Beloved Steam Locomotive May Ride the Rails Again
4:00 am
Fri June 28, 2013

Fire Up the 611!

Credit Virginia Museum of Transportation

After months of study, officials with the Virginia Museum of Transportation believe they will find the financial support needed to get the iconic Norfolk & Western 611 Steam Locomotive back on the rails. The news comes as part of the “Fire Up 611” campaign—but officials say the effort will rely on rail fans worldwide to stoke her fire.

It’s a sound that’s captivated rail buffs for decades, the baritone whistle of the famous 611, affectionately known as the graceful giant.

Sleek, simple design……a bullet nose.  She was born in Roanoke in 1950 at a time when porters served passengers formal meals on real china in the dining car.  But as the 60s approached, the mighty engines couldn’t out-run progress.

"There are a couple of steam locomotives that are iconic in the world, and this is certainly one of them.  She is superlative in terms of construction and design, but also in delivering, she had all the right appliances put on her, so that when she pulled a train, she didn’t have to stop frequently, she had specific barings that made her all most service free so this particularly locomotive is the rock star in the steam world." explained Cheri George.

She's on the committee trying to raise up to $5 million to ensure that the 611—the only survivor from the 14- member Class J series makes it into Norfolk Southern’s 21st Century Steam Program.

The 611 escaped the fate of her 13- Class J sisters, dodging the cutting torch and the scrap heap. Instead, she sat silent for 22 years until the early 1980s, when Norfolk Southern enlisted her service for tourist excursions, part of a program that ended in 1994.

The transportation museum needs at least 3 and a half million dollars by October – that will go to mechanical restoration of the locomotive, a maintenance facility, and support to develop the excursion program, which would begin next year.

The museum’s Peg McGuire says even pennies from school children will help in what will likely be an international effort.

"We have visitors from 49 foreign countries to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in 2012, and they came to see the 611. We have fans all over the world rallying to get her running again," said McGuire.

And amidst all the nostalgia surrounding the 611, the museum is also trying to preserve the stories of fan remembrances with an oral history project.  

For many, the real hope is that the graceful giant has a future, not just a past.

Here's more information about the Fire Up the 611! campaign.

Connie Stevens reports from the Virginia Museum of Transportation.