611 Steam engine’s return to glory life roanoke.com gas kansas city

Often cited as the most powerful steam locomotive ever built, the 611 is the last of its line. For 20 years, the engine has sat idle in Roanoke, but now the Virginia Museum of Transportation is having it restored to operating condition so it can pull passenger cars once more.

“He’s just dying to ride it once they get it done,” said his mother, Beth Lewis. The Crewe resident brought her son on the bus ride to see the engine as part of his home school lessons about trains. “I thought it would be a good trip to see it under restoration.”

The 611’s makeover is underway inside the historic roundhouse at the North Carolina Transportation Museum. The campus that houses the museum used to be the largest steam locomotive servicing shop for Southern Railway, which joined with Norfolk & Western in 1982 to become Norfolk Southern. Though the North Carolina museum has many other vintage engines on display inside the roundhouse, “the 611 is queen of the crop today,” said museum volunteer Mike Garifo.

Built in Roanoke in 1950, the 611 is the only remaining Class J engine, considered the most advanced line of coal-fired steam locomotives ever built. The engine had been kept at the Virginia Museum of Transportation since 1962. In 2012, on occasion of the museum’s 50th anniversary, the 611 officially became part of the museum’s collection.

When the Virginia museum launched the Fire Up 611! campaign to restore the locomotive in 2013, their fund drive to raise $3.5 million at first had a slow start. At the end of that year, a $1.5 million donation from Norfolk Southern lit the fire.

Museum officials estimated that restoring the 611 engine would cost about $750,000, so in 2014 they made the decision to go ahead with it even though the full $3.5 million still hasn’t been raised. The ultimate goal is to have the locomotive take part in Norfolk Southern’s 21st Century Steam passenger excursion program.

Officials with the campaign estimated the 611 could return to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in late May. Museum executive director Bev Fitzpatrick has hedged the date as “mid-2015,” noting that “it’s important to remember that the unexpected is expected.”

Yuill and his crew are restoring the 611’s boiler. On the day of the visit from Roanoke, his men were placing heavy steel grates inside the engine’s firebox, which holds the burning coal that heats the steam. Yuill was recruited by Lindsay, the campaign’s chief mechanical officer, who on that day was guiding the tour groups.

He was part of the 611’s maintenance and operations crew during the excursions of the 1980s and ’90s. At the end, he was the contractor in charge of that crew. He said he was with the engine from its relaunch in Birmingham “until we shoved it back into the museum.”

“I’ve been railroading since I was 7,” said Rowland, 74. “Once you get bitten by the steam bug, you never get loose.” Rowland runs the Yellow Ribbon Express Foundation in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, which aims to organize a traveling train exhibition in order to raise funds to help wounded U.S. military veterans.

Rowland happily took a break from polishing the 611’s throttle valve to explain how the engine works and why it remains state-of-the-art in steam technology. The key, he said, was in the way its wheels were counterweighted. “This engine was so finely balanced that it could maintain 110 to 115 miles an hour and still ride smooth as a baby carriage.”

The 611’s futuristic look, by 1950s standards, adds to its appeal. “I’m attracted to the design of it, the streamlined shape,” said retired Chrysler engineer Dennis Guza. He was traveling with Steve Parker, pastor of Morgans Baptist Church in Moneta.

Retired Norfolk Southern foreman Mike Arrington, 64, an Indiana native, remembers the exact date and time the 611 derailed in the Great Dismal Swamp between Norfolk and Suffolk (May 18, 1986, 2:13 p.m.). He can also recall the milepost (N16). He knows it so well because he and four of his children were on board; none of them were badly hurt. The track split beneath the train, its rails flying up to either side of the middle cars.