by Timothy Hensley and Kenneth L. Miller
Built in 1950, the 611 is the last operating Class J locomotive in existence. It was retired in 1959, put on display in a museum, later pulled out of the museum and restored to operating condition to pull excursion trains. The 611 was a familiar sight as it hauled the Powhatan Arrow along the N&W mainline through Bluefield, Williamson, Kenova and other southern West Virginia communities until retired again in 1985. This book offers a detailed history of the historic locomotive, with an emphasis on the painstaking process involved in bringing her back to life for a second time in 2015 when she was again restored and returned to the tracks.
Sunday, January 17, 2016
Book Review: New book details rescue of iconic N&W locomotive
By James E. Casto
Special to the Sunday Gazette-Mail
When Americaâ€™s railroads switched from steam to diesel power, the dramatic change sent thousands of steam-powered locomotives to the scrap yard. Some were put on static display in parks or museums. Only a few others are still chugging along.
And then thereâ€™s the Norfolk and Western Railwayâ€™s Class J 611. Built in 1950, the 611 was one of the last coal-fired locomotives built in this country. It was retired in 1959, and in the half-century since has been put on display in a museum, later pulled out of the museum and restored to operating condition to pull excursion trains, still later returned to the museum, and in 2015 was again restored and returned to the tracks.
Now the locomotiveâ€™s remarkable story is the subject of a handsome new book.
â€œNorfolk and Western Six-Eleven: 3 Times A Lady,â€ co-authored by Timothy R. Hensley and Kenneth L. Miller. Lifelong rail fans, the two men are uniquely qualified to tell the story of a locomotive they so obviously love.
A journalism graduate of Marshall University, Tim Hensley started with the Chessie System as a brakeman, quickly became an engineer and then traded his work clothes for the coat and tie of a railroad executive, rising to become CSX Resident Vice President for West Virginia. Now retired after spending 13 years at the throttle of Amtrakâ€™s â€œCardinal,â€ heâ€™s the owner of â€œThe Trainmasterâ€™s House,â€ a bed and breakfast in Kenova.
Using the journalistic skills he learned at Marshall, Hensley wrote the text for â€œSteam, Steel & Stars,â€ a 1987 book that was the first to feature the work of famed railroad photographer O. Winston Link. Miller, a skilled photographer and graphic artist, is the author of a 2000 book, â€œNorfolk and Western Class J: The Finest Steam Passenger Locomotive.â€ Together, he and Hensley collaborated on a 2013 book, â€œCass Scenic Railroad: Fifty Years a State Park â€” A Century of Steam on Bald Knob.â€
The N&Wâ€™s Class J locomotives â€” designed, constructed and maintained at the railroadâ€™s shops in Roanoke, Virginia â€” were a rare marriage of beauty and power. The bullet nose, modern lines, colorful red color, graceful curves and baritone whistle combined with unbridled power to make the Class J engine the iconic symbol of modern steam locomotives.
Noted rail historian Thomas W. Dixon has hailed the N&Wâ€™s Class J locomotives as â€œcertainly among the best looking of the streamlined locomotives that graced the rails of the United States between the 1930s and the 1950s.â€ Dixon is the author of â€œNorfolk & Westernâ€™s Powhatan Arrow,â€ a book chronicling the famed streamliner that linked Norfolk, Virginia, and Cincinnati.
Dixon notes that N&Wâ€™s Class J locomotives â€œhold a special place not only in the hearts and minds of N&W enthusiasts, but for those interested in the aesthetics of railroading, as well as those who appreciate their mechanical capabilities.â€
Among the most powerful locomotives ever built, the Class J engines were capable of pulling a 1,000-ton, 15-car passenger train at more than 100 miles an hour, though they normally didnâ€™t operate at that speed.
The 611 is the last Class J locomotive in existence. Purpose-built for passenger service, it was a familiar sight as it hauled the Powhatan Arrow along the N&W mainline through Bluefield, Williamson, Kenova and other southern West Virginia communities.
Perhaps it shouldnâ€™t be surprising that the N&W was slow to switch from steam to diesel power. After all, steam trains were powered by coal, and hauling coal from mine to market was an important source of revenue for the railroad. But finally the N&W yielded to the lure of cheaper diesel power and reluctantly retired its steam locomotives, including the Class J engines.
The other Class J engines were scrapped, but in 1962, the 611 was put on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, in Roanoke. Rail fans were pleased that she had been preserved but clung to the hope they might see her steaming down the track again. And thatâ€™s exactly what happened in 1981, when Norfolk Southern Corp., the corporate successor to the old N&W, pulled the 611 out of retirement and restored her to her original glory for use in excursion service.
For more than a decade, rail fans in countless locales were able to turn back the clock and experience the awesome might and majesty of a steam-powered passenger train. The 611 was a huge hit wherever it went. But Norfolk Southern management had a change of heart about operating its ambitious excursion service and in 1995 sent the historic engine into a second retirement at the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
And that might have been that, except many of her fans refused to accept her second retirement as a permanent proposition. In 2013, an ambitious fund-raising campaign christened â€œFire Up 611!â€ launched to again restore her to operating condition and return her to excursion service.
Some skeptics said it would be impossible to raise the millions of dollars that rescuing the old locomotive would require. But early on the effort received a significant shot in the arm when Norfolk Southern itself announced a $1.5 million donation. And gifts both large and small ultimately made the impossible happen. In May of 2015, the 611 steamed again.
In their new book, Hensley and Miller offer a detailed word and picture history of the historic locomotive, with an emphasis on the painstaking process involved in bringing her back to life for a second time. The book even includes a list of the many volunteers involved in the process. Numerous photographs, many of them never previously published, illustrate the text.
Retired newspaper editor James E. Casto of Huntington regularly reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.