Norfolk and Western engine No. 611 rolled out of the Roanoke East End Shops on May 29, 1950, at a cost of $251,344. The shiny new streamlined Class J locomotive was photographed the same day, and a press release followed on June 1.
No. 611 was one of 14 Class J passenger steam locomotives built by N&W between 1941 and 1950 and is the only one that exists today. With its powerful 4-8-4 wheel configuration and 494,000-pound heft, the 611 could pull 15-car passenger trains at speeds up to 110 mph.
The J locomotives were part of a post-World War II building boom at Roanoke Shops that also included 25 steam freight locomotives. By 1960, faced with rising operating costs, N&W had switched to an all-diesel locomotive fleet. After pulling the company’s “farewell to steam” excursions, the 611 served as a reserve steam generator at the East End Shops until the engine’s boiler flues gave out.
Following a restoration in the 1980s, the 611 pulled passenger excursion trains and then was put on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. A second restoration project began in 2014 at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, once Southern Railway Company’s largest steam locomotive servicing facility. On May 30, the 611 took to the rails again to headline Norfolk Southern’s 21st Century Steam excursion program.
A look into the archives reminds us of how exciting it was for people to see the 611 roll into action for the very first time.
– Jennifer McDaid, NS historical archivist