Saturday, August 6, 2016

American Technological Sublime: The Return of 611

A guest post by Gerard Fitzgerald

The year 2015 will be remembered by many people around the world as the year Norfolk & Western Railway J-Class (4-8-4) steam locomotive #611 returned to mainline running for excursions. 611 not only took to the rails in various railroad hot spots across Virginia and North Carolina but the locomotive even spent some quality time in various locales right here within the bounds of the James River Division. The locomotive’s journey last summer rekindled old memories for many of earlier fan trips in the 1980s and 1990s, and for a select few, 611’s nine years of service on the former N&W between 1950 and 1959. 611’s various travels in 2015 also created a brand new set of memories for those who had never before seen the 4-8-4 moving under its own power. For the record, the author of this blog post falls into the latter category, and truth-be-told, the sensory experience of 611 will probably never be forgotten. This brief photo essay recounts my thoughts about my experiences during two summers of 611.

Roanoke, Virginia: May 24, 2014

My first connection to 611 began on a hot and sunny day in May of 2014 when I drove down to the Virginia Museum of Transportation ( in Roanoke to see the locomotive off. That day the locomotive left the museum and was ferried down to the North Carolina Transportation Museum ( in Spencer, North Carolina, for an overhaul and refitting to make the engine mainline and fan trip ready. While much has been written about the history of the N&W J series in general, and locomotive 611 in particular, the crowds of visitors who assembled that day in Roanoke were aware they were witnessing the beginning of the rebirth of a native son.[1]

Sixty-four years earlier N&W Class Js 611-613 were constructed in the N&W Roanoke Shops making them the very last batch of steam passenger locomotives constructed in the United States. The locomotives were completed between May and July 1950 and began service just as the outbreak of the Korean War grabbed national headlines. 611 rolled out of the Roanoke Shops that May with a price tag of $251,544 dollars, 80,000 pounds of tractive force, 70 inch drivers, roller bearings, a streamlined design created by N&W’s Mark W. Faville and Frank C. Noel, and a top speed in excess of 100 mph on level terrain, making the machine arguably the absolute pinnacle of 20th century steam passenger locomotive engineering.

That last group of passenger locomotives only saw service for nine years and 611, through the kind intervention of among others –the late great R. Graham Claytor- was the only locomotive to escape the scrappers torch. It was ironic that the locomotive had to leave its birthplace for an overhaul but in the early twenty first century most people in Roanoke were just happy to see the 611 moving at all. The fact the locomotive would return in a year under its own power made a seemingly embarrassing tow by Norfolk Southern diesels acceptable in the short term.

As a historian of technology by training, and a model railroader by choice since childhood, I traveled to Roanoke that day not just to see the locomotive but also to people watch and observe. I was intrigued by the cultural response to 611 that had a public life and resonance far out side of southwestern Virginia. In graduate school I read David Nye’s American Technological Sublime, a book that examines the American preoccupation with large and complex technological projects such as dams and railroads. I was rereading Nye in my head that very hot day in Roanoke and thinking what 611 might possibly mean for the various people who made the effort to be there. In discussing the reaction of people present at the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge Nye wrote the following:

The sublime underlies this enthusiasm for technology. One of the most powerful human emotions, when experienced by large groups the sublime can weld society together. In moments of sublimity, human beings temporarily disregard divisions among elements of community. The sublime taps into fundamental hopes and fears. It is not a social residue created by economic and political forces, though both can inflect its meaning. Rather it is an essentially religious feeling, aroused by confrontation with impressive objects, such as Niagara falls, the Grand Canyon, the New York Skyline, or the earth shattering launch of a space shuttle.[2]

As I watched 611 move out of the museum complex and onto the Norfolk Southern (former N&W) mainline that day, surrounded by hundreds with smartphones and cameras, I wondered if in 50 or 80 years the citizens of Mountain View, California will line the streets and highways bringing their children and grandchildren to witness the return of first Google pilotless automobile. I say this not to be facetious as the engineers, scientists, and technicians who have worked for years on this new technology (a number off whom are no doubt graduates of my Alma Mater) have much to be proud of. My guess is… probably no… for various reasons. The most important one being that there really is a power and majesty to a large steam locomotive running at speed, or sometimes even just standing at rest, which a hybrid drone/automobile just cannot match, no matter how path breaking technologies it contains. I will get back to you about this with a more definitive analysis of this question in 2065.

Charlottesville, Virginia: June 3, 2015

To be honest, my initial encounter with 611 in Roanoke left me intrigued but rather underwhelmed. This changed in a dramatic fashion when 611 made it way north to Charlottesville from Roanoke via Lynchburg on the old Southern, now NS mainline between Washington and Atlanta, on a dreary and very rainy June day. While I occasionally find myself trackside photographing trains, I am not really a “railfan” and do not own a scanner nor do I frequent many of the online chat groups where enthusiasts shadow trains and specific locomotives like military intelligence operatives. As such my approach to 611 was to essentially “wing it” which has always worked out well enough in the past.

Once 611 arrived back in Roanoke on May 30th to begin excursions I followed things online as best I could and hoped to catch it going northbound and southbound when it passed through Charlottesville on its journey to Manassas for the first weekend of railfan trips. A friend told me that 611 would be leaving Roanoke around 7:00 AM on June 3rd for Manassas via Lynchburg and my initial calculations had 611 passing through at the C&O/Southern (CSX-Buckingham Branch RR/NS) crossing around 10:00 AM. I arrived at 9:00 AM in a terrible downpour to secure a good spot for photography. There was only one other person there, a local high school student who had arrived sometime closer to 6:30 AM because he was so excited about 611 he couldn’t sleep. We had a long but ultimately satisfying day.

The bad news, which was also initially confusing as 611 just did not appear with each passing hour, was that the train would not arrive until about 3:00 PM. The heavy rain did not let up until 2:45 and was in fact so bad Internet and phone service was spotty at best making it difficult to track the train although that improved later in the afternoon. The good news was we were eventually informed that 611 would be STOPPING!!! in Charlottesville to pick up a VIP. That meant the possibility of getting a series of photographs depending upon the weather, the crowd I anticipated might show up, and most importantly how long 611 might be staying.

As it turns out the locomotive stayed about 20 minutes, which may have been the best and most exciting slice of railroad time Charlottesville has seen in decades. Being out of the loop I was not even sure 611 would be under its own power when it arrived, and yet the first time I saw the locomotive it was under a full head of steam pulling a long line of varnish headed to my favorite local “railfan” spot. Life does not get much better. Seeing and hearing 611 come into view really was breathtaking and I was glad I had the forethought to stay in the moment and enjoy the scene and also keep taking photographs.

It was my hope that day to photograph 611 at it crossed the CSX/NS crossing which was the one photo I most wanted regardless of weather. However, that was dependent upon how many Norfolk Southern folks were around when 611 finally arrived because to shoot at the right perspective would involve the dreaded T-word. As I discovered July 4th weekend, NS personnel bent over backwards to accommodate railfans and anyone else with a camera standing trackside –which sadly some people abused anyway- but I did not know that while standing in the rain on June 3rd.

In the final twenty minutes before 611 arrived the station parking lot and work area near the track at the diamond filled up with NS vehicles and with people arriving with cameras. Just as many arrived with their families for what might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Lots of rail fans poured in too in the last few minutes and what had been just two wet guys with cameras expanded slowly to about 20 people and then suddenly grew to a hundred or so. With about 15 minutes to go I was thinking I had never seen so many NS employees before anywhere, much less in Charlottesville. As the crowd of railroad personal and civilians like myself grew and I realized taking a diamond shot was probably impossible, which was fine, since I was still well positioned to get some kind of useful photograph.

What happened in the final 10 minutes before 611 arrived made me a lifelong fan of Norfolk Southern. Having staked out a spot at the end of the platform I was the first photographer in line for a shot. Until I wasn’t, and another person with a camera went around me and set up his tripod right in front of where I had been standing. When I asked him to move I just received a dirty look. I was going to start arguing with this person when a NS employee pointed at me and told me to come over to the parking lot. At that moment I was not only frustrated and angry, but I thought I was probably going to be the only person who was reprimanded that day and took no photographs at all. This was particularly devastating, as I had waited for six straight hours in the rain. Regardless, I walked over into a large group of NS people hoping I was not in too much trouble but was extremely doubtful as to my predicament.

The gentleman from NS introduced himself, his son, and asked if I was the fellow who had been standing on the platform all day in the rain. I replied that it was in fact me.[3] He invited me out of the rain and mentioned that he had seen me down at the tracks on number of occasions before and noticed I was always safe and mindful of railroad property. He gave me a chance to shake the rain off my hat and camera case and introduced me to some of the NS people that were there. At this point I was confused and worried I wasn’t going to get a good photo since I would now be positioned behind everyone on the platform. On the other hand I was relived I probably wasn’t going to railroad jail. Finally, this man looked at his watch and said 611 would be there in 4 minutes. He also said that since the platform was now extremely crowded with people it might be better if I accompanied him out to the crossing where all the NS people were gathering as he thought a shot at the diamond might make for a good photo.

The series of photos I took of 611 crossing the diamond a few minutes later are not the best railroad photographs I have ever taken but they are among my most cherished.

Aside from the kindness and forethought of a stranger, I have to say I was also overwhelmed in the next few moments by 611 itself. The locomotive was, of course, streamlined but also more powerful and brutish than I expected and completely different than the machine I had seen pulled out of the museum in Roanoke a year earlier. Under her own power, belching smoke, and with a deep bellowing whistle that must be heard in person to be fully appreciated, I now understood that 611 was, for lack of a better description, a linebacker of a locomotive.[4] Here was a machine that could pull passenger trains through the mountains at speed, keep to the timetable, and not look back.

As I shot photographs of 611 from both the Amtrak platform and the Main Street Bridge I was reminded not only of David Nye’s perspective but also the writings of the late David P. Morgan.[5] In addition I remembered why I had started “playing” with trains as a very young boy. A number of the children present that day seemed awestruck by 611 and a few carefully poked at it with a finger and then quickly withdrew. If I were six I think I would have done the exact same thing.

Roanoke, Virginia: July 2-4, 2015

Having witnessed 611 up close in Charlottesville, I looked forward to the big excursion weekend in Roanoke over July 4th weekend. It is truism that one cannot see the locomotive if you are riding many cars behind as a seated passenger. I was fine with that as I planned one day of riding behind 611 and one to two days of being trackside with my camera. Although to be fair the sinusoidal nature of the N&W mainline in many of the mountains south and west of Roanoke gives a photographer more chances to capture the locomotive than one might think, something I discovered a few years back on an excursion to Bluefield.

I arrived at the former N&W hotel complex on the afternoon of July 2nd so I would have relatively quick access to 611 over the rest of the weekend. As it turned out I chose the correct day to be a passenger as July 3rd was overcast and rainy. My day began at 6:00 AM when I awoke to try to catch 611 coming down from the engine terminal as it brought the train in facing EB to go to Lynchburg. I took some good photos and was amazed how many people were already out and ready to track 611. That morning I took The Powhatan Arrow excursion 98 miles from Roanoke to Lynchburg and back that ran from 8:00 AM to noon. My accommodations were deluxe as I earlier wound up purchasing a ticket for a Great Northern full dome car. My seat next to the window afforded a wonderful view of all the trackside sights. Not being a native Virginian I am always interested in observing rail lines and countryside that are not easily accessible and found the trip quite interesting and very enjoyable from an observational standpoint.

That morning trip was also memorable for two other reasons. First, I was able to witness the large number of people almost continuously trackside along the 611 route, many in places that indicated NS was being especially open minded about photography all weekend. The most impressive vantage point was a farmer who had a cherry picker on his property, and who looked down on us from a considerable height as we passed his property. The second thing I recall is, I believe I was the only person in that car who had not attended Virginia Tech, or so it seemed. After turning on the wye in Lynchburg we returned to Roanoke although not before surprisingly slipping quite badly a few miles out from the station.

Upon our return I was forced to detrain but was told by a car attendant to stay at the front of the line so I could access a good seat. His advice was quite useful, and in half an hour I boarded the train a second time, now in a more standard coach, for the afternoon excursion. The Pelican, or at least a much shorter version, ran the most picturesque and exciting part of the entire excursion summer, from Roanoke, Virginia to near Radford, an 84 mile round trip that included the famed Christiansburg grade. The 4-8-4 Js were designed in part to conquer that particular grade with a long string of heavy mail and Pullman cars in tow, and over July 4th weekend 611 did not disappoint. The excursion ran from 1:30 to 5:30 PM and the power of the locomotive was readily apparent to watchful passengers who tracked speed and distance the old fashioned way by counting mile markers –which I did- or using up to date GPS software on a laptop- the approach used by my seatmate. Although the weather was miserable all day, the number of people trackside was amazing, and it seemed every person in the county was out in Christiansburg. The trip was also useful as I was able to choose possible places to railfan on July 4th.

July 4th dawned as foggy and miserable as July 3rd. Although by late morning the sun finally came out, and by the time 611 returned from Lynchburg with the morning excursion run, photographers were able to capture 611 under a full summer sun. I was lucky enough to be trackside, too. My first attempt to capture 611 on the way to Lynchburg was perfect…until my line of sight was blocked by a hotshot double stack train on an inside track that closed the gap and destroyed my chance for a photograph with only seconds to spare. Luckily things improved as the day progressed. Between the morning and afternoon runs I was able to get some wonderful photographs and video of 611 in downtown Roanoke. That afternoon I managed a truly wonderful photograph of 611 descending a mountain grade at speed near Glenvar, Virginia on the return leg to Roanoke That image was the photograph I had hoped to get when I purchased my ticket for the weekend many months earlier even though I had no idea when I arrived where or when I might be best placed to try shooting it. While that photograph is one I am very happy with, the most lasting memories I took from 611 this summer were not captured on film.

Conclusion: The Technological Sublime

Let me conclude this essay by sharing with you my two most substantial and unforgettable memories of 611 from this past summer aside from that act of kindness in Charlottesville. Interestingly enough, neither experience involves direct contact with the locomotive itself, although the memories of both encounters is fresh and are more real for me in many ways than any photograph that I took of 611.

The first event took place on Saturday of the July 4th Roanoke fan trip weekend. After riding behind 611 on two different back-to-back excursions the day before, I went trackside with camera in hand to try to capture the majesty of 611 out on the former N&W mainline. I drove north along the outskirts of Roanoke to the small town of Vinton, Virginia hoping to catch the return trip that morning from Lynchburg. I stopped and parked my car on a quiet side street in front of a home near a grade crossing. As I pulled in that morning, I wondered if I might be trespassing in some way, or maybe just giving the perception of trespassing, as the road seemed both public and yet also private. In the back of my mind a question of perhaps parking elsewhere persisted.

As I walked over to the grade crossing to get a line of sight for a photo I noticed an elderly man coming over to me quickly from the house near where I had parked. His expression was difficult to gauge although I was already reaching for my keys to move my vehicle and starting to apologize before he could say anything. He asked if I was there to photograph 611. I said yes. At that point he began to speak, and I began to listen. He told me 611 had gone by earlier on the way to Lynchburg and had never looked finer. He motioned towards the house and mentioned he had his grandson visiting in addition to many other family members, and he had wanted them all to see 611. He explained he had worked for the Norfolk & Western as did his father, his grandfathers, and many of his uncles, and that one of the latter had probably helped build 611, if not some of the other J’s. Some had retired from N&W while others had retired from NS. He noted he had never expected to see 611 run again and was thankful that the opportunity was presenting itself that July 4th weekend.

After a while I asked the gentleman if it was OK to park there, and he said that was fine, and I could stay all day. He wished me luck and hoped I got some good photographs. I asked him if he would like me to send him a set of the photographs later, assuming some of what I was hoping to shoot that weekend came out. He smiled, spread his hands wide gesturing towards the space between his home and the tracks and said he was thankful for the offer but he didn’t need any photographs. With the unobstructed view of the NS mainline from his front porch, I had to agree.

My “final” and most lasting memory of 611 actually took place before the July 4th excursion weekend at the desk in my home office where I am sitting at the moment. This was the week following the Manassas excursions as 611 passed through Charlottesville southbound to return to Roanoke via Lynchburg. I had a writing deadline that week and could not take time out to try to photograph the locomotive again. In addition the exact day and time of the return trip were unknown to me.

My home in Charlottesville is very close to the grounds of the University of Virginia and is not only one block from the CSX/C&O Mountain Subdivision -which I can see out the living room window in winter- but is also less than a mile and a half from the former Southern/NS mainlines. There is a large hill behind my place, and I rarely hear NS except very late at night although there is a lot of heavy mainline traffic. That day, lost in thought analyzing the environmental history of World War I, I was reading and typing with the window open and making progress. For a moment the world became still and quiet, and I suddenly heard a far off rumbling. I thought it was CSX but realized this was a different sound that was recognizable yet unfamiliar. It was 611! The locomotive was making good time and I could make out the sound of the running gear. Suddenly the whistle blew, and I could hear the locomotive quite clearly even though it was not very close. For a few minutes the locomotive grew ever louder as did the whistle and eventually the echoes faded completely away. And there I was, still sitting at my desk next to the window.

Before I wrote this essay I had “remembered” and replayed that sonic encounter over and over again in my mind and had assumed it had occurred after I traveled to Roanoke for the excursion weekend. It turns out that hearing that locomotive, which to me really was technologically sublime, occurred before I took hundreds of photographs in Roanoke and spent time behind 611 as a passenger. Seeing 611 down at the Charlottesville station in June was special for me because it was surreal to see the locomotive in my hometown. As it turns out having the locomotive “present” in my home, if only for a minute or so, is even more special. Hopefully 611’s return provided similar experiences for others.

[1] The most useful standard text on Norfolk & Western steam locomotives remains Lewis I. Jeffries’ 1980 N&W: Giant of Steam that was republished in a revised edition in 2005. This book has a wonderful chapter long analysis of the J series including detailed discussion of locomotive research and design practices, construction information, and of course passenger operations. For introductory information on 611 a Trains Magazine Special Edition entitled 611 in Steam was published in 2015 that contains past articles on 611 design, the history of earlier fan trips, and insightful coverage of the current restoration program that got 611 moving again. Finally the Norfolk & Western Historical Society has just published a book coauthored by Tim Hensley and Ken Miller that examines the 611 fan trips in the 1980s, 1990s, and in 2015 called 611: Three Times a Lady.

[2] David E. Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994) xiii.

[3] My high school friend had decided to photograph at the end of other end of the platform well past the Main Street Bridge and so might have remained unnoticed.

[4] Afterwards I was told by others that whistle on 611 is a refit and not correct. This may be true. I am not a N&W steam acoustics expert and to make matters worse have never heard those O Winston Link LPs. Regardless, 611 sounded pretty impressive to me each time I encountered it in 2015. I understand that the whistle for the 2016 fan trips will sound much closer to the original item.

[5] For a YouTube view of 611 leaving Charlottesville that rainy June day please see the following online: