Historic locomotive passes through area

Shawn Hardy news@echo-pilot.com
Cade McDowell took this picture of the Norfolk & Western Class J 611 steam locomotive as it went by the High Line Train Station in Greencastle Tuesday evening.

A rare steam locomotive passed through the area Tuesday evening, drawing railfans and others interested in a historic moment to vantage points along local railroad tracks.

The Norfolk & Western Class J 611 was en route from the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke to Pennsylvania's Strasburg Rail Road for a series of fall events.

People pulled over in fields and parking lots to get a glimpse of the locomotive as it went by. There were a couple dozen at Greencastle's High Line Train Station, according to Scott Sutton, a railroad enthusiastic and president of the Greencastle Area Youth Foundation, which oversees the train station.

"The new walkway (at the station) is so close to the tracks that you got sprayed with water as it passed by," Sutton said. "As soon as it passed, the people at the station literally ran to their cars to try and catch it again at the Marion crossing. There were young kids, older railfans — two guys came down from NYC to see it and photograph it, including one that used a drone for an aerial shot. There was approximately another 200 that watched it on the station’s new web cameras, installed on the rear canopy. There were people logged into it from Canada, England and of course locals."

The Class J 611 was actually the second locomotive on the train, following a diesel engine.

Sutton explained, "The reason the diesel locomotive was used is because the current railroad system uses what’s known as Positive Train Control. It requires electronics in the lead locomotive to communicate with track-mounted control signals that the steam engine doesn't have. The steam engine was under power, however, and assisting in pulling the cars behind it."

A photo of the Class J 611 taken by Cade McDowell is posted on the High Line Facebook page with this information from Sutton:

"We’ve all seen those pictures on the internet called cognitive illusions where you look at it and can see two different things – is it a blue dress or green dress? a frog or a horse’s head emerging from the water? Well, I think the photo taken by Cade McDowell must be one of them. Most people that look at it will see a train passing the Station but, for rail fans and train enthusiasts they’ll look at it and see history. It’s a photo of Norfolk and Western Class J 611 – a steam passenger locomotive brought back to life by the Virginia Museum of Transportation passing the High Line on its way to Strasburg, Pa., for two months of excursion rides. The locomotive is the sole survivor of 14 Class J locomotives built by N&WRR and rolled out of the Roanoke rail shops originally in 1950. The VMT amply describes it as an 'engineering powerhouse of steam, technology and near mechanical perfection.' To railfans it’s a big deal and the enthusiasm surrounding its trip up to the rails was unparalleled. I haven’t seen so many people follow a single vehicle’s travel since OJ’s white Bronco. For two days, hundreds of people chased the locomotive, literally or virtually, as it snaked its way up the railway from Roanoke, experiencing delay after delay. And it was heartwarming to see dozens of Greencastle residents, young and old alike, line the rails at the High Line station, Jerome King Playground, Carl’s Drug Store, AC&T and Marion and join another 200 observers on the Station’s web cam to catch a glimpse of it as it passed. A piece of Americana and symbol of industrial might in the heart of Greencastle."

The Norfolk & Western Class J 611 is designated a National Historic Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, according to the Virginia Museum of Transportation website.

At the Strasburg Rail Road, America’s oldest operating railroad, it will join a Norfolk & Western Class M #475 for special events and appearances in late September and October.

“Since its restoration, the Virginia Museum of Transportation (VMT) has sought opportunities for the 611 to engage people from all walks of life,” Brian Barton, VMT board member, says on the website. “The partnership with the Strasburg Rail Road allows us to spark a fascination with steam locomotives and transportation, our history, steam technology, mechanical engineering and design.

“Reuniting 475 and 611 is a rare opportunity for railfans and heritage railroad tourists alike,” Steve Barrall, station master at Strasburg Rail Road, is quoted on the VMT website. “When the two locomotives are side-by-side, you will see, hear, and feel how the Norfolk & Western Railway revolutionized steam technology in under 50 years.”

The website also says:

"The N&W Class M #475, a 4-8-0 locomotive, was built in 1906 by Baldwin Locomotive Works and put into service by the Norfolk & Western hauling freight and coal trains. Soon after, the railroad decided to design and build its locomotives using cutting-edge technology and engineering.

"The N&W Class J 611 is the sole survivor of 14 Class J steam locomotives designed and built by the Norfolk & Western Railway. The locomotive rolled out of Roanoke’s East End Shops in 1950. Its mission was to pull the Powhatan Arrow, a 15-car passenger train, from Norfolk, Virginia, to Cincinnati, Ohio."

"The reunion event — the first these two historic locomotives have served together in a long time — offers a rare chance to see and explore the only Class ‘J’ passenger locomotive still in existence today," says the Strasburg Railroad website. "Her simple lines, bullet nose, and Tuscan red stripe make 611 stand out as one of the most beautiful streamlined steam locomotives ever designed."

For more information, visit: