Bob Willetts peered through the windows of a passenger car at the crowd gathered across from Roanoke’s East End Shops.
“The spirit of Roanoke is back,” he said, “and I think you see it out there.”
Willetts was riding at the tail end of the train pulled by the newly restored Norfolk & Western Class J 611 steam engine, which loosed its deep whistle in response to the cheers of thousands of onlookers gathered to celebrate its return.
Rail fans from all around the country followed the train’s progress online, traveled to places all along the 200-mile route to capture new photos of the engine in motion, and even boarded the train for a nostalgic ride.
“It’s a historic engine. It has a beauty and a power that represents what railroads meant to this nation,” said Dante Stephensen, a jazz pianist and retired rail worker from Atlanta who gave his age as “probably 80.” Stephensen actually lives in a passenger car on five acres near Atlanta, the fulfillment of a childhood dream. In the 1980s, that same car was pulled by the 611.
Stephensen was part of the assembly of rail fans gathered Saturday morning at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke. Their mission: take buses to Lynchburg, catch the 611 as it paused there for a water refill, and ride it back to the Star City.
It rolled out from the East End Shops on May 29, 1950. Cited as the fastest and most powerful engines of their kind, only 14 Class-J steam engines were ever made, and the 611 is the only one still intact.
In 2013, the transportation museum launched a $3.5 million capital campaign to reactivate the 611, which had stood dormant for two decades. A year ago, the locomotive was towed to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, North Carolina, to undergo $1 million worth of tests, repairs and refinishing. On May 21, the 611 had its first successful test run from Spencer to Greensboro, North Carolina, and back.
For rail workers, a restored 611 opens a window into memories and into family history.
“I grew up down at the East End Shops,” said John Nutter, 67, a retired Norfolk Southern engineer and member of the Norfolk & Western African-American Heritage Group. “I rode behind it as a kid when it was in revenue service.” Having the engine return, “it’s just like an old homecoming,” he said, before boarding one of the buses.
At about the same time that the party left Roanoke, the engine, which has set out from Spencer that morning, crossed the North Carolina-Virginia border, with about 300 passengers on board, most of them donors to the “Fire Up 611!” campaign. Members of the Norfolk & Western Historical Society had their own reserved vintage car decorated inside with prints by legendary rail photographer O. Winston Link. Norfolk Southern chairman and CEO Wick Moorman rode in the cab with the engineers.
When the buses pulled into a gravel lot alongside the tracks in Lynchburg, where the 611 would replenish its water supply, dozens more rail fans were already waiting.
“This is an honor,” said Serge Ambrosi, 56, of Lynchburg. “The steam engine was the beginning of the industrial age, and that’s the epitome of the steam engines.”
“There’s a lot of history behind it,” said Eli Cumby, 15, of Lowesville. He was there with his mother Jennifer, 42, and younger brother Willoughby, 7. The boys are both huge 611 fans, his mom said. Willoughby even contributed money to the Fire Up 611! campaign.
“I’ve always loved steam engines because they have moving parts,” said 7-year-old Kendall Walker, who had come from Midlothian with his dad, Christopher. “I’ve just loved them as long as I can remember.”
As the locomotive drew closer, Carl Jensen, 79, had a different perspective to offer. Retired in 1995, Jensen was the manager of steam operations for Norfolk Southern for nine years. The 611, removed from service in 1959, was rebuilt in 1981 and used to pull excursions until the program was discontinued in 1994.
“This is the second rebuild,” Jensen said. “We’ve all been here and done this one other time.” The route and the routine were much the same, he said, though in 1982, when the 611 had its first homecoming, it was rolling up from Birmingham, Alabama, so it stopped for a bath. “It was time to get the road dirt off it before we made a grand entrance.”
For the Lynchburg group, the locomotive’s arrival at 2:50 p.m. was grand enough. First came the rhythmic hissing sound of its progress on the tracks. Then the sight of its sleek nose coming around the curve, steam and smoke puffing from its vents. Slowly advancing, it was remarkably quiet for a machine so large.
The 611 towed 16 cars behind it on its homecoming trek. Photographers stayed on the tool car, which is directly behind the tender cars that hold additional water and coal.
The 611 idled in Lynchburg for a little longer than expected because of other traffic on the Norfolk Southern tracks. At last, the voice of a dispatcher sounded the all-clear about 3:30 p.m.
Behind the tool car was an oven-hot room where a motor generated electricity for the whole train; beyond that were the nicely air-conditioned front passenger cars, little different from modern Amtrak train cars.
Retired Norfolk Southern Chairman and CEO David Goode had paused to talk to family friends and business colleague Sam Webster, whose wife, Jane Claytor Webster, is the daughter of the late Bob Claytor, the first CEO and chairman of Norfolk Southern.
“It’s a great thing to have the 611 back for Roanoke and for people that love the rails,” said Goode, 74. “As the guy that gave her a little rest, I’m happy to see her working.”
His subtle jest referred to the cancellation of the steam excursion program in 1994, while he ran the company. He declined to discuss that decision in any further depth. “It’s a new time and a new day and I’m happy to be part of it.”
Just behind them sat Virginia Museum of Transportation director Bev Fitzpatrick and his wife Shirley. Fitzpatrick held a copy of the speech he had prepared for the homecoming celebration in Roanoke. An hour later, with his speech punctuated by whistles from the train, Fitzpatrick proclaimed to the waiting rail fans, “Roanoke born. Roanoke bred. Roanoke proud.”
For all the discussions there have been in the past few weeks about the 611’s speed and power, the ride was surprisingly tranquil. A few people even slept in their seats.
The excitement, however, was plenty evident outside the train. All through Campbell County and Bedford County, growing ever more frequent as the train moved west, people positioned themselves alongside the tracks, sitting in lawn chairs or standing amid trees and bushes, greeting the train as it passed, with cameras, cellphones, tablets, even laptops all aimed to capture images of the 611.
Farther back on the train, the attached cars were vintage models with plush seats; behind them came a car with an elegant interior and stairs that led up to an observation dome with tables. Behind that came a vintage sleeper car, named the Hollywood Beach, where Willetts, 62, of Spencer, North Carolina, sat with his assistant Sara Gettys and peered out through the large windows at the people gathered alongside the track.
Willett’s company, Willetts Railcar Services, builds and reconstructs customized cars for private owners.
“We’re the ones who painted the 611,” he said. “It’s good to see the baby going home. I hope Roanoke enjoys having it back.”
Past the Hollywood Beach lay the private cars for Norfolk Southern staff and executives, including the final observation car in the caboose position. With its entire rear wall a window, it afforded a stunning view of the tracks and the receding crowds.
Col. Lewis “Bud” Jeffries, Radford author and official 611 historian, was visiting and enjoying that view. “I watched the J’s like this when I was growing up,” he said. “This is fabulous.” Seeing so many come out in support of 611, he said, “it does my heart good.”
The crowds in Roanoke didn’t seem to mind at all that the 611 arrived later than planned. It rolled through the middle of downtown to pause behind the Virginia Museum of Transportation, then backed onto a different track so it could come to rest beside the old Norfolk & Western passenger station, which now houses the O. Winston Link Museum.
That’s when Norfolk Southern chairman and CEO Moorman finally disembarked from the cab. Fitzpatrick has credited Moorman as the prime mover behind the restoration, providing millions in financial support to the museum and the restoration campaign. Moorman demurred taking credit.
“This is a big team effort and it’s a great day not only for Roanoke. It’s also a great day for Norfolk Southern,” he said. “It’s good for our employees to see that we care about our heritage.”
On June 1, Moorman will step down as CEO, though he will stay Chairman. Riding with and occasionally helping the 611 engineers was “a nice way to finish up a run as CEO,” he said. “Every once in a while they let you have a little fun.”