He expects rail fans from all over the world to sign up for those rides. “It’s a huge economic benefit for the Roanoke Valley if we can play out these excursions year after year.”
A boarding location in Roanoke is still being determined, and ticket prices for the excursions haven’t been finalized. They’re expected to range from $100 to $500, depending on the length of the journey and the location of seats, said museum spokeswoman Peg McGuire.
The renovation of the classic steam engine results from a fundraising campaign, Fire Up 611!, that the museum launched in 2013. To date, the campaign has raised more than $3 million toward a $3.5 million goal.
Once the first goal is reached, the museum plans to keep campaigning, with intent to raise an additional $1.5 million to start an endowment dedicated to keeping the engine in good repair.
The original $3.5 million objective included funds to restore the engine and construct a new building for housing and maintenance. The campaign had a slow start at first, but a $1.5 million donation from the Southern Foundation at the end of 2013 put fire in the firebox.
In 2014, museum officials chose to go ahead with restoring the engine, estimated at a $750,000 cost.
Similarly, the campaign has chugged close enough to its goal for constructing the maintenance shelter that officials feel confident about getting started. “It appears we will break ground for the building this spring,” Fitzpatrick said.